When time travel adventure Back to the Future included the conceit of the white 1980s teenager, Marty McFly, inventing rock ‘n’ roll, there was really only one song to hang it on – Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”. Legendary is an overused adjective in popular culture, but Berry’s passing is a salutary reminder of what a giant in the field actually looked like.
The process by which new genres emerge from previous music forms is complex and muddy, and the boundaries between them porous. So John Lennon may have been exaggerating when he said: “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’.” But not by much.
In terms of contributing to the shape of popular music culture in the 20th century and beyond, he had only a handful of peers. He was the keystone for subsequent pivotal figures in the development of rock – The Beatles, Rolling Stones and Hendrix all covered his songs, and his influence is writ large throughout their playing. Likewise, The Beach Boys’ early career was propelled by almost note-for-note takes of his riffs and licks.
In fact, both the Beach Boys and Lennon were to fall foul of plagiarism suits pertaining to their use of Berry’s work, and Berry was himself sued in 2000 by longtime collaborator – pianist Johnnie Johnson – for a share in the credits to a string of hits like “Roll Over Beethoven” and “No Particular Place to Go”. Johnson’s suit, which concerned 50 songs, was dismissed due to the length of time that had elapsed since the songs were written, over which period the songs had become classics.