We lost a true hero of the instrument yesterday. Before I go too much further, today (3/18) is also the anniversary of Randy Rhoads’s unfortunately departure from the mortal coil, so watch this and spin Blizzard of Ozz or Diary of a Madman after you spend some time with Chuck.
Anyways, I had just finished playing a gig downtown and had just pulled my car around to the loading zone and put my hazards on so I could grab my gear from the club, when I received a CNN Breaking News notification on my phone (great foresight by 14 year old me who thought the United States going into Fallujah was important at the time) saying that an influential rock star had passed. I opened it up and a few names morbidly came to mind, but Chuck Berry’s was not one of them. I guess I never realized how old he actually was in 2017 because his music is timeless and truly eternal. I’m not going to lie and pretend that I’m a passionate fan of his music or that it was something that I deeply connected with, but instead I’m going to say that I have a pit in my stomach that has been lined with reverence and awe.
Its easy to overlook and forget about this, but there was really a time when rock and roll didn’t exist and it wasn’t that long ago. The electric guitar didn’t even exist a hundred years ago in 1917. Robert Johnson was still 20 years from recording the most important recordings of the 20th century. Our relationship to music and our instruments have evolved dramatically since then. How many important musicians have spoken, even some at length, about the first time they heard Chuck Berry? Chuck Berry was the guitar hero to almost all, if not all, of the British Invasion guitar heroes, and how many people started playing music because of a Beatles or Rolling Stones record? I alluded to a similar idea in a previous post (check out Roots and the Lord of the Riff) with Eric Clapton and also stand by it 100% with Chuck: if there’s no Chuck Berry, we’re all selling insurance or working construction or something else instead of being musicians.
There are so many guitar techniques that are essential to the working guitarist that Chuck made popular, if not even invented. This is where I show my lacking of deep knowledge of his catalog but look at Johnny B. Goode. From a guitarist’s perspective, it has a guitar led intro (or a guitar ride for you country music people) featuring double stops, a new approach to playing over the blues that had attitude and originality (remember folks, a young James Hendrix is still six years away from gigging with the Isley Brothers) and licks that every guitar player has stolen. If you’ve never ever once in either a gig or even idle noodling played a lick that resembles something in even the intro solo of Johnny B. Goode, you’re either a genius or an awful guitar player. That’s how essential and important Chuck was in the span of 18 seconds of a recording. Let’s not also forget the thunderous and pulsating rhythm guitar being player underneath driving the drums and bass in an auditory cavalry charge. This was truly an evolution and new interpretation on the blues inspired in some part by the music coming out of Chess Records. While prepping to write this, I learned that Willie Dixon of all people plays bass on this track. Dixon’s bass playing and songwriting are featured on many Chess Records releases and in my opinion, his contributions are the essence of what Chess Records was all about.
Chuck’s music nourished a young generation of musicians and changed the course of world history. Rock music may have seen better days of late in terms of commercial success, but no one can deny that it’s an established and essential cultural force that has shaped the perspectives, attitudes, and idea of generations of people around the world. It’s easy to feel removed from the impact of that when you can listen to a Zeppelin record on your phone for free on YouTube whenever you want to and music is as accessible to us as it is now but don’t forget it. Music is important and has both power and value. The world has lost someone who helped pioneer the greater force for good that Music is and he will be missed.
Rest in Power, Chuck. Thank you.