Black History

Discovering Chuck Berry

By: M. Swift

Music legend and rock n roll pioneer Chuck Berry died Saturday at the age of 90 at his St. Charles, MO residence. A part of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s inaugural class, Berry is known for several hits such as Johnny B. Goode, My Ding-a-Ling, Roll Over Beethoven, and Maybellene.

Discovering Chuck Berry

Living in the Deep South, radio stations can lack the robustness of genre of some markets. That’s also true being from a mostly Black city. Growing up during the early 1990s and early 2000s, FM offerings were whatever was popular at the time. If you took a walk on the AM side you’d get the stations with the worst reception but it would be blues, Southern Soul, gospel, and Regional Mexicana. It was an…okay mix, but even on the blues channels it only went so far back.

A pioneer like Chuck Berry had material that was clearly rock and clearly blues. Stations down here went back only so far back with stuff played. I first heard of him when watching Back to the Future and there was a scene where the hero Marty McFly plays at his parents’ dance and inspires Chuck Berry’s sound. Looking at it several years removed from elementary school and I’m like “…okay but not really?”

Covers

I forgot about Chuck Berry for years after that but got into a lot of music that lineage reaching back to Berry, Bo Diddley, and Screamin’ Jay especially. I’m a big Judas Priest, and Motorhead fan and I would hear some songs that were definitely outside of their sound. During school while going listening to albums in a recent haul, I was enjoying one album–Judas Priest’s Ram It Down. The B-side isn’t the strongest of B-sides, but the third was Johnny B. Goode (Chuck Berry).

I figured “…sure why not” and let the track play. I was a big Screamin’ Jay kick at the time, loved his stage theatrics and voice, but never actually gave a Chuck Berry song a listen. After that, I went to the library and sent for whatever Chuck Berry they had available. It took a week but I listened to that Best of Chuck Berry while studying, while writing, and while drawing.

Influence

I can’t say he had a profound influence on what I do creatively. If I had to point to one rock n roll pioneer who did that it would be the lyrics and stagecraft of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. I will say Chuck Berry opened my eyes in discovering other pioneers from the period and researching that period in music as a whole. That was all in Berry’s rise and navigation of the very early rock scene in the South because there is so much available on his life.

So rest in peace Chuck and thanks for the great music.

M. Swift primarily writes on moments and important figures in Black history for Your Black World. He also writes heavily on wrestling, comics, gaming, and Black sci-fi and fantasy.

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