Though he came to be known as the poet laureate of teendom, he was an adult by his grand 1955 entrance – a married man with two daughters, a former teen felon with an armed robbery conviction and three years of jail time on his rap sheet.
Working the clubs around his hometown of St. Louis, he had learned all he needed to know about the guitar. He fused commercial black music’s main tributaries, drawing from swing (via Benny Goodman’s guitarist Charlie Christian), R&B (borrowing from Louis Jordan’s lead player Carl Hogan) and blues (copping the single-string style of T-Bone Walker). He also adopted some stage moves from the flamboyant showman Walker, who sank into a split as he soloed.
From its raucous klaxon intro, “Maybellene” announced where it was coming from, and where popular music was headed. Unlike the piano-pounding Fats Domino and Little Richard numbers that crossed over to the pop charts around the same time, Berry’s hit was driven by bold, high-watt guitar power. Essential as they were to his sound, Johnnie Johnson’s piano lines brought up the rear.
Berry’s genre-melding car chase tale was derived from a country two-step, “Ida Red,” waxed by Western swing star Bob Wills in 1938. It introduced his compositional hallmarks: sharp narrative detail and witty phrase-making. In its opening verse, the portmanteau word “motorvatin’” offered a startling first clue that a writer of rich, of-the-moment humor was making his bow.
Pushed by Berry’s aptly motor-mouthed yet mellifluous vocals, “Maybellene” delivered a previously unseen figure – rock ‘n’ roll’s first triple-threat all-electric singer-songwriter-instrumentalist.
After the single topped the R&B chart for 11 weeks and crossed to No. 5 on the pop chart, Berry and his label Chess Records appeared uncertain about where to go next. Follow-up 45s were grown-up fare: the blues “Wee Wee Hours” and the wry “No Money Down,” about buying a Cadillac on credit.
He regained his pop footing with 1956’s “Roll Over Beethoven,” first in an ongoing series of rock-celebrating tunes. In the following year’s “School Day,” a teen-centric narrative released when Berry was 30, the music — “Hail, hail, rock ‘n’ roll!” — became a liberating alternative to the oppression and drudgery of high school.
By the time the latter song reached No. 3 on the pop surveys, Berry was a movie star, the very image of the music. In 1956’s teensploitation opus “Rock, Rock, Rock!” he stormed the screen solo with Gibson in hand, bedecked in a gleaming white suit, bobbing his head, knocking his knees, duck-walking, proclaiming, “You can’t catch me!”
Many younger musicians tried to catch him, and succeeded after paying him explicit tribute: The Beatles recorded his anthems “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Rock and Roll Music” on their second and third albums, respectively, while the Rolling Stones covered his “Come On” as their first single.
But, even as they re-charted the course of rock ‘n’ roll on their own, they granted that they were tearing pages from the book Berry had so craftily and definitively written – the basic text of rock ‘n’ roll, drawn from disparate parts into something vibrantly new. No one would pen a better or more durable one.