Roll Over Beethoven: Chuck Berry’s Imprint on Rock and Roll
by Wes Hutchinson, Freelance Music Producer
You know, my temperature’s risin’
And the jukebox blows a fuse
My heart’s beatin’ rhythm
And my soul keeps on singin’ the blues
Roll over Beethoven and tell Tchaikovsky the news
–Chuck Berry, “Roll Over Beethoven”
I wasn’t much for Chuck Berry’s guitar playing growing up because I was unaware of the origin of the music I loved. I grew up learning guitar in the grunge era, when Seattle rock bands were redefining the pop charts with their sluggish D-tuned blues rock riffs, which I thought were so cool.
Concurrently, I recorded ‘Get the Led Out’ every Sunday night to a cassette tape when 96 Wave, my local radio station, played hours of continuous Led Zeppelin. These nights listening intently to the radio inspired me to reach deeper, and find music from decades past. I realized that these Seattle bands were borrowing cues from Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Rolling Stones, Bowie, T-Rex, etc. It didn’t make me like them less, but I realized that it was up to me to find the ‘music that inspired the music.’ As musicians and writers, we continually dig deeper into the constructs of rock and roll ancestry where we seek to discover its roots in the truest form. Thus, as I grew, I found my interests moving even deeper into iconic pioneering artists like Dylan, Elvis, Little Richard, Ray Charles, and of course, Chuck Berry.
But by this time I had transitioned to being less of a riffs-man and more of a songwriter. I was now immersed in lyrics, melody and storytelling. I wanted to know who wrote the song, what inspired them, and the magic behind how it was created. I liked Chuck Berry, but to be honest, I didn’t go out and buy every Chess Record of his. Still, every time I listened to songs like “Maybelline,” and heard his fingers bend those strings into a symphony of electrifying riffs, I somehow understood how he defined rock and roll — and where it came from. It was raw, it had swagger. But what resonated was his ability to tell a story with his lyrics. When you listened — really listened — to it, it was as if he was telling you about something he had lived. The storytelling came across as truthful, with an almost folk/country energy to its delivery. He was every character, or could have been in all of his lyrics. (He wrote all of the lyrics to boot!) So along with the wild electrified riffs and knee-knocking swagger he brought to his performances, he actually wrote the melody and lyrics that would set a standard for generations of artists to come. He taught us how to be the whole rock and roll package. He could do it all — and so could you.
One of my favorite lyrics from Berry is “Roll Over Beethoven and tell Tchaikovsky the news,” which summed up what he was bringing to the world of music — the no holds barred rebellion of rock and roll. It was something that immediately redefined our culture, maybe in the same way Beethoven or Tchaikovsky did in their time. Rock and roll ran through every strand of his musical DNA, so when John Lennon said “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry,’” he couldn’t have been more spot on.
I still dig deep for music I haven’t heard, both current and past. But whenever I hear any guitar riff or great lyrical storytelling, I have to think there’s a little bit of Chuck Berry living in it.
Chuck Berry, ahead of his time…
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