This month, we lost a musical legend and true cultural pioneer, Chuck Berry. (Not to be confused with that other cultural pioneer, Gong Show host Chuck Barris, whom we also lost. Man, what a rough month we had.)
Most of us know that Berry was a big deal in rock music, and we’re familiar with his major hits. But most of us weren’t around when he first hit the charts in 1955, so it’s difficult for us latecomers to put his career and cultural influence into the proper perspective. We can never really know what it was like to hear Berry at the birth of his career—or the birth of a new art form.
But we can imagine what it was like. So let’s do that. Imagine you’re a typical American baby boomer in 1955. You’re a kid living in a largely buttoned-down culture that prizes conformity, propriety and respect. And virtually all the popular music of the day is targeted at your parents, especially if you’re white.
As proof, let’s look at the artists who dominated the charts in 1954: Eddie Fisher. Doris Day. Perry Como. Rosemary Clooney. Eddie Fisher again. In other words, elevator music on parade. Even if you were the most eager-to-please preteen of the day, you probably weren’t tapping your toes to Fisher’s hit single, “Oh! My Pa-pa.”
Now, just one short year later, Bill Haley and his Comets have released “Rock Around the Clock” and your world has cracked open. But Bill isn’t alone on the charts. Chuck Berry is right there with him, begging Maybellene to tell him why she can’t be true.
Suddenly, at the exact moment in your life when music means the most to you, music has changed completely. The people singing it aren’t mature, mellow crooners. They’re young and full of energy, just like you. Their music is literally charged with electricity, their lyrics bursting with sexual subtext just as your hormones are about to kick into overdrive. They’re not talking to your parents, they’re talking to you.
And…let’s not gloss over this point…some of them, like this Chuck Berry fellow, are black performers, playing to an audience of white kids. This in a country where, just one year ago, “separate but equal” was the law of the land.
Is it any wonder your head is spinning? Is it any wonder your parents are freaking out? Just by listening to this Berry guy, you’re breaking every social taboo in the book. And you LOVE it.
But if you think you’re brave to risk your dad’s wrath by sneaking a 45 of Maybellene into the house, imagine how brave Chuck must be. He’s a black man in a white man’s world, openly encouraging suburban kids to revolt with loud music and crude, suggestive lyrics, daring to call it art and demanding respect as an artist.
And he pulled it off.
1955 saw the birth of the most explosive musical revolution our society has ever seen. And Chuck Berry was right there at the tip of the spear. We may never know what it was like to live through that moment. But we can sure as hell respect the man who helped make it happen.