Chuck Berry Drew Influences From Musical Melting Pot | WGLT

Chuck Berry Drew Influences From Musical Melting Pot

Apr 5, 2017

The man credited with helping to create rock 'n' roll will be remembered during a public memorial on Sunday, April 9, in St. Louis. Chuck Berry died on March 18 at the age of 90.

Illinois State University English Professor Bill McBride has taught and written about Chuck Berry and he's is a regular guest on Sound Ideas to talk about American culture. He said Berry came from a musical household. The family owned a piano, his father was a baptist preacher, and both his father and mother sang in the church.

"He had a Philco radio and he got in trouble because he would always be in the back of it trying to figure out where that noise was coming from," said McBride. "He was tearing it apart!"

On that radio, Berry listened to Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller and later in life would say he always wanted to swing like Benny. Berry's music grew from a time when country, blues, and early rock 'n' roll all shared some similar traits. 

"It gets slippery, the origins of things, the horizon of when actual rock and roll happened," said McBride. 

In this Oct. 17, 1986 file photo, Chuck Berry performs during a concert celebration for his 60th birthday at the Fox Theatre in St. Louis, Mo.
Credit James A. Finley / AP Photo

Berry's first hit in 1955, Maybellene, was a reinterpretation of Bob Willis and the Country Playboy's version of Ida Red, something Berry heard on the radio. McBride says the similarities are easy to hear. And so are the differences, that separate Maybellene as rock 'n' roll, such as loud guitar and lyrics about sex and cars. 

"Let's say 1949 is a crucial year when "Catcher in the Rye" comes out and "Death of a Salesman" where you get these two main characters who are young and part of this culture," said McBride. "Youth culture is sort of invented and Chuck is right there and cashes in on that."

While lyrics about sex pushed Berry to prominence, sexual misconduct is also part of what tarnishes his position in history.  He was jailed in 1961 for an alleged relationship with a 14-year-old girl and settled out of court for more than $1 million dollars with employees of his restaurant after cameras were found in the women's bathroom.

McBride admits Berry "is no saint," but when it comes to music and his influence on American culture "he's the man." 

WGLT depends on financial support from users to bring you stories and interviews like this one. As someone who values experienced, knowledgeable, and award-winning journalists covering meaningful stories in central Illinois, please consider making a contribution.