“If you tried to give Rock and Roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry.’”
— John Lennon
Chuck Berry burst onto the Rock and Roll scene in 1955 with the release of “Maybellene” on Chess Records. It shot to No. 1 on Billboard’s R&B chart and No. 5 on the Pop chart, establishing Berry as an artist with appeal to black and white audiences alike. By the end of the decade, Berry had released a string of iconic songs – “Roll Over, Beethoven,” “Schools Days,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Johnny B. Goode,” “Back in the U.S.A.” – that would be covered by everyone from the Beach Boys to the Grateful Dead. Distinct from Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Fats Domino – all piano players – Berry was a guitar player whose guitar was a central component of his recordings. Gone were the horns, central to much R&B, and gone was the piano as focal point. Guitar-based Rock and Roll had its founding father.
In this lesson, students will analyze several of the elements that combined to make Berry such an important and influential artist. They will examine his pioneering guitar riffs, his carefully crafted lyrics that spoke directly to the emerging market of white, middle-class teen listeners, his blend of R&B and Country and Western influences, and his energetic performance style, which helped pave the way for a generation of guitar-playing showmen.