Chuck Berry, who melded blues guitar licks and boogie-woogie rhythms with country balladry to produce the still-greatest examples of the rock ’n’ roll song, has died at 90.
Growing up in St. Louis in the 1930s and ’40s, Berry absorbed a variety of styles, from gospel and blues to swing and country, distilling them into a song form that became the model of the new rock ’n’ roll genre in the ’50s. His tunes were elevated by lyrics that combined a wit comparable to Noel Coward’s with the authenticity and enduring appeal of folksong.
“His guitar lines wired the lean twang of country and the bite of the blues into phrases with both a streamlined trajectory and a long memory. And tucked into the lighthearted, telegraphic narratives that he sang with such clear enunciation was a sly defiance, upending convention to claim the pleasures of the moment,” Jon Pareles writes in an obituary for The New York Times.
Berry’s lyrics, to my ears, place him in the triumvirate of great mid-20th century American merry pranksters, alongside Bugs Bunny and Archie Goodwin, the wise-cracking, street-savvy assistant to the pompous, cerebral detective in Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe stories.
The inclusion of Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” (1958) on a disc launched aboard the Voyager I spacecraft in 1977 prompted one of the most spot-on punchlines of any joke ever told on “Saturday Night Live.” First message to Earth from extraterrestrials: “Send more Chuck Berry.”
The full obituary by Pareles:
Bill Wyman, the former culture editor of National Public Radio and Salon, casts Berry as head chef in devising the recipe of rock ’n’ roll, in a wide-ranging piece of pop musicology originally posted on Vulture, now re-posted on Slate: