Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Chuck Berry Is 85

The fact that Chuck Berry has lived to his 85th birthday is a significant milestone, one that many of us feared he might not reach not too long ago.

Earlier this year, it was reported that Berry had collapsed at a New Year's show in Chicago. Thankfully, he seems to have rebounded.

There doesn't seem to be any real agreement on how rock 'n' roll came to be. About the only thing on which there does seem to be agreement is the idea that it originated in the South in what can only be described as a convergence of several musical styles — blues, country, jazz, gospel, folk, swing — that evolved into rock 'n' roll.

Because it was such an evolutionary kind of thing, it's been tough for music historians to pinpoint when the phrase "rock 'n' roll" was first applied to music. It was apparently used in the early part of the 20th century to describe both the fervor of the religious faithful and the ecstacy of a sexual encounter.

But the phrase caught on — in a musical sense — in the 1950s. Some people credit Bill Haley and the Comets and "Rock Around the Clock." Others say Elvis Presley or Jerry Lee Lewis or Little Richard deserve the credit.

They're all rock 'n' roll legends and all equally deserving of recognition, but I say Berry is as worthy as any, and "Johnny B Goode" is as good a demarcation point as you will find. It may be Berry's most recognizable song. It's bound to be the Berry song that has been covered the most, from Elvis, Bill Haley, Buddy Holly and the others to Michael J. Fox in "Back to the Future."

If anything is absolutely certain, it is that rock 'n' roll has been around for a long time, so long that dictionaries don't agree on its definition.

Some dictionaries will tell you that "rock 'n' roll" is synonymous with "rock music" while others will say that rock 'n' roll preceded rock music and is a different genre, even though the two have many things in common.

I doubt that such distinctions have ever really mattered to Berry. As Bobby Gillespie wrote in The Guardian last year, "Berry started the global psychic jailbreak that is rock 'n' roll," but I suspect that, if asked, Berry would tell you that what has always mattered to him was whether the music sounded good, whether it made the listeners move their feet — and the rest of their bodies — and sing along (even if, like me, they have no real talent for singing).

And that, I suppose, tells you all you really need to know.

Rock 'n' roll is as much a state of mind as a state of being. It is at the heart of being young and thinking young.

It is why, at the age of 85, Chuck Berry is still singing and playing for audiences.

Happy birthday, Chuck, and many more.