How Chuck Berry’s Gift for Words and Music Changed Rock History

Chuck Berry (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Chuck Berry died on March 18. Without him, something called “rock ’n’ roll” might still have come along, but it would’ve sounded different. And it almost certainly wouldn’t have sounded as good.

The dozen records that Berry placed on the Top 40 from 1955 through 1964 included “Johnny B. Goode,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Maybellene,” “No Particular Place to Go,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Nadine,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Back in the U.S.A.,” and “School Day.” Each one forged an enduring, red-hot template.

The Beatles and The Rolling Stones covered Berry’s songs. (Keith Richards later said that he “lifted every lick [Berry] ever played.”) The Beach Boys rewrote “Sweet Little Sixteen” as “Surfin’ U.S.A.” and reached the Top 5. Johnny Rivers had hits with “Maybellene” and “Memphis.” Bob Dylan went electric to Berry’s cadences and riffs. The Beatles turned the 13th line of “You Can’t Catch Me” into the first line of “Come Together.”

Berry left his mark on the 1970s too, earning his only No. 1 with a live version of Dave Bartholomew’s double-entendre novelty song “My Ding-a-Ling” in ’72. The Beach Boys and Linda Ronstadt scored hits with “Rock and Roll Music” and “Back in the U.S.A.” respectively. Electric Light Orchestra concerts frequently ended with a hard-rocking “Roll Over Beethoven.”

For Berry, however, the ’70s ended with a whimper. Rock It (1979), a solid effort that sounded fresher than anything he’d recorded in ages, stiffed, convincing him to abandon the studio altogether and to double down on the itinerant-musician routine that had become as integral to his reputation as his guitar licks and his crowd-pleasing “duck walk” (which AC/DC’s Angus Young later turned into his own signature move).

Berry’s routine went like this: Having checked his guitar as luggage, he’d fly into town, show up at a venue, collect his money up front, perform with a band that he’d never met, and leave. The low overhead helped him maximize his earnings potential, but it also resulted in his becoming notorious for inconsistent performances.

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Arsenio Orteza

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