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Chuck Berry shaped rock ’n’ roll and defined our childhoods

Chuck Berry Remembered On His Hollywood Walk Of Fame Star Photo by Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images

We had “Memphis, Tennessee” on the turntable when we heard he was gone. My son read it off a touchscreen: a news alert, an improbable age of death. I let a pot fall in the kitchen.

Chuck Berry was 90?

Chuck Berry was mortal?

“Help me, information, more than that I cannot add,” he was singing on the record. “Only that I miss her, and all the fun we had.”

It is a wonderful quirk of my small-town, white, Oregon childhood that Chuck Berry’s Golden Decade, a four-sided best-of collection, was one of the two vinyl recordings that defined my early love of music. The other was Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. My parents played them both frequently during family dinners. My father recorded them on the flip sides of a long-play cassette for car trips. I think I was a teenager before I realized Berry and the Beatles had not, in fact, made an album together.

I’m not sure how old I was when I realized Chuck Berry had, in effect, made the Beatles — and Elvis, and the Stones, and every rock legend that’s come after. I tried to explain this to my son when he was very young, but he did not get it until he and his mother gave me the record player as a birthday gift a few years ago. I went out and bought a Beatles album, with a screaming John Lennon cover of “Rock and Roll Music” that became my child’s nightly request.

Then I waited patiently for the dusty family copy of Golden Decade to make its way to me. When it did, I reminded my son who really wrote that song he loved, and I watched the Berry version — the original — blow him away.

Any objective assessment places Berry at the very top of the list of the founders of rock ’n’ roll. It remains criminal that so many white musicians charted bigger hits out of his songs than he did. Still, you can make an argument that the best of those covers helped some of the greatest rock bands find their sound; listening to the Beatles plow through his songbook in their early days is like watching a puppy discover the beach.

Berry’s music defined the baby boomers’ childhoods, but it also shaped their kids (not just the time-traveling ones) and the art those kids grew up with. There would be no “Sweet Child of Mine” without “Johnny B. Goode.” The secret glue of Pulp Fiction is “You Never Can Tell.”

When I was a kid, Berry’s guitar licks amazed me. What dazzles me most today is how damn clever his lyrics were.

He was vivid:

I got the rocking pneumonia

I need a shot of rhythm and blues

He was wry:

Milo Venus was a beautiful lass

She had the world in the palm of her hand

She lost both her arms in a wrestling match

To meet a brown-eyed handsome man

He was ... weird:

If I don't get no satisfaction from the judge

I'm gonna take it to the FBI and voice my grudge

If they don't give me no consolation

I'm gonna take it to the United Nations

I'm gonna see that you'll be back home in thirty days

The Chuck Berry song that was playing when the news alert popped up on Saturday was a song about sadness and loss. It’s a bit of a curveball, a story of broken hearts that turns out not to be about lovers at all. It starts with him placing a call to a long-distance operator, pleading for help locating “my Marie.”

It goes four verses and leaves the reveal to the very end:

Last time I saw Marie, she was waving me goodbye

With hurry-home drops on her cheek

That trickled from her eye

Marie is only six years old, information, please

Try to put me through to her in Memphis, Tennessee

We sang along to that song in my family, in my youth, on taco nights and long drives through mountain passes. It was a taco night at my apartment this weekend, which may be why I reached for that record shortly before learning he’d died.

There’s no spooky coincidence about it. We play Chuck Berry all the time, for the same reason my parents did, for the same reason I hope my son might play it for his kids: because we love it, and because so much of what we love, musically and otherwise, springs from it.

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