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The pioneers and trailblazers who left an indelible imprint on their very art form may live to the age of 90 as Chuck Berry did but when they go you still feel a momentary twinge as though you personally, selfishly, have been cheated. Berry built a brand that was distinguished in its brashness, backed up by bewildering guitar licks; his songs radiate with a dynamism that is birthed from musical genius. No other man so utterly repurposed popular music in the twentieth century. In defining the heartbeat of what was rock 'n' roll Berry served as nothing less than quintessential alchemist, folding the thorny twang of country into the bristling bodied moodiness of blues.
Berry was corralled and kept in a reform school following a considerable run of stealing cars and committing armed robbery at least twice. Fortunately Berry applied self-improvement to himself and before long received a degree in hairdressing and cosmetology, working for a while as a beautician. He became Sir John's Trio's lead guitarist and within months was busily completely reworking the band's sound, becoming its artistic center.
T-Bone Walker, famed guitarist from Texas, played the crucial role in showing Berry on how to bend two guitar strings in unison. Berry sped up the process and made it more alacritous, more defiantly pulsating, for the sound of rock 'n' roll. The Chuck Berry Lick, as it became known within only weeks of Berry's breakout, was born.
Berry's revolutionary sound became altogether more transporting with the creation of "Maybellene," which was massaged out of the Southern-fried "Ida Red," featuring its 2/4 backbeat. Berry altered the song's composition and lyrically told the tale of a country road chase of sorts with the song's protagonist vainly "motorvatin'" in search of the pretty young girl who remains ever-so-elusive. Chess Records producer Leonard Chess assisted in renaming the tune "Maybellene" while his bassist Willie Dixon prodded the band to keep their feet on the accelerator to make the rhythm all the more breakneck. Speaking of Berry and Chess, wholeheartedly recommend everyone here see the terribly underrated film which documented the legends who plied their trade at Chess Records, Cadillac Records
Berry's most iconic songs have almost been relegated to being perversely overlooked and taken for granted by subsequent generations. His was a contribution so vast in scope it becomes a slightly harrowing experience merely endeavoring to convey its import. Berry announced on his ninetieth birthday his intentions of creating a new album. Even for him such classics as "Johnny B. Goode," "Move Over Beethoven," "Maybellene" and "Rock & Roll Music" and others were not enough.
Yet they most certainly were enough, along with those 1950s albums and songs which defined a new, glistening, almost feral genre of music, and compelled millions of white teenagers to not give a whit how black or white the musical genius and singular voice behind them was, to assure him status as a living legend. Now he is a legend beyond the animation of his body. Now he has finally joined his songs, up in the stars.
The band to which I belong are about to head out momentarily. I am certain we are capable of performing a fifth-rate version of "Johnny B. Goode." Join us tonight in Mill Valley, California, everyone, just inside the town Music Hall.