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Chuck Berry Dies at 90; Helped Define Rock ’n’ Roll

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https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/18/arts/chuck-berry-dead.html

 

Chuck Berry Dies at 90; Helped Define Rock ’n’ Roll

By JON PARELESMARCH 18, 2017

 

Chuck Berry, who with his indelible guitar licks, brash self-confidence and memorable songs about cars, girls and wild dance parties did as much as anyone to define rock ’n’ roll’s potential and attitude in its early years, died on Saturday. He was 90. The St. Charles County Police Department in Missouri confirmed his death on its Facebook page. The department said it responded to a medical emergency at a home and he was declared dead after lifesaving measures were unsuccessful.

 

While Elvis Presley was rock’s first pop star and teenage heartthrob, Mr. Berry was its master theorist and conceptual genius, the songwriter who understood what the kids wanted before they did themselves. With songs like “Johnny B. Goode” and “Roll Over Beethoven,” he gave his listeners more than they knew they were getting from jukebox entertainment.

 

His guitar lines wired the lean twang of country and the bite of the blues into phrases with both a streamlined trajectory and a long memory. And tucked into the lighthearted, telegraphic narratives that he sang with such clear enunciation was a sly defiance, upending convention to claim the pleasures of the moment.

 

In “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “You Can’t Catch Me” and other songs, Mr. Berry invented rock as a music of teenage wishes fulfilled and good times (even with cops in pursuit). In “Promised Land,” “Too Much Monkey Business” and “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” he celebrated and satirized America’s opportunities and class tensions. His rock ’n’ roll was a music of joyful lusts, laughed-off tensions and gleefully shattered icons.

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After hearing the news about Chuck Berry I took some time to stop and reflect about the musicians and entertainers of my formative years. I remember Little Richard, Lloyd Price, Fats Domino and some of their peers from watching the early variety shows of the mid and late fifties ( yeah I'm old). I remember " Killer", Jerry Lee Lewis playing piano singing " Great Balls of Fire" with flames shooting out of the keyboard. Elvis and Jackie Wilson making the girls scream so loud that you couldn't hear the words they were singing. There seemed to be so many styles of music and singers back then. When you look at generic labels like Pop, Rock, R&B, Country, Country and Western it made it hard to pigeonhole any artist to a particular type of music. If one considers Chuck Berry as a purely rock artist then what is Little Richard classified as? Fats Domino, Jimmie Rodgers, Ritchie Valens, or Anthony and the Imperials or the Drifters? Guy like Lloyd Price made a song called " Stagger Lee" which sounds like something you would hear in a club on a Saturday night yet he made a song called " Personality" that the whole family could sing on a car ride. Can't forget Ray Charles singing " What'd I Say?" a stone cold R&B joint and coming back with " I Can't Stop Loving You" which is a Country and Western song through and through. That's what I miss the most about today's radio compared to back then. NYC radio had variety that I don't think any other area had back then. From one end of the dial to the other, WMCA to WWRL, on the AM side you could hear almost any style of music at any time. I remember the first time I heard the O'Jays sing " I Love Music", any kind of music and I thought to myself that the music world was being fragmented even as the song became popular. Thank God for my XM radio and my CD collection.

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