Rock and roll will never die, but the man Stevie Wonder and many more consider to be the true “King of Rock and Roll” has passed away at 90. Chuck Berry was there at the very beginning, laying down the foundation for all the music that followed. His first big hit, “Maybelline,” came six months before Elvis Presley’s first hit, “Heartbreak Hotel.” Seminal figures such as Bill Haley, Buddy Holly and the Beatles covered Chuck Berry’s songs. The lyrics of “Nadine” have been cited as a major influence on Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. The Beach Boys even kicked off the surf music wave by ripping off Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” and turning it into “Surfin’ USA.”
As I well know, every kid who dreams of playing in a band starts out by learning “Johnny B. Good,” then on to other Berry classics, like “School Days,” “Back In The USA,” “Rock and Roll Music” and “Roll Over Beethoven” (along with the riff from Deep Purple’s “Smoke On The Water,” but at least Berry made it into the Rock Hall of Fame – inducted on day one.) Berry’s songs are so universally beloved that he never bothered touring with a backup band. He’d save money by hiring a local group in each town on the assumption that every rock band already knew his entire catalog.
But maybe the best illustration of how universally beloved Chuck Berry’s songs are came from a 1978 episode of “Saturday Night Live,” back when it was a comedy show rather than therapy for traumatized Hillary supporters. Steve Martin played a psychic predicting the next week’s headlines. He reminded viewers of how the Voyager 1 probe had been sent into space with a greeting for alien civilizations and a recording of many genres of music, from classical to rock, as represented by Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Good.” Martin predicted that a message would be received from an alien civilization many light years away. After working around the clock to translate it, scientists would reveal that the message was just four simple words:
“Send more Chuck Berry!”