John Caramanica writes in the NY Times:
“Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven” wasn’t the first rock ’n’ roll song, but it was the best and brashest of the genre’s early advertisements. Released in 1956, it opens with a nimble, bendy guitar riff — a prelude to the one that would be perfected a year later, on “Johnny B. Goode” — that serves as an intrusion and an enticement. Then Mr. Berry describes the fever, “the rockin’ pneumonia,” that was soon to grip the country.
“My heart beatin’ rhythm/And my soul keep-a singin’ the blues,” he sang. “Roll over Beethoven/And tell Tchaikovsky the news.”
Plenty of artists would go on to cover “Roll Over Beethoven” — the Beatles streamlined and sweetened it; Electric Light Orchestra distended it into an overlong, pompous shuffle with a snatch of the Fifth Symphony; Paul Shaffer and his band made a sleek version as the theme to the 1992 film “Beethoven,” about a St. Bernard with the composer’s name.
But those covers lacked the panache, the transgressive potential, the unexpected twists and turns of the Chuck Berry originals.
Mr. Berry, who died on Saturday at his home near St. Louis, was the first true rock ’n’ roll superstar. When in his late 20s he emerged from St. Louis onto the national scene, the genre wasn’t yet codified. In its infancy, rock was hybrid music, and Mr. Berry was its most vivid and imaginative alchemist.
From the mid-1950s through the end of that decade, he concocted a yowling blend of hopped-up blues, country and then-emergent rhythm & blues that ended up as the template for what became widely accepted as rock ’n’ roll (though the term predated his rise).”
Great musician, entertainer, and stage performer whose influence will continue as long as rock and roll is played!
I find it interesting how the “mainstream culture” eventually adopts and idolizes folks like Chuck Berry and Mohammad Ali. In their “heydays,” both were considered dangerous renegades, not cultural idols.
The largely white-driven mainstream America often tried to suppress and deny their achievements and even subjected them to prosecutions that looked more like persecutions. (Regardless of its morality, how many white Rock and Rollers have transported underage girls, and lots of other “illegal stuff,” across state lines for “immoral purposes,” do you think? How many were prosecuted — twice for the same crime in Berry’s case — and sent to prison?) In both Ali’s and Berry’s cases, their careers never completely recovered from their well-publicized legal problems.
Contrast this with the great “outlaw” country singer Johnny Cash (another of my personal favorites) who was “busted” seven times for misdemeanors (if he were an immigrant, he undoubtedly would have been characterized as a “dangerous repeat offender” not fit to live in America) but never spent more than one night in jail.
I have absolutely no difficulty with “mainstream America” recognizing folks like Berry and Ali for their amazing contributions to our world and adopting them as “folk heroes.” To me, it shows why the “cultural wars” being waged today by Trump and the GOP are ultimately doomed to failure.
But, it would be better if in posthumously recognizing great African Americans like Berry and Ali, all of us also acknowledged that contemporary society had it wrong about their contributions and probably treated them unfairly during their “prime of greatness.”