One of the finest songwriters of his generation, Bruce Springsteen, struggled to find the acclaim he deserved in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The Boss, as he is affectionately known, has now seen his star rise once again with a series of landmark performances and a Presidential seal of approval. It appears now, as a society, we are ready once more to accept Springsteen as a true hero of rock and roll. It’s a shame that the singer struggled so much, especially considering he has always been sure to share his admiration for other performers.
A noted lover of all things music, Springsteen has never been shy about his love for groundbreaking artists such as Bob Dylan or The Beatles. But, arguably, there was one man he loved, even more, an artist who changed the fabric of pop culture as we know it. It was also the artist Springsteen claimed to be the greatest rock and roll guitarist of all time: Chuck Berry.
When speaking to Rolling Stone following Berry’s death, Springsteen lamented the loss and championed the icon: “Chuck Berry was rock’s greatest practitioner, guitarist, and the greatest pure rock ‘n’ roll writer who ever lived. This is a tremendous loss of a giant for the ages.”
Of course, Springsteen isn’t alone in his admiration for Berry. Often referred to as the ‘Grandaddy of Rock and Roll’, the duck-walking genius garnered love and attention from the entire swinging sixties set. John Lennon once famously remarked, “If you had to give rock and roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry.” But it’s quite possible that Springsteen can be regarded as an even bigger fan.
It was a dream come true when Springsteen performed with the legend during the E Street Band’s salad days. “About five minutes before the show was timed to start, the back door opens, and he comes up, and he’s got a guitar case, and that was it,” Springsteen told Rolling Stone of the life-changing experience. “He just pulled up in his own car and didn’t have anybody with him or a band. We said, ‘What songs are we going to do?’ He goes, ‘We’re going to do some Chuck Berry songs.’”
They were once again drafted when, in 1995, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame requested The Boss and the band to join Berry once more, though this time with a less than brilliant ending. “Somehow, a minute or two [in], he shifts the song in gears and a key without talking to us,” E Street Band guitarist Nils Lofgren told Ultimate Classic Rock.
“We are making these horrible sounds,” he continued, “collectively, in front of a stadium, sold out…At the height of it, when no one has any idea how to fix this, Chuck looks at us all and starts duckwalking off the stage, away from us. He leaves the stage, leaves us all out there playing in six different keys with no band leader, gets in the car and drives away. I don’t think we have ever participated in something that godawful musically since we were probably 13 or 14.”
Despite that snafu, it’s clear that Bruce Springsteen adored Chuck Berry. The kind of love that one can only give their formative rock superstar. Sure, there are better players than Berry. Performers who are more technically gifted or even ooze more style than the duck-walking maestro. But, just as those who kept banging the Bruce Springsteen drum through his more difficult years, for The Boss, there can be only one man defined as “the greatest”, and that’s Chuck Berry.