As you most likely have heard by now (an assumption based on the fact that if you’re reading this, you’re probably a music fan, and if you’re a music fan, you probably notice when famous musicians die), we lost Chuck Berry about a month ago, on March 18, at the distinctly un-rock-and-roll-age-of-death of 90. Chuck had been out of the public eye for quite a while, but his death was nonetheless felt intensely throughout the rock world. Far be it from me to have to be the one to explain why — the fact is that if you don’t already know, you probably don’t care, and if you don’t care to know why Chuck Berry matters in the world of rock music . . . well, I was going to rather ungraciously say that you’re a hopeless case, but then again, I should never count out the ability of Chuck Berry’s music to win people over.
The fact is also that despite whatever his personal demons may have done to tarnish his reputation — some rather unsavory reasons for run-ins with the law when his hit-making years were behind him — none of that can diminish the fact that if any one person deserves to be called the father of rock ‘n’ roll, it’s Chuck Berry. Granted, any one person can’t completely lay claim to being the lone innovator of any type of music, since music is always the confluence of many inputs from many disparate sources. But Chuck Berry set the standard for the sound and riffage of guitar-based rock in a way that set the ball rolling for so much of what came later. He influenced so many young musicians of the late ’50s and early ’60s who then went on to change the world of rock even further (among them the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Beach Boys, Jimi Hendrix, and so many more), that it’s hard to imagine what the landscape of popular music would have been without him.
His legacy can be seen cropping up throughout the decades, and it’s more than just his guitar playing. He was a fantastic storyteller as well, with a great sense of humor — his lyrics are still entertaining 60 years later. Much is made about Bob Dylan’s influence on the lyrics of rock, and as true as that certainly is, Chuck Berry was a remarkable lyricist as well, years earlier. I wrote about one of my favorite Berry lyrics way back in the second month of this blog’s existence, in 2011, when I featured “No Particular Place to Go.” Another great one (and there are many!) is what I’ve chosen to pay tribute to him with today: “School Days,” released in 1957. Also known in some song listings as “School Day (Ring! Ring! Goes the Bell),” it’s nearly identical musically to “No Particular Place to Go” (but that’s beside the point). It’s ostensibly about the ins and outs of a day in school, but ends up being about the release offered by rock and roll. It is one of the several songs in which Berry set himself up as one of the earliest mythologizers of rock music; he shaped the music while simultaneously building the memorials to it. This verse is among the greatest in rock when it comes to setting it all in stone:
Hail, hail rock and roll
Deliver me from the days of old
Long live rock and roll
The beat of the drums, loud and bold
Rock, rock, rock and roll
The feeling is there, body and soul.
Ultimately, it would be hard to argue very convincingly against the idea that on March 18 the most important figure in the creation of rock music passed away. If you never really gave yourself a chance to appreciate Chuck Berry, it’s never too late — all the joys are still there to be had, and an amazingly good starting place is the 30-song compilation, The Definitive Collection. So many great songs, all in one place — if it can’t convince you of Berry’s greatness, nothing will.