He wasn’t the first, though he was there nearly from the start. He wasn’t the best, as a singer or a guitarist, though more than solidly capable at both. And the songs are a lot alike — as the songwriter acknowledged, the changes are usually pretty much the same. And he wrote the opening riff that was maybe the very first bred-in-the-bone battle cry and mating call of rock ‘n’ roll:
“Johnny B. Goode” is of course the tale of a young working class African American man who, his mom predicts, “someday will be the leader of a big old band,” a prediction made only because Mom is not of the generation that knew what it meant to be a rock star, a very different animal than a bandleader. And Chuck — and Johnny — were after all still busy inventing the rock star.
And with that, Berry had the solid commercial sense to write songs about teen culture, giving that newly invented creature, the teenager, his own cool imprimatur as he sang about the mundane details of high school life:
“School Days” link.
Speaking directly to the teenyboppers, in the second person, Chuck gets them through the day, then:
Drop the coin right into the slot
You’ve gotta hear something’ that’s really hot
With the one you love, you’ve been makin’ romance
All day long, you’ve been wantin’ to dance
Feelin’ the music from head to toe
Round and round and round you go
But that’s not the key part of “School Days.” That comes at 2:15:
Hail, hail, rock ‘n’ roll
Deliver me from the days of old
Long live rock ‘n’ roll
The beat of the drums, loud and bold
Rock, rock, rock ‘n’ roll
The feelin’ is there, body and soul
In this rather mild-sounding song, this is as bold a declaration of independence as you’ll find in early rock. It’s only 1957, and white teenagers are already shouting along with “Hail, hail rock ‘n’ roll!” and declaring their scorn for all the music that came before. Which was great — cheerful contempt for earlier forms of pop music and, indeed, for pretty much anything that was popular before one’s own high school years was part of rock love from the very beginning, right up to the glam acts and the punks, who ruthlessly mocked the British Invasion stars who were still hanging on to the spotlight. Now, of course, everybody’s all reverent and respectful to the artists who came before, and we have a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and people actually consider it an honor to be in it, and it’s talked about as though it were some kind of achievement. Sigh.
Anyway. The lines were blurred in those early days between country, and rock, and R&B, and Chuck Berry was not the man to un-blur them. The aforementioned “No Particular Place to Go” is just a little joke on frustrated romance:
In 1964, this song, which shared a melody with “School Days,” of course, pulled the same trick as its predecessor and was a top 10 hit in both the Billboard Hot 100 pop chart and a top 10 hit on the R&B chart. And to today’s ears, it sounds almost like a country record.
Though indeed, “No Particular Place” was a bit of a throwback even for 1964, and as the ’60s wore on, rock, country, and R&B would split more and more. By the ’70s, soul music would be thriving and the black rock star would become ever more rare. (Who was the last? Prince, perhaps?) Whole genres of rock — metal, punk — would arise with essentially no non-white participation. (Though indeed, declining to engage in punk demonstrates nothing but good taste and excellent judgment.)
I’m not taking any special position on that — whatever was lost to rock ‘n’ roll in pop culture was gained back in the great American idioms of soul and R&B and even hip-hop. But considering the roots of rock and its early stars, who could’ve predicted how it would look just a few years later?