A Father Of Rock 'N' Roll, Chuck Berry Dies At 90

Mar 18, 2017
Originally published on March 19, 2017 7:23 am
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RAY SUAREZ, BYLINE: I'm Ray Suarez. We're interrupting the broadcast of ALL THINGS CONSIDERED with Michel Martin who's been reporting from Austin, Texas, with breaking news. One of the fathers of rock 'n' roll died today. Chuck Berry died at his home in Missouri earlier today after first responders were unable to revive him. He was 90 years old. He was inarguably one of the most influential early rock musicians.

To find out more about Chuck Berry's remarkable life and career, we're joined now by Peter Guralnick, the music journalist and author who's written extensively on early rock 'n' roll. Peter, tell me about Chuck Berry and for people, I guess, under 50 who aren't that familiar with his music, why such a big mark on the development of rock 'n' roll?

PETER GURALNICK: I mean, he's a person of such inarguable brilliance. He's an American original in the sense that very few of his peers are because he wrote all of his songs. He sang them. He played them. But I should point out that he would argue with that whole concept of originality because Chuck Berry's thesis always was that you build on the past.

He would cite people like T-Bone Walker. He would cite Louis Jordan and Louis Jordan's guitarist Carl Hogan as some of the sources of his inspiration.

SUAREZ: I think if you prompted people, even younger people with "Roll Over Beethoven," "Sweet Little Sixteen," "Nadine," "Maybellene" - they'd say, oh, yeah, I know Chuck Berry and certainly anybody who's seen "Back To The Future." Let's take a listen to this classic.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JOHNNY B. GOODE")

CHUCK BERRY: (Singing) Deep down in Louisiana close to New Orleans, way back up in the woods among the evergreens there stood a log cabin made of earth and wood, where lived a country boy named Johnny B. Goode who never, ever learned to read or write so well, but he could play a guitar just like ringing a bell. Go, go...

SUAREZ: Of course that's scorching guitar in Johnny B. Goode. For now, it seems tremendously familiar. But in the 1950s, it must have sounded really revolutionary and fresh.

GURALNICK: Well, I think it did. It did sound revolutionary and fresh, and yes, he had a sense of moving the song along. But you take a song like "Johnny B. Goode" and what he's created there is a fable. And it's a fable with which anyone - everyone can identify to a certain extent. And yet, it really has no bearing on the author's personal life.

Other songs like "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" are fables of the kind of segregated experience that Chuck Berry had growing up and living in contemporary America and in which the "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" goes free because the judge's wife says let that man go free.

SUAREZ: We're talking about a guy who is a live act over 100 nights a year well into his 70s who was still playing concerts in his 80s. What was he like in person?

GURALNICK: He was better in his 50s.

(LAUGHTER)

GURALNICK: I mean, he - Chuck Berry was a very moody guy. If anybody really wants to learn more about him, read his autobiography which he wrote every word of and which is as contentious and cantankerous as Chuck was himself. And he could be the most charming person in the world in performance or he could be someone who definitely did not endear himself to an audience by the attitude that he took towards them.

There was really no predicting what it was that would set him off. And he's somebody who set himself outside of society both by choice and by temperament.

SUAREZ: That's Peter Guralnick, a music journalist and author who's written extensively on rock 'n' roll's early years and profiled Chuck Berry for Rolling Stone. Peter, thanks a lot.

GURALNICK: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JOHNNY B. GOODE")

BERRY: (Singing) Go. Johnny B. Goode. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.