Essential Question

Why is Chuck Berry often considered the most important of the early Rock and Rollers?


“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.

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Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

  1. Know (knowledge):
    • Chuck Berry’s role in solidifying the electric guitar as a central instrument in early Rock and Roll
    • How Berry built an audience by writing and performing songs that spoke directly to the emerging audience of white, teenage music listeners
    • Berry’s role as a “crossover” artist with appeal to both black and white audiences
    • How Berry combined Country and Western and Rhythm and Blues influences
    • Berry’s role as a showman who helped create a Rock and Roll performance style.
  2. Be able to (skills):
    • Evaluate Berry’s role as a Rock and Roll pioneer
    • Common Core: Students will conduct research by examining videos and texts relating to Chuck Berry’s role in the early development of Rock and Roll (CCSS Reading 7)
    • Common Core: After writing and revising a draft with teacher supervision, students will create a poster incorporating both text and visual elements, and present it to the class (CCSS Writing 5; CCSS Writing 8: CCSS Speaking and Listening 5)