Just as there are lots of things that are debatable in life, rock ’n’ roll has been known to pit even best friends against each other when it comes to arguing the fine points of the music that changed America in the middle of the last century.
But the one incontrovertible fact that everyone agrees on when it comes to rock ’n’ roll is that songwriter and guitarist Chuck Berry was one of its three most indispensable rockers during its formative years. He nudges out Little Richard for the top honor and stands a head above Elvis Presley for the coveted King of Rock title. While Elvis “covered” R&B, Chuck Berry was its personification. It was a language he understood in his bones.
Mr. Berry, who died Saturday at the age of 90, was the rocker who most captured the imagination of every rock performer who came after him. In fact, Chuck Berry inspired everyone from the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan to Jimi Hendrix, Pete Townsend and Bruce Springsteen.
The St. Louis native was appreciated and acclaimed on both sides of the color line even during the Jim Crow era because his songs triggered a universal joy about being young and alive.
Songs like “Johnny B. Goode,” “Too Much Monkey Business,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” and “Maybellene” established the musical and rhetorical parameters of early rock ’n’ roll. Everyone who ever wanted to be a rock star after Chuck Berry had to learn his songs and guitar licks before anyone else’s because it was his songs that were in the most demand at school dances, proms and house parties.
With the exception of a stint or two in jail, Chuck Berry has never stopped touring. Even as a senior citizen, the once tireless performer thrilled audiences with modified versions of his famous “duck walk” while playing the guitar. He was always a thrill to see live.
Mr. Berry outlived all of his major rivals for the title of King of Rock ’n’ Roll except Little Richard, who is very much alive and still touring. In the end, the title may fall to Little Richard because there will be no one left to dispute it. But whether by technicality or consensus, Chuck Berry was the King of Rock ’n’ Roll while he was alive.