So, Chuck Berry is releasing a new record at the grand old age of 90. Several years back, I wrote this piece about the grandfather of Rock and Roll.
John Lennon once said: “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry”.
Berry was among the first musicians to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on its opening in 1986. He was inducted by Keith Richards who said, “It’s hard for me to induct Chuck Berry, because I lifted every lick he ever played”.
In 2003 Rolling Stone magazine named him number six on their list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.Berry had his first hit in 1955 with “Maybellene”. The song peaked at No 5 on the Billboard charts. At the end of June 1956, “Roll Over Beethoven” reached No 29.
The hits continued from 1957 to 1959, with Berry scoring over a dozen chart singles during this period, including the top 10 US hits “School Days”, “Rock and Roll Music”, “Sweet Little Sixteen” and “Johnny B. Goode”.
In the 1970s, Berry toured on the basis of his earlier successes. He was on the road for many years, carrying only his Gibson guitar, confident that he could hire a band that already knew his music no matter where he went. Among the many guitarists performing this backup role was a very young Bruce Springsteen.
Berry actually wrote Promised Land when he was serving time in jail for transporting a girl across state lines for immoral purposes. In fact, he had to borrow an atlas of the US from the prison library to plot his hero’s journey from Virginia to California.
To my mind, Promised Land sums up the classic rock and roll ambition, together with veiled references to the political struggle faced by Southern blacks at the time. Cleverly, Berry offered a partial allegory of the 1961 freedom rides to protest against the continued segregation in the South.
In the song – which is also chock-full of quasi-biblical imagery relating to the Exodus story – Berry’s hero follows much the same route through the South as the freedom riders. In one verse, Berry invokes the worst violence experienced by the actual freedom riders, which occurred in Anniston, Birmingham and Montgomery, describing a journey that “turned into a struggle, / half-way across Alabam”.
His best known song is of course Johnny B Goode. Not only is it a staple of every kid who ever tried to play electric guitar, it was also chosen as the American cultural contribution to the Voyager 1 spaceship Golden Record.
The Voyager Golden Record is an actual gramophone record containing sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth. It is intended for any intelligent extraterrestrial life form that may find it.
The contents of the record were selected for NASA by a committee chaired by Carl Sagan. Dr Sagan and his associates assembled 115 images and a variety of natural sounds, such as those made by surf, wind and thunder, and animal sounds, including the songs of birds and whales. To this they added musical selections from different cultures and eras, and spoken greetings from Earthlings in fifty-five languages.
They also included a printed message from President Jimmy Carter who said: “We cast this message into the cosmos. Of the 200 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, some – perhaps many – may have inhabited planets and space-faring civilizations. If one such civilization intercepts Voyager and can understand these recorded contents, here is our message: We are trying to survive our time so we may live into yours. We hope some day, having solved the problems we face, to join a community of Galactic Civilizations. This record represents our hope and our determination and our goodwill in a vast and awesome universe.”
To date, only one message has been received back from extraterrestrials.
It said: “Send more Chuck Berry.”
Hi. I’m a writer of highly effective copy for every marketing sector under the sun. If you've got a copywriting, advertising or design project, please get in touch - I'd love to help.