Not many will disagree with the fact that Americans seem so divided today. They will say we are divided by race, income, religion, political affiliation, and way too many more to mention here. But the one thing that seems to bring people together more often than not is music.
Our American family lost one of its most important members on Saturday who could arguably be the founder of the most American of music, rock and roll. That man was Chuck Berry.
Berry, age 90, was found unresponsive at his home in Wentzville, Missouri, an outlying suburb of St. Louis on Saturday. As of this writing, no official cause of death has been announced.
Chuck Berry came from humble beginnings, born and raised in St. Louis. It would be his lifelong home. But Chuck Berry would go on to do something very few ever do: he forever changed the face of American music, and, in the process, changed the culture and society.
In 1955, the year that Chuck Berry scored his first big hit with “Maybelline,” seems lightyears away from today. American teenagers began listening to this new form of music that they just could not seem to sit still to and, to be expected, there was much backlash from their parents. There was, however, an extra ingredient: white parents did not want their kids listening to what they deemed “colored” music, as most of the popular artists were black.
In a nation divided by segregated restaurants, movie theatres, and music halls, Berry began to combine the country music that was popular among white audiences with the rhythm and blues he heard not just in his own neighborhood, but later playing in black music clubs around the St. Louis area. The music got everyone, black and white, to take notice. Any honest musician will tell you that one of the first things he learned to play was that in-your-face Johnny B. Goode opening riff.
As this new form of American music made its way across the Atlantic to Great Britain, Chuck Berry began to influence his British counterparts as well. Legends like Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, and Paul McCartney will tell you, one of their greatest influences was Chuck Berry. Back in Chuck Berry’s home town of St. Louis, the city mourns and celebrates all at the same time. Across the street from “Blueberry Hill,” a popular restaurant, bar, and music venue, a place where Chuck Berry played once a month right up to the end, stands a statue of Berry. By early Saturday evening it had become a memorial with people stopping to leave flowers, signs of tribute, and to just gather and talk about the Gateway City’s own music legend. Later on in the evening, a small band even set up to play a few of Chuck’s finest tunes, not leaving out Johnny B. Goode’s signature riff. It didn’t matter whether or not it was perfect. What did matter was that it was Chuck’s.
On the St. Louis Walk of Fame, stars in the sidewalk with the names of St. Louisans who have made it big at whatever they do, Chuck Berry’s star is surrounded by flowers and people stopping to take pictures. As sad as St. Louis is today, we are so proud to say Chuck Berry was one of us. Chuck Berry will not happen again. There will be people who change art forms or invent one of their own. There will be people who change cultural and societal norms, but not very likely someone who will do all three at the same time in the same lifetime. For the beauty of rock and roll, thank you Chuck Berry.