Of course, it’s Black History Month. History is my favorite subject. It’s what I major in. It’s what I plan to teach, and it’s my nerdy pleasure. So to celebrate BHM, I’m going to write a feature in Black American History each week (UPDATE: haven’t had Wi-Fi for a few days, so this first one will be Wednesday, the rest on Monday). We all learned in school about George Washington Carver, Harriet Tubman, MLK and Malcolm X. Although many of their stories have been whitewashed and made safe for elementary age children, they’re important figures nonetheless. But I want to focus on contributions people don’t always expect. Moments in history black people are not often given credit for, or that are more complex than on the surface:
Most will credit black people with Jazz, Blues, R&B, and of course Hip Hop. Innovative genres that all played into the next, a mirror of our history so to speak. Of course certain genres are acknowledged to be founded by other cultures in America. Nobody is rushing to credit us with Country music, although we are represented in that space in modern times. Most casual music fans chalk up the start of Rock N’ Roll to the wave begun by Elvis Presley in the 1950’s and 60’s. The logical end to the swing and miscellaneous dance crazes of the WWII generation spurred out of the Roaring Twenties. Music evolves with the times, so Elvis was just the next logical step for that genre, birthing Rock and Roll.
But that isn’t the whole story. Rock and Roll started before Elvis graced stages and melted the hearts of women. Before Elvis, was the inventor the duckwalk, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Member, and the first to put Rock music on wax, so to speak, Chuck Berry.
Charles Anderson Edward Berry was born in St. Louis in 1926. He served three years in prison from age 18-21. He was a father of four. He had a college educated mother, and a self-reliant carpenter for a father. Chuck Berry lived in a highly segregated community, in the south, in one of the most oppressive times in American History. These are the quick highlights. The facts you can find on Wikipedia really quickly. Down to the real story. How we ended up with Rock N’ Roll.
Playing jazz songs by guitar in the Sir John’s Trio in 1953, a band started by a high school friend, Jonnie Johnson. Playing in local nightclubs, Chuck gained a reputation for his lively performances and showmanship, while also mixing in upbeat country songs along with their jazz and pop set. This style of music, a black man performing traditionally white songs and putting on a show, attracted an increasingly segregated audience. With growing popularity, Chuck Berry began making trips to Chicago in order to attract the attention of record labels and eventually sign a contract. After meeting blues performer Muddy Waters, he was directed towards Chess Records. He presented the record label with his song Maybellene, signed a contract and recorded his eventual #1 hit on May 21, 1955. The first rock song was recorded and distributed.
Chuck Berry would go on to put out 18 studio albums, 45 singles (only one went #1, although many spent weeks on the charts), and was still performing as recently as 2014, at the age of 87. As described by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, “he played western guitar licks over a base of rhythm and blues. The distorted sound of Berry’s guitar captured the rough, untamed spirit of rock and roll.” While tame compared to today’s rock stars, without Berry’s foundation, The Rolling Stones and Beatles might have been singing bluegrass. A genre not often associated with the history of black people in this country, but an important figure in musical, and our history nonetheless.
*Duckwalk can be seen at 1:15 mark of video
“Elvis Presley ain’t got no soul, Chuck Berry is rock n’ roll, you may dig on the Rolling Stones but they ain’t come up with that style on their own.”
-Mos Def, Rock N’ Roll
**I own none of the photographs or videos linked in this post