Barely getting over the news of the passing of Blues icon, James Cotton, comes the devastating news that Chuck Berry is now gone. At age 90, and with a career that spanned over 60 years, you could say Chuck Berry had a very good run. And even with the recent news of the release of a new album, we never thought in a million years that one day he would leave.
To say Chuck Berry is an institution is putting it mildly – if it wasn’t for him, much of what we know as Rock n’ Roll simply wouldn’t exist. He was at the ground floor – he signaled the change – he was the wave of the future.
Anyone who is familiar with the film Jazz on A Summer’s Day, the filmed record of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival will remember Chuck Berry’s lightning performance, and how it symbolically ushered in Rock n’ Roll and the Youth Culture. His music became a staple in the diets of just about every band responsible for the British Invasion period of the mid-1960s – and because of that, Berry’s audience grew far beyond the borders of the U.S. – and far beyond the inner cities and Chittlin’ Circuit one-nighters of Black America.
And Chuck Berry was a regular on concert tours of the U.S. and all over the world. You almost couldn’t be a fan of music of the 60s and not see him at least once in concert. His was such a regular appearance on stage that maybe we took him for granted for all the times we saw him, knowing the lyrics by heart – hearing an audience in the thousands sing Nadine in unison. Almost everyone can remember their first Chuck Berry record. Mine was School Day – the Chess 45 is no longer playable – and most likely wasn’t after 1964. But you did that with your Chuck Berry records – you played them until you couldn’t play them anymore, and then you got new copies – they became part of your forever-record collection. He became such an integral part of the music of our culture that Johnny B. Goode was included on the Voyager disc traveling through outer space.
So, as much as people have been saying today that the music has died – truths to tell, it will stay forever. Right now, this minute, there is a kid somewhere in the world, learning the chords to a Chuck Berry song as part of their first guitar lesson. Right now, there is a kid listening to Chuck Berry for the first time, and getting what it was all about. Right now someone somewhere in the world of a certain age who is listening to Sweet Little Sixteen and remembering EXACTLY where they were when they first heard it.
Those things never die – they stay with you and they go to the next person and they eventually become the collective memory of millions of people and it continues in an unbroken progression for generations.
So as a reminder to those of you who were around at the time, here is a concert Chuck Berry did in Belgium in 1965. The sound is a bit rough and the applause is canned in places. But the performances are intact and Chuck Berry does what he always did so effortlessly – send you on a journey and dazzle you with his expertise.
We won’t see his kind again, and our hearts are very heavy tonight.
RIP Chuck Berry – if it wasn’t for you, I don’t know where we’d be.