In art and technology, it’s impossible to accurately say that one person invented a style or an invention. But if you had to chose one person and offered Chuck Berry as the inventor or rock ‘n’ roll, no reasonable person would dispute you.
In marking the death of Chuck Berry this weekend, music historian Alan Light offered an annotated list of fifteen essential compositions and recordings.
- “Maybellene” (1955)
- “Too Much Monkey Business” (1956)
- “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” (1956)
- “Roll Over Beethoven” (1956)
- “Havana Moon” (1956)
- “School Day” (1957)
- “Rock and Roll Music” (1957)
- “Johnny B. Goode” (1958)
- “Carol” (1958)
- “Memphis” (1959)
- “Back in the USA” (1959)
- “Let It Rock” (1960)
- “Come On” (1961)
- “Nadine” (1964)
- “Promised Land” (1964)
Aside from popularizing rock ‘n’ roll in the mid-1950s, Berry was undoubtedly what was called at the time a “race man,” someone who advocates for and promotes blacks. Light notes that the lyrics of “Johnny B. Goode” was originally about a “colored boy” who could “play the guitar like he’s ringing the bell,” but in order to appease white radio stations of the day, the lyric was changed to a “country boy.” Also, the song “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” was really about someone with brown skin, but again the racial atmosphere at the time would have marginalized Berry to the race record charts.
Had he not changed those lyrics and countless others, he wouldn’t have been the crossover sensation he became. The world wouldn’t have known rock ‘n’ roll as it did in the 1950s and beyond.
Another interesting fact is that until this weekend, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, and Little Richard—three early rock ‘n’ roll pioneers— were all still living. That’s incredible given that their contributions to popular culture started over sixty years ago. By comparison, two of the three pop music giants of the 1980s born in 1958—Madonna, Prince, and Michael Jackson—won’t make it to 60. Let’s collectively hope Madonna makes it.
And today, Vera Lynn, the crooner who I know from singing “We’ll Meet Again,” the song that plays at the end of Stanley Kurbrick’s film Dr. Strangelove (1963), celebrated her 100th birthday.