Rock and rollers around the world today are mourning the passing of the music’s primary architect, Chuck Berry. The larger-than-life icon passed away at his home in St. Charles County, Missouri yesterday at the age of ninety.
It was sixty-two years ago that his first single, “Maybellene,” first appeared, combining blues and western swing into an entirely new creation. The single would be the first in a rapid series of hit singles for Berry on the Chess label, most of which have gone on to become rock and roll standards. Its inspiration in a Bob Wills song and its b-side, a smoldering blues tune called “Wee Wee Hours,” are evidence of Berry’s unique ability to blend the different traditions. Of the single, Rolling Stone later wrote, “Rock and roll guitar begins here.”
While so many of Berry’s songs are universally familiar, it was his showmanship more than his songwriting which made him a star in the late 50s. His stage presence and his explosive runs on the guitar, all accented by a signature “duck walk” move established rock music’s over-the-top escapism.
Berry’s career was derailed several times by, to quote one of his songs, “too much monkey business.” He had not recorded a new album since 1979, but had announced last year that he was recording a new record which would feature two of his children as accompaniment. At this time there is no release date for the new record, titled Chuck.
This 1960 sequel to “Johnny B. Goode” is one of our favorite songs from Berry’s original run of hits for Chess Records, even though it is not one of the twelve found on the classic Greatest Hits LP. “Bye Bye Johnny” was one of several of his songs covered by the Rolling Stones (whose first single was a Chuck Berry tune) and was also adapted, uncredited, into an elegy for Elvis Presley by Bruce Springsteen in the 80s. Like its predecessor the song tells a story with vivid details and a sly wink towards the American dream of social mobility.