Now in its 17th year, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum's American Music Masters Series is an annual event that honors an inductee of some stature. The weeklong celebration includes a series of lectures, concerts, and films, culminating in a gala concert. This year's concert, which will acknowledge the life and music of early rock pioneer Chuck Berry, features Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees such as the Isley Brothers' Ernie Isley and Run DMC's Darryl DMC McDaniels, who'll perform Berry's music. Organizer Lauren Onkey, the Rock Hall's Vice President of Education and Public Programming, says Berry was a logical choice for the annual event.
"He's certainly somebody who could always be a candidate [for the American Music Masters program], and it's a matter of whose stories we've haven't told," she says. "He did an oral history for our Library and Archives last year. He played the opening concert and was at the groundbreaking. As I've been going into his catalogue, everyone says he's the father of rock 'n' roll, but we don't really understand what that means. He foregrounded the birth of rock 'n' roll by using that Gibson and holding it up and doing the duck walk. You hear the guitar first in his songs, and he did that. When the Brits pick up on that in the next generation, it solidifies that fact and it's how he used the instrument on record and in performance."
Onkey also says Berry's songwriting distinguishes him.
"He's one of the first rock songwriters," she says. "He comes out of the gate as a songwriter right from the beginning and creates this whole language and vocabulary and what it means to listen to rock 'n' roll. He has his own words and how he describes things. It's remarkable when you go back and dig into those lyrics."
Guitarist Rick Derringer, guitarist Joe Bonamassa, rockabilly star Ronnie Hawkins, country icon Merle Haggard, guitarist Vernon Reid, and singer-guitarist Ray Sharpe are just some of the other artists slated to play. The rest of the bill includes Duke Robillard, Rosie Flores, John Fullbright, David Johansen, Lemmy Kilmister, JD McPherson, Chuck Prophet, Earl Slick, and M. Ward. The 86-year-old Chuck Berry, who was inducted in 1986, will be on hand and is scheduled to perform. We called a few of the performers to find out what made them want to come to town to honor the man and his music, and here's what they had to say. Joe Bonamassa
I've never met Chuck Berry. My thing about doing this thing with the show is when they rang us up about the show at the State Theatre — which is a beautiful theater — I said, "Anywhere, anytime." He's the icon of rock 'n' roll and defines the genre. It really is a situation where it's living history. At any point of time in your playing as you're developing, you have to go through the Chuck Berry school to get to where you end up. His style is erratic and simple, but at the end of the day, the hardest thing to do with the guitar is to have your own DNA, and he has his own DNA and his own identifiable sound within two measures. There's only a handful of people who can say that. Back in the day when you used to rent VHS tapes of concerts, my father would have movie night on Saturday. The first feature film would be a random movie suitable for the whole family. It would be Goonies, or whatever. When my sister and mother would go to bed, my dad would come home with Selling England by the Pound or The Song Remains the Same or something. He came home with Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll, and I saw Chuck Berry and Eric Clapton play "Wee Wee Hours" and I decided this was the kind of stuff I wanted to be involved with. That was the kind of music I wanted to play. I couldn't have been more than six or seven years old. I've since gone back and watched the film. In a weird twist of fate, I'm playing the Fox Theatre [in St. Louis] on my own a few weeks after Cleveland. It all comes full circle. The only way I was hip to the Fox and the history there was from watching that movie. The iconic tunes are "Roll Over Beethoven" and "Johnny B. Goode" and the more upbeat stuff, but the ballads were extraordinarily bluesy and beautiful. He was a great lyricist. In the context of simple music, it's tough to come up with meaningful lyrics that cut through. A lot of that comes into the ballads. You hear a lot of Nat King Cole in that. You can hear some Sinatra, but in the context of something edgier and simpler.
