Essential Question

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

Overview

“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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Objectives

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)

Activities

Motivational Activity:

  1. Display the following quotes on the board:

“There’s only one true king of Rock and Roll. His name is Chuck Berry.”

— Stevie Wonder

“If you tried to give Rock and Roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry.'”

— John Lennon

“There’s not a lot of other ways to play Rock and Roll other than the way Chuck plays it; he’s really laid the law down.”

— Eric Clapton

“Chuck Berry is the greatest of the rock and rollers.”

— Music critic Robert Christgau

  1. Briefly discuss with students:
    • What do these quotes suggest about Chuck Berry’s role as a Rock and Roll pioneer?
    • Have students heard of Chuck Berry? Briefly discuss what they may already know about him, and where they may have learned this information.

Procedure:

  1. Explain to students that in this lesson they will investigate why Chuck Berry is considered such an important figure in the early history of Rock and Roll. They will work in groups of 4-5 students to create elements of a class museum exhibit on Berry as a Rock and Roll pioneer. Each group will investigate one aspect of Berry’s influence, as follows:
  2. Divide students into groups; if necessary, duplicate groups to accommodate class size. Explain that each group will be given a packet of source materials addressing their specific topic. They must work within their groups to read through the materials, view the video clips, and discuss the related questions. They will then work together to create a poster that will be part of the class museum exhibit on Chuck Berry. The poster must include:
    • A paragraph summarizing this aspect of Berry’s contributions to early Rock and Roll
    • At least two visual elements that illustrate the contribution. These may be photographs found on the Internet or original drawings created by members of the group
    • The name of one Chuck Berry song that illustrates this contribution, with a one- to two-sentence explanation of why that song was chosen
    • Any additional elements that students believe would help viewers better understand the contribution on which they are focusing
    • Proper citation for sources used
  3. Distribute the Museum Exhibit Poster Worksheet and handouts of materials to each group.
  4. If possible, arrange separate viewing stations for each group, at which they may view the specified video clips. If an Internet connection is available, students may use the computer at the viewing station to locate visual elements for their posters. If this is not possible, play the videos for each group in succession, and assign the research of visual elements for the poster as homework.
  5. Allow students sufficient time to read through the source material in their packets and watch the video clips.
  6. After students have viewed and discussed the material, allow additional time for them to write a paragraph summarizing their topic, as described in the group handout.
  7. Circulate among groups as they are working, reading over the paragraphs they are writing and offering suggestions for improvement.
  8. After approving each group’s paragraph, distribute poster board or construction paper, markers, tape, etc.
  9. In the remaining time, have students continue working in their groups to assemble the elements of their posters.

Summary Activity:

  1. Each group will present its poster to the class, highlighting its central themes.
  2. After each group has made its presentation, discuss the following with the class as a whole:
    • Think back to the quotes at the beginning of the lesson. Does what you have learned about Chuck Berry in this lesson support those statements?
    • Does one specific aspect of Berry’s career seem especially key to his status as a Rock and Roll pioneer? Or are they all equally important?

Writing Prompt:

Music critic Robert Christgau has called Chuck Berry “the greatest of the rock and rollers.” Is this description justified? What specific contributions support this statement?

Extensions:

  • A Chuck Berry documentary and concert film, Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll, directed by Taylor Hackford, was released in 1987. Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards was a driving force behind the film, and is one of several artists interviewed for it. Ask students to watch the documentary and write a review, detailing the important contributions Berry made to the history of Rock and Roll.
  • View the clip called Chuck Berry: Influences and then research the two major influences mentioned, Louis Jordan and Muddy Waters. How is their impact evident in Berry’s music? Write a two-page research paper, using examples to support your argument.

Standards

Common Core State Standards

College and Career Readiness Reading Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 for Literature and Informational Text

  • Reading 7: Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse formats and media, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.

College and Career Readiness Writing Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 in English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects

  • Writing 5: Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach.
  • Writing 8: Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, assess the credibility and accuracy of each source, and integrate the information while avoiding plagiarism.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening for Grades 6-12

  • Speaking and Listening 5: Make strategic use of digital media and visual displays of data to express information and enhance understanding of presentations.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for  Language for Grades 6-12

  • Language 4: Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases by using context clues, analyzing meaningful word parts, and consulting general and specialized reference materials, as appropriate.

Social Studies – National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS)

  • Theme 1: Culture
  • Theme 2: Time, Continuity, and Change
  • Theme 5: Individuals, Groups, and Institutions

National Standards for Music Education

Core Music Standard: Responding

  • Select: Choose music appropriate for a specific purpose or context.
  • Analyze: Analyze how the structure and context of varied musical works inform the response.
  • Interpret: Support interpretations of musical works that reflect creators’ and/or performers’ expressive intent.
  • Evaluate: Support evaluations of musical works and performances based on analysis, interpretation, and established criteria.

Core Music Standard: Connecting

  • Connecting 11: Relate  musical ideas and works to varied contexts and daily life to deepen understanding.