Hail! Hail! Rock'n'Roll!
- 21 Mar 2017 at 04:00
- WRITER: JOHN CLEWLEY
Rock'n'roll legend Chuck Berry died on Saturday at the age of 90. Photo: AFP
The headlines in the media have been dominated by politics for what seems like an age but suddenly changed a couple of days ago when the sad news that the "King of Rock'n'Roll" Chuck Berry had died at his Missouri home. He was 90 years old and, supported by some of his children, had just recorded his first studio album for 38 years; the album, simply called Chuck will be released later this year.
Tributes have been pouring in from around the world for a musical pioneer who epitomised the "wild man" persona of a rock'n'roller. There are few places on the planet that haven't heard of his hits like Maybellene (1955), Roll Over Beethoven (1956), Rock And Roll Music and Johnny B Goode. To give an indication of his influence on 20th century popular music, Johnny B Goode was the only rock'n'roll song included on Nasa's Voyager spacecraft -- sent into space to expose other life forms to the magical guitar riffs and brilliant street smart lyrics of his music. Or consider John Lennon's famous quip: "If you tried to give rock'n'roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry." Bob Dylan called Berry "the Shakespeare of rock'n'roll".
Berry had a 70-year career but musically he peaked in the 1950s when he had a string of raucous hits. He grew up in a middle-class family -- in contrast to most of the R&B stars at the time who were often dirt-poor sharecroppers or plantation workers -- and was exposed to music at an early age. He honed his guitar skills by imitating T-Bone Walker and began playing with Johnnie Johnson's trio, where he learned "hillbilly music" (think of Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys) and was dubbed the "black hillbilly". This was crucial and perhaps the reverse of Elvis Presley, who grew up with hillbilly and country music but also the blues and R&B.