It’s as iconic as Neil Armstrong’s “small step” in a cultural sense, as Chuck Berry went around shuffling rock ‘n’ roll towards a bright new future. In fact, John Lennon even once remarked: “If you were to give rock ‘n’ roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry.” And if you wanted to give Chuck Berry another name, you may well call him The Duck Walker, such was his synonymous strut.
Chuck Berry was the star who brought undeniable character into the fore alongside musicianship. Speaking with Rolling Stone, Paul McCartney was as full of admiration for the forefather of rock as his bespectacled bandmate. “We learnt so many things from him which led us into a dream world of rock ‘n’ roll music,” he said. Though he confirmed that it was “not really possible to sum up what he meant to all us young guys growing up in Liverpool.”
Berry wasn’t just playing music; he was having fun. The Beatles and just about every other rock band to ever follow in his shuffling footsteps clung to this youthful mantra and the pop culture revolution would change the world forever. All movements need symbolism and Berry’s duck walk is part of rock ‘n’ roll’s immortal iconography. But just how did it come about?
“Well, when I was a kid I used to scoot under the table, and whenever company would come around you know or my sisters or parents would tell me, go under the table and I’d do it because it was entertainment for the family or aunts or whatever,” Berry once revealed.
Adding: “And one time at the Paramount when I first did it, you know, Brooklyn Paramount, I did it in the act during an instrumental and it got a big ovation and so I coined it as one of the things I should do in the act. And ever since I’ve been doing it.”
In fact, he continued the tradition from then on to such a degree that he found all sorts of new ways to put it to effect, including hilarious bailouts. For instance, during a 1995 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame performance with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Berry used all his experience to exhibit a fine display of how to exit in style.
“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 when recalling the incident. “We are making these horrible sounds, 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.”
In short, it is a move that certainly came in handy throughout his life and he put it such magnificent use alongside his music, that nobody could do anything but applaud the progenitor. This comical moment didn’t even stop Springsteen’s love of the star. When the beloved Berry passed away in 2017, he wrote: “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.”