Whether or not you’ve heard Chuck Berry‘s work, you’ve undoubtedly heard a guitar player who borrowed from him, or a singer who purloined a melody from the man himself. And yet he never considered himself a rock player; at least not by choice.
“The Big Band Era is my era,” he reflected. “People say, where did you get your style from. I did the Big Band Era on guitar. That’s the best way I could explain it.”
“Let’s put it down frank,” he elaborated. “Rock had more passion to (kids in the ‘50s) because (they) were in school. I was in school when the big bands (were popular), so it had passion to me.”
The guitarist conceded that he turned to rock and roll as a means of keeping a roof over his head, and food in his fridge, but felt the big bands were where his allegiances lay with. But even if ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ wasn’t the type of tune he would ideally liked to have performed, it didn’t stop the musician from performing a bellowing performance, both on the guitar and behind the microphone. Many of his rock anthems were performed by The Beatles themselves.
Berry wasn’t willing to put himself up there in the rock pantheon, but John Lennon had no such qualms. “He is one of the all-time great poets, a rock poet you could call him,” he said. “He was well advanced of his time lyric-wise. We all owe a lot to him, including Dylan.”
What Berry brought to the rock and roll genre was swagger, purring behind every vocal he performed, capturing the infectiousness of everyday life. He was sexy, and he knew it, bringing a playfulness that was emulated by rock artists Phil Lynott and Jimi Hendrix. He wasn’t necessarily the most technically accomplished of rock guitarists, but he certainly made it look like fun, offering his musical nieces and nephews the opportunity to carry the mantle onwards into newer forms of music.
These included the agrarian textures of progressive rock, the urgency of punk rock, the bucolic beauty of English psychedelic pop, and the raw, rollicking riffs that made up Nirvana’s output. Berry started this trend, and if anyone belongs on a Mount Rushmore of rock, then it is him. Whether or not he would have enjoyed it is another thing.
Because the sign of a true artist is their ability to make music that appeals to other people, rather than stick completely to the genre that fills their heart. Denny Seiwell is a jazz drummer, but he toured with Wings to help Paul McCartney create some of the most startling tunes in pop. Phil Collins is a Motown disciple, but he was happy to channel that genre into the confines of English prog during his tenure with Genesis. And then there’s James Hetfield, who used some of his knowledge of heavy metal to create a series of country-esque vignettes.
Berry used his knowledge of the big bands to lace his rock output, which went on to influence rock performers who utilised their personal record collection to further the lexicon of popular music. He also made it possible for artists to realise that they could sing and play at the same time, which The Beatles – who held four vocalists and three guitarists – were in favour of.
Phil Collins carried the narrative further, when he doubled as a drummer and singer for Genesis, showing the world that percussionists were capable of entertaining audiences both from the front and the back of the stage. And then there’s James Dean Bradfield, who pegged himself as the Manic Street Preachers‘ lead guitarist but wound up singing for the band when no one else was capable of doing so.
The takeaway from this interview is that compromise is necessary for art, but compromise should never, ever inhibit art, no matter how wretched the feelings towards the form of art. Berry gave his form of music everything he had, as did Ginger Baker, a jazz drummer pedalling rock fills to audiences during Cream’s extended instrumental sections.Genesis was also happy to compromise, shifting their focus from overblown 1970s epics to more focused tunes by the turn of the decade.
While we’re at it, Berry wasn’t the only one who didn’t see himself as an artist. Queen drummer Roger Taylor was studying for dentistry before the call of the riffs brought him forwards into that line of work. 10cc’s Lol Creme never saw himself as a rock frontman, but acquiesced when his comical falsetto suited ‘Donna’, ‘Rubber Bullets’ and The Dean and I’. Mark Knopfler seemed happiest playing guitar, but he found himself directing the biggest British band in 1985.
To paraphrase Lennon, life is indeed what happens to us when we are busy making other plans, and this applies to rockstars too.