Chuck Berry was a master of detail whose music defined a genre
Take “Maybellene,” his very first single, which he based on an old country tune but tricked out with an indelible guitar lick and his own invented word: “As I was motor-vatin’ over the hill / I saw Maybellene in a Coupe de Ville,” he sings, creating a vivid image of newness even as he sets the scene in a familiar American landscape.
“School Day” does something similar. Writing about the slow-burn misery of high school as he himself was in his 30s, Berry uses his experience as an older man to enrich the song’s action: “Back in the classroom, open your books / Gee, but the teacher don’t know how mean she looks.”
What a line! All at once Berry is telling us what it feels like to be in the classroom — what it feels like to be one of his teenage fans, in other words — and what it feels like to be the teacher doing her best to civilize these little twerps.
Berry’s catalog is filled with such lyrical complexity, be it the picture of American ambition in “Johnny B. Goode” or the picture of American oppression in “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” which opens by putting us in a courtroom with a man “arrested on charges of unemployment.”
And then there’s the picture of America itself in “Promised Land,” Berry’s epic travelogue from Norfolk, Va., to Los Angeles.
Yet it wasn’t just his words that distinguished his music. It was the way he sang them, enunciating as crisply as that mean schoolteacher might have while somehow communicating his essential rebelliousness.
Listen to “Roll Over Beethoven”: This isn’t a crass rock ’n’ roller writing off yesterday’s masters; it’s game recognizing game.
As a guitarist, Berry saw infinite variety in a handful of moves. And he knew the intricate contours of each of his riffs, as he demonstrated in a famous scene from Taylor Hackford’s 1987 documentary “Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll.”
Rehearsing his song “Carol” with a band that includes the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards, Berry keeps halting the music, pointing out little mistakes Richards is making with the main lick.
“You wanna get it right,” Berry says, “let’s get it right.”
It makes you wonder how this master of detail treated the guys in those pick-up bands.
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