I like Chuck Berry’s music well enough, but I’m hardly a fan. I never bought any of his records. I never attended any of his concerts. Yet I know enough about his pioneering role in the music industry to appreciate why he is hailed as “the father of rock ‘n’ roll.”
But, with all due respect to Elvis, I suspect Berry would rather be hailed as “the king” – not least because rock ‘n’ roll has nearly as many founding fathers as the United States, including Bill Haley, Sam Phillips, Little Richard, and Fats Domino.
All the same, in keeping with current trends, Berry’s death unleashed an outpouring of tweets from other famous people. Your appreciation of his significance is probably limited to their tweets, unless you’re someone like me who opted for traditional obits in the mainstream media.
But I’m not sure how much their tweets honor him. After all, there’s only so much one can say in 140 characters. Worse still, everyone – from Barack Obama to Mick Jagger, Bill Clinton to Bette Midler, Brian Wilson to Bootsy Collins, and Steven King to Arnold Schwarzenegger – sent tweets of condolences composed of platitudes that any twit could write.
I had a distinct sense of déjà vu reading their tweets, which flooded the mainstream media, masquerading as worthy tributes. Because, if I did not know better, I would’ve sworn I read the same platitudes, by the same people, when Bo Diddley died in 2008.
I suspect few of you even know who Bo Diddley was. But suffice it to know that if you like the music of Chuck Berry, Little Richard or BB King, you’re going to love Diddley’s.
Remarkably, like Diddley, Berry never won a Grammy for any of his pioneering songs. Therefore, he too could only point to being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and receiving a few Grammy lifetime achievement awards (for sticking around) as the highlights of his career.
Of course, many other notable performers never won a Grammy during their lifetime. They include Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix, and David Bowie – whose posthumous album “Blackstar” was, by far, his most successful, complete with four Grammy awards.
But what does it say about the music industry that the father of rock ‘n’ roll never won its highest honor? Frankly, it says that the artists he sired – from the Rolling Stones to Bruno Mars – are self-centered, self-serving, ungrateful bastards. Only this explains them honoring him in death in ways they never did in life.
On the other hand, when it came to the sex and drugs associated with rock ‘n’ roll, Bo didn’t know Diddley. Berry put him to shame.
Specifically, the scroll of Berry’s legacy includes both statutory rape and a drug raid. But he padded it with other rocker lore – including charges for armed robbery, tax evasion, and secretly filming dozens of women in a lavatory. He had a notoriously pugnacious temperament, which had him kicking backup musicians off stage and striking out at fellow headliners like Keith Richards.
No doubt, as mitigation in this respect, Berry would cite the fact that his long-suffering wife, Themetta, saw enough redeeming good in him to stick around for 68 years.
Awards and money
That said, I hope for his family’s sake that, just like Bowie, Berry enjoys greater success in death than he did in life. A Grammy or two for his upcoming album, “Chuck,” would do too.
So here’s to Berry’s mercenary spirit helping family members fight (White) producers and distributors for their fair share of the profits from this posthumous album. Which would be entirely consistent with the way he spent most his career fighting everyone – from concert promoters to radio stations – for his fair share from every stream of revenue he generated.
Anthony L. Hall is a Bahamian native with an international law practice in Washington, D.C. Read his columns and daily weblog at www.theipinionsjournal.com.