“Hail, hail rock ‘n’ roll/Deliver me from the days of old.”
Music can shake the pillars of the world around us. It helps us buck convention and reassess the social and environmental factors that shape our lives in endless, indeterminable ways. Classical music did this centuries ago, and rock music provided this pivotal burst of creativity in the ’50s when the landscape of popular music was beginning to shift toward louder, more volatile rhythmic movements. Rock music sprung from the deeper corners of the blues and country (through the ringing beats of rockabilly), and throughout the late ’40s and early ’50s, the genre was slowly beginning to take on its initial stomp and howl.
Artists such as Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis were coming up in the latter part of the ’50s, revealing the first rumblings of a rock-fueled hysteria that would soon sweep the nation. Within their populist sounds, they found a way to connect the roots of the past to a younger generation ready to absorb and explore music that acted as a sort of social amphetamine. Rock ‘n’ roll was here to move teenage legs-and to horrify parents, apparently. And the genre felt one of its most powerful presences when Chuck Berry strapped a Gibson ES-350TN around his neck and ignited the rock ‘n’ roll world with his incendiary performances.
Born in St. Louis, Missouri, as the fourth child in a family of six, Berry grew up in a neighborhood called The Ville in the northern part of the city. His father was a contractor and lent his talents as deacon to a nearby Baptist church, while his mother worked as a public school principal. As a middle-class family, they were able to indulge his interest in music from an early age, and he gave his first performance in 1941. His early musical trajectory was cut short, however, when he was arrested for armed robbery in 1944 after holding up a string of stores and stealing a car at gunpoint. Convicted and sent to the Intermediate Reformatory for Young Men at Algoa, near Jefferson City, Missouri, Berry was eventually released in 1947 on his 21st birthday.
Shortly after his release, he married Themetta Suggs, who gave birth to a daughter in 1950. To support his new family, Berry took jobs as a factory worker at an automobile plant and as a janitor in the apartment building where he lived. He then trained to be a beautician at the Poro College of Cosmetology and was doing so well that he was able buy a small house on Whitter Street, a building that is listed as the Chuck Berry House on the National Register of Historic Places.
By the early part of the ’50s, he was working in various clubs and bars around St. Louis as a way to bring in some extra income. He began performing with pianist Johnnie Johnson’s trio, a gig that started a long professional relationship between the two musicians. Combining strains of country and classic R&B music, along with an impressive sense of showmanship, Berry and his musical co-conspirators developed an amalgam of influences that appealed to both black audiences and to the more affluent white crowds that would often hang out at the clubs where they played.
But a visit to Chicago and a meeting with blues legend Muddy Waters dramatically changed Berry’s career. On the advice of Waters, Berry contacted Leonard Chess of Chess Records and began a collaboration with him and his brother Phil that would result in some of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll songs of all time. Instead of the rhythm and blues that Berry presented to them, the Chess brothers looked to an old country fiddle tune, “Ida Red,” for inspiration. Remade as “Maybellene,” this song skyrocketed to No. 1 on Billboard’s R&B chart, selling over 1 million copies and cementing Berry’s position as one of the pioneers of early rock music.
Subsequent singles such as “Roll Over Beethoven,” “School Days” and “Sweet Little Sixteen” helped shape the future of rock music in immeasurable ways. This isn’t to say that other artists weren’t making tangential movements to further the scope of the genre, but Berry was ripping it apart and remaking it in his own image. With the release of his first studio record, “After School Session,” in 1957, Berry was able to collect a handful of his previously released singles into a single compilation and make the case that his influence was far greater as a sum total than any individual song might indicate.
With all but three songs on this album having been released already-those being “Roly Poly,” “Berry Pickin'” and “Together (We Will Always Be)”-this album was a precursor to the greatest hits records that would follow. Including quite a few B sides, this collection allows fans to hear Berry’s music from all angles and isn’t just his superstar singles. But even this early in his career, you can hear the dramatic fissures that he created in the modern musical landscape.
With his recent passing, the music of Chuck Berry has been thrust into the spotlight once more, ready to be adored and pored over like some classic tome of ancient experiences. But there’s nothing dated or old about the way Berry presented himself or his music-his guitar was the sound of a revolution, and its effects quickly spread to all corners of the globe. With “After School Session,” people were able to appreciate and submerge themselves in the genius of both Berry’s blistering guitar licks and his affectionately subversive attitude. Chuck Berry may be gone, but his music and its lingering influence will still be felt 100 years from now.
Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.