Entertainment Lead Story Music West Edition

Legendary guitarist Chuck Berry remembered as pioneer of rock

LOS ANGELES — Rock ’n’ roll pioneer Chuck Berry is being remembered this week as one of the greatest guitarists and a man who fused elements of soul, swing, country and rhythm and blues into his music that paved the way for some of the biggest rock acts years later.

Berry died of natural causes March 18 at his home in St. Charles County, Missouri. He was 90.

Perhaps no other quote captures the inimitable influence of Berry in the musical world better than John Lennon’s famous quip: “If you tried to give rock ’n’ roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry.’”

With hits like “Johnny B. Goode,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Rock and Roll Music” and “Maybellene” Berry paved the way for others to follow.

“Chuck Berry pioneered everything,” said guitarist and singer Cutty from the San Fernando Valley prom-punk band Cutty Flam. “From him comes Elvis Presley; from him comes the Beatles and the Rolling Stones; from him comes Cutty Flam.”

The first time Cutty heard Berry’s music was in the prom scene of “Back to the Future,” which featured the movie’s protagonist Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) playing Berry’s classic “Johnny B. Goode.”

“We took a lot of what he played,” Cutty said about Berry’s rhythms and guitar riffs that influenced the band’s sound. “His music, for us, was a way of communicating something instantly. He is pop culture, he is Americana, he is rock ’n’ roll. He united everybody. May he rest in peace.”

Michael Leyva, the drummer of another Los Angeles band, the Herms, said that Berry “pretty much wrote the rule book on breaking the rules, which is rock ’n’ roll.”

Leyva noted Berry’s stage performances and his unconventional dance movements as being highly inspirational to him.

“There’s this tribal urge within our DNA to move a certain way to music, and it just seemed so natural to [Berry] to swing his legs, his guitar, his hips,” Leyva said.

Ana Martinez of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce places a wreath on Chuck Berry’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame March 20. Berry died March 18 at his home in St. Louis.
(Photo courtesy of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce)

Berry was known for his wild stage performances and his guitar showmanship. His “duck walk” — a signature one-legged hop that he popularized — would eventually be imitated by many guitar-toting musicians who followed him.

For Lon McQ, KJLH’s radio DJ and personality, Berry opened him up another world of music.

“Growing up in Indiana, you’re pigeonholed into R&B,” McQ said. “Berry’s unique guitar playing is what got me into him. Here was somebody that combined blues and country, the way he approached some of his chords was really different. It was really unique what he did, doing the duck walk and keeping the beat and the rhythm. It’s a lot going on, walking across the stage like that. I don’t think they’ll ever be another person who takes the place of Chuck Berry.”

Christopher Sampson, the vice dean of contemporary music at USC’s Thornton School of Music, said that before the 1950s, the world of professional music was dictated by a conservative music industry that mostly included musical theater.

The disruptive emergence of Berry’s music and stage presence, Sampson said, was profound.

“The 1950s brought a new interpretation of R&B to the forefront,” Sampson said. “Chuck Berry and Little Richard came and disrupted the fabric of America in the post-World War II society. Berry was one of the starting points for the music.”

Sampson also credited Berry’s commanding stage presence and his poetic lyricism, describing him as “a great rock poet” whose lyrics had a narrative not seen before his time.

Born Oct. 18, 1926, in St. Louis, Berry was among the first to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. In 1984, he received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and was awarded many other accolades throughout his musical career.

The St. Charles County Police Department announced his death on Facebook March 18. Officers responded to a medical emergency call at his residence around 12:40 p.m. that day and found Berry unresponsive. Attempts to revive him failed.

Following the public announcement of his death, the music-loving world took to Twitter to remember Berry.

Bruce Springsteen wrote: “Chuck Berry was rock’s greatest practitioner, guitarist, and the greatest pure rock ‘n’ roll writer who ever lived.”

Former President Bill Clinton honored him saying, “Chuck Berry’s life was a treasure and a triumph, and he’ll never be forgotten.”

Guns N’ Roses’ guitarist Slash called Berry the “undisputed king.”