The Great Twenty-Eight


This is it, the Big Bang. Chuck Berry’s music was part jump blues, part R&B, part country and a tiny bit of jazz; you can hear the influence of Nat “King” Cole, Muddy Waters, Louis Jordan and T-Bone Walker, but it was his urbane-hillbilly personality and his wily lyrical brilliance that changed the world. “Too Much Monkey Business,” “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man,” “Maybellene,” “Thirty Days,” and “You Can’t Catch Me,” among others, were witty broadsides from a keen observer of American life, and when he began to aim explicitly at the teenage market with “School Day,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Johnny B. Goode,” and more, he created a global audience that was conscious of itself, which is how gods are made. What’s astonishing, nearly 70 years later, is how much bite this music has. Backed by pianist Johnnie Johnson, bassist Willie Dixon, and various drummers, Berry’s bluesy guitar leads slash at the listener like a switchblade. (Berry-indebted punk rock guitarists like Billy Zoom and Steve Jones actually sound cleaner than the man himself.) This is immortal music; it’ll leave you giddy and gaping at its power the first time you hear it, and the thousandth.

Phil Freeman

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