Whatever else that can be said about Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene” when it shot out of America’s radios like a Redstone rocket in the bright late summer of 1955, one hard, true thing remains clear after those 62 years: Nothing like it ever existed before.
Here’s why: There was no category that could safely contain it. It charted No. 1 on the rhythm and blues charts, which was where most black recording artists such as Berry could be found. But its beat and its sensibility were just as deeply rooted in the predominantly white traditions of country blues and western swing.
Though it was de rigueur in Jim Crow’s waning days for white artists to “cover” African-American artists’ hits, “Maybellene” crossed so many barriers that it all but obliterated them — or, anyway, made them less imposing. How, exactly, could anybody “cover” this? It was too big to cover; big enough, even in its two-minutes-and-spare-change length to contain multitudes, embrace generations, swallow continents and change the world.
It was, in short, rock and roll. And Chuck Berry was its chief designer, its master engineer and — argue all you want but the available evidence overwhelms — one of its inventors, if not THE inventor.
Berry’s death at 90 was announced Saturday. Of rock ‘n’ roll’s founding big daddies raising the temperature of simmering, static culture of the 1950s to full boil, Fats Domino, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis — a comparably improbable survivor — now remain among the living.
Probably it’s as good a place as any to note that while touring with at an early rock-star revue, Lewis was so incensed that Berry was chosen over him to close a show that he gave a climactic set literally incendiary enough to end with him setting his piano on fire. As Lewis stormed off, smelling of lighter fluid and smoke, he passed by Berry and snarled sotto voce, “Top that (expletive deleted)!”
And, as Lewis reportedly said later, “He damn near did, too!”
I’m betting he did more than that because Berry in person was, well into senior citizenship, as compelling and galvanic as Berry on record. Berry didn’t need pyrotechnics to send his audiences into the ozone. The duck walk, his inimitable stage move, was more than enough.
Well, that … and his guitar. Rolling Stone magazine once declared that rock guitar began with Berry and, once again, it’s not hard to make the case. Berry’s licks and riffs, fluid, supple and multi-tiered, remain electrifying enough to empower wave upon wave of guitarists seeking more blues in their rhythms and more rhythms.
He was one of those artists who may have been singular when they broke through, but whose influence can be heard in every guitarist who followed. (Start wherever you want — “I’ll take Keith Richards for $5,000, Alex!” — but the list of Berry’s acolytes that follows stretches through presidencies, wars and recessions.)
Finally, there are the songs, especially those “great twenty-eight” Berry recorded for Chess in the 1950s and early 1960s. They were so much more than catchy slices of pop that tickled wherever your musical dopamine was buried. “Roll Over, Beethoven,” “Back in the U.S.A.,” “Johnny B. Goode,” “You Never Can Tell,” “I’m Talking About You,” “School Days,” “Promised Land” and on and on and ever onward. These and many others conveyed adventure, mischief, fun and, most of all, endless possibility in their titles alone.
Those titles invited you in. The songs carried you as far as you wanted or dared to go. And you could hear every single lyric roar, spin and take curves into your head like Berry’s fiery red Cadillac that you can now see in the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington.
As much as the thing he invented or, at least, helped invent, Chuck Berry delivered us from the days of old, remaining an American original to the very end. The problem with originals is that they come, like 45-RPM records, in singles. The best the rest of us can do is use his contraptions to power our own journeys to ecstatic reckoning.