As a little kid, I heard his music. I remember first hearing the signature riff of "Johnny B. Goode." I had just turned six years old and I would have been living in Cincinnati. I was struck by the immediacy of the song and the lyric was plain and straightforward. The narrator speaks to anyone who loves the guitar and wants to play it, whether they can play it or not. The chorus. Who does not understand "Go Johnny go"? You can be on your tricycle pedaling and you understand that. That song is obviously inspiring. It certainly speaks to the hopes and dreams of would-be musicians. I was not a musician then. The first instrument I went to was drums. For myself to start playing guitar, it was not too long after I heard "Johnny B. Goode." Anybody who plays guitar and says they haven't played his music is not being honest. It's like having a postage stamp. Have you ever had a Coca Cola? Then you played Chuck Berry. Have you ever had a hot dog? Then you played Chuck Berry. That's a rite of passage. The thing that's so great is when you do it for the first time, it's like you're playing rock 'n' roll. Chuck Berry has always been rock 'n' roll. He's never been anything but rock 'n' roll. He laid the foundation. He has a very friendly name. Both names. He can very easily be an animated cartoon character with that name and not physically exist. Music is a great communicator, and when you're doing something musical that touches people, how tall or short you are doesn't matter. If you do what you do and it's done where it touches a nerve, none of that other stuff matters. That's the marvelous thing. John Lennon said, "If you tried to give rock 'n' roll another name, you might call it 'Chuck Berry.'" That's the truth. He's certainly one of the founding fathers and belongs on the Mount Rushmore of rock 'n' roll heroes.
Darryl "DMC" McDaniels
It's very funny. My first introduction to Chuck Berry was an introduction that I didn't find out about until later. I heard his song "My Ding A Ling." When I first heard it, it wasn't the original. Somebody had done a parody or a jingle version. It was raunchy. I was older when I found out that it was him. I was probably 11 or 12 when I first heard it and it wasn't until I was 25 or 26, that I realized, "Oh shit. That's a real song." Before I got into hip-hop, his name was synonymous with rock 'n' roll. What I mean by that is if it was a rhythm and blues artist like Earth, Wind and Fire, Con Funk Shun, or George Clinton or any of those people from my generation, to them it wasn't Elvis. To them, it was Chuck Berry. Later on, as I started hearing more interviews of Steven Tyler and Joe Perry and John Lennon and Paul McCartney and Keith Richards and Mick Jagger and Led Zeppelin, it was always Chuck Berry. It all fell back to Chuck Berry. He had his one-legged hop thing and even the break dancers said that Chuck Berry hopping across the stage was a big influence to them. His influence was there and I didn't know it was there. "Maybellene," "Johnny B. Goode," and "School Days" were such an influence. His influence is in every genre from country to hip-hop and rock 'n' roll. Everything falls back to Chuck Berry. You would think if you look in the dictionary for rock 'n' roll that you'll see Elvis. I disagree with that. You'll see Chuck Berry.
The thing about Chuck Berry is that I grew up listening to AM radio. Occasionally, they would play one of his big, big songs. Those jocks that I heard as a child in the '60s were also jocks that were in the '50s. They would occasionally throw in a Chuck Berry song. I remember hearing "Maybellene." "Maybellene" is one of those tunes that's played continually in my head my entire life. I could probably have an ear worm Top 40 — a piece of music that I heard one time that has been in some kind of rotation my entire life. I enjoy hearing it on the radio. I don't have to hear it because "Maybellene, why can't you be true" is part of my personal internal soundtrack. I don't know what that is. It's one of those weird connecting things. I would say there are four things that make him incredibly important. He was a songwriter and one of the first outside of the blues people, even though his music is essentially blues. But he used the backbeat and didn't use shuffles that much. He was a direct bridge between the blues and R&B rock. The second thing is his accomplishments as a guitarist. He literally changed the role of rhythm guitar. A lot of what he did were boogies and things like that. As a lead and rhythm guitarist, he was redefining the style. He took a lot of what Johnny Johnson did and added it to the guitar. You could hear T-Bone Walker's influence, but he took another direction with it. He's one of the greatest guitarists. Third thing is that he literally popularized rock n' roll. A great number of his songs are about rock 'n' roll itself, which is kind of fascinating. He literally was one of the real architects. He and Jerry [Lee Lewis] and Fats [Domino] and Little Richard. The fourth thing is him as a vocalist. He's one of the great voices. He was a storyteller in his voice. It's not as outlandishly operatic as Little Richard. [Richard