Words such as “legend” and “icon” are tossed around far too loosely in pop culture these days. With Chuck Berry, they actually fit to a T.
Critics and pundits love to debate the faces that would appear on a Mount Rushmore of rock ‘n’ roll, with lots of variety among the names.
One name is a constant on virtually every legitimate list: Chuck Berry.
Virtually every artist in the rock, pop, R&B, and soul genres owes a debt to Charles Edward Anderson Berry.
Berry died Saturday at age 90, his longevity blessedly letting him witness the fruits of his incredible legacy as one of the pioneers — frankly, one of the inventors — of rock ‘n’ roll. His songwriting and guitar playing ultimately influenced not only American music but popular music worldwide. Virtually every artist in the rock, pop, R&B, and soul genres owes a debt to Charles Edward Anderson Berry.
Berry, born in St. Louis in 1926, became one of the most popular artists of the 1950s and ’60s with songs such as “Johnny B. Goode,” “Maybellene,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “No Particular Place to Go,” “You Never Can Tell,” and “Sweet Little Sixteen” (which the Beach Boys turned into another hit, with altered lyrics, as “Surfin’ U.S.A.”).
On Twitter Saturday night, the list of popular artists paying their respects to Berry was incredibly diverse. They included Ringo Starr, Brian Wilson, Charlie Daniels, Lenny Kravitz, Carole King, Keith Urban, Mick Jagger, Chuck D, Slash, Q-Tip, Bruce Springsteen, Travis Tritt, and Questlove, among many others.
A comprehensive list of rock ‘n’ roll musicians Berry influenced — either directly or over the course of rock lineage — would, essentially, include every rock artist ever. Given the limits of space and time, however, here are five legendary artists whom Berry directly influenced.
The Beatles. In the early days as The Quarrymen, The Beatles regularly performed more than a dozen Berry songs. They later recorded “Roll Over Beethoven” for “With the Beatles,” their first album released in North America. The band’s “Back in the U.S.S.R.” pays direct homage to Berry’s “Back in the U.S.A.” Paul McCartney has freely acknowledged lifting the exact bass line from Berry’s “I’m Talking About You” for “I Saw Her Standing There.”
The late John Lennon was quoted as saying, “If you tried to give rock ‘n’ roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry.’” McCartney has said The Beatles were “hugely influenced” by Berry’s music and called Berry “one of the greatest poets America has ever produced.”
The Rolling Stones. The band provided this message on its official website Saturday: “The Rolling Stones are deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Chuck Berry. He was a true pioneer of rock ‘n’ roll and a massive influence on us. Chuck was not only a brilliant guitarist, singer and performer, but most importantly, he was a master craftsman as a songwriter. His songs will live forever.”
The Stones covered numerous Berry songs over the years, including their very first single, 1963’s “Come On.” Another cover, “Carol,” appeared on their first full-length album. Mick Jagger said Saturday on Twitter: “He lit up our teenage years and blew life into our dreams of being musicians and performers … Chuck, you were amazing, and your music is engraved inside us forever.”
Elvis Presley. Elvis was a big Berry fan and recorded many of his songs, including “Memphis, Tennessee,” “Johnny B. Goode,” “Too Much Monkey Business,” and “Promised Land,” which Presley released as a single.
For decades, critics have taken Presley’s legacy to task, suggesting he “stole” his music style from black artists such as Berry by recording it and making it palatable for white audiences. But if Berry was concerned, he didn’t show it. He reportedly said: “Describe Elvis Presley? He was the greatest who ever was, is, or ever will be.”
Jimi Hendrix. Although their styles were markedly different, the late Hendrix said Berry was his favorite artist, according to the Hendrix biography “Crosstown Traffic.” Berry’s guitar skills were second to none in his day, a fact satirized in the classic 1985 film “Back to the Future.” In that film, a time-traveling Marty McFly supposedly inspires “Johnny B. Goode,” along with Berry’s guitar and performing style, while playing alongside Berry’s (fictional) cousin.
Hendrix only covered Berry once in his tragically short career, but it was one for the ages: a blistering rendition of “Johnny B. Goode” that appeared on the posthumous live album “Hendrix in the West.”
The Beach Boys. Co-founder Brian Wilson idolized Berry, and he called his band’s smash hit “Surfin’ U.S.A.” a tribute to both Berry himself and the song it essentially replicates, “Sweet Little Sixteen.” However, the band didn’t actually credit Berry as a songwriter — creating one of the first plagiarism battles in rock ‘n’ roll history.
Under the threat of lawsuits, Beach Boys manager (and Brian Wilson’s father) Murry Wilson agreed to hand over the publishing rights to Berry. Several years later, Berry was also listed in the songwriting credits for “Surfin’ U.S.A.”
However, Brian Wilson told The Los Angeles Times in 2015 that he didn’t hold a grudge over the contentious issue. On Saturday on Twitter, he called Berry “a big inspiration,” who “will be missed by everyone who loves rock ‘n’ roll.” The Beach Boys covered Berry’s “School Days,” “Johnny B. Goode,” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll Music” on their albums.
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