WashU Expert: Remembering Chuck Berry

St. Louis native was the original guitar hero, says musicologist Patrick Burke

Chuck Berry, who embodied the sound and attitude of early rock and roll, played Washington University's Brookings Quadrangle in the early 1970s and mid-1980s. In the 1990s, he began a regular monthly concert at nearby Blueberry Hill, which continued for almost two decades.

“If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry.’”
— John Lennon

Charles Edward Anderson “Chuck” Berry was among the most influential musicians of the 20th century. The St. Louis native, who died March 18, at his home near Wentzville, Mo., embodied the sound, attitude and mythology that would define the early days of rock and roll.

In particular:

Chuck Berry in 1957. (Photo: Wikipedia)

“Chuck Berry invented the electric guitar,” said Patrick Burke, head of musicology in the Department of Music in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. “I don’t mean literally — the technology had been waiting for him — but Berry made the electric guitar an icon of American modernity, flash and cool.

“From the opening seconds of his first single, 1955’s ‘Maybellene,’ Berry invited listeners to bask in a raw, radiant roar that resounded the deep African-American blues tradition of Muddy Waters and T-Bone Walker — while also presaging the glorious future of Marshall stacks and Fuzz Face distortion pedals,” added Burke, who studies the intersection of race and American popular music. “The crisp stride of Berry’s patented shuffle rhythm was adorned by the exhilarating sting of his double-stop guitar solos, forging a common language whose implications rock guitarists continue to explore.

“And Berry created the instrument’s folk hero: Johnny B. Goode, a brown-eyed handsome man who could play a guitar just like ringing a bell and who served as both Berry’s avatar and the electric guitar’s founding myth. As he duck-walked improbably across the stage, picking immaculate riffs with his guitar slung low, Berry consecrated his chosen instrument with his grace, charisma and craft.”

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