Hail, Hail Chuck Berry

The American legend's 85th birthday offers a prime opportunity to celebrate the music of rock’s still reelin’ and rockin’ elder statesman

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    NEWSLETTERS

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    Chuck Berry is still playing guitar like a ringing a bell.

    Voyager 1, currently plying the outermost layer of the heliosphere some 34 years after its launch, carries a gold-plated copper record with sounds of Earth that include snatches of music from the likes of Beethoven and the man who suggested he roll over: Chuck Berry.

    The space perch of "Johnny B. Goode" inspired a classic late 1970s “Saturday Night Live” sketch in which Steve Martin played a psychic who declared grateful extraterrestrials relayed a message of their own to Earth: "Send more Chuck Berry."

    We all could use more Chuck Berry – especially on Tuesday, when the still reelin’ and rockin’ elder statesman of rock turns 85. It's a prime opportunity to celebrate by blasting "Johnny B. Goode" loud enough so the denizens of outer space don't need to track down a turntable to hear about the man who could play guitar "just like a ringing a bell."

    Berry's music spans both space and time, feeling fresh to ears new and old. Like Elvis Presley, he effectively melded blues and country into what would become a classic rock sound. But Berry also bridged big band rhythms with the new age in music. With a bend of his strings six decades ago, he helped invent modern rock guitar. His innovative virtuosity and duck walk-fueled showmanship presaged the guitar god-era, in which solos by the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page became as much a focal point as the singing.

    But it's the songs Berry wrote that struck that deepest chord in the eternal teenager in all of us. To a pounding beat, he launched humorous, poetic odes to rock, girls and cars, filled with clever, only slightly naughty double entendres (“All the way home I held a grudge/For the safety belt that wouldn't budge,” he sung in “No Particular Place to Go,” his take on male teenage male longing).

    Forget about the heliosphere – his reach is phenomenal. He arguably exerted more impact than any other artist on groups as disparate – and as hugely influential themselves – as the Beatles, Beach Boys and Rolling Stones.

    Stones guitarist Keith Richards famously celebrated his hero’s 60th birthday a quarter century ago with the concert documentary "Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll," in which an at times cantankerous Berry comes across as a lot more complicated than his neatly wrapped two-to-three-minute three-chord classics, like "Sweet Little Sixteen" and "Maybellene.”

    Whatever feelings Berry harbors, he’s earned – along with the accolades. His hometown of St. Louis honored Berry with a statue earlier this year in front of Blueberry Hill, the club he still plays regularly. He’s set to perform two shows on New Year’s Eve at B.B King’s New York club, not that the national treasure has anything more to prove.

    In "Back in the USA," Berry’s alternately sardonic and enthusiastic take on 1950s American materialism, he sang, "Anything you want, we got it right here in the USA." We’ve got Chuck Berry, a gift worth sharing with the world – and beyond.

     

    Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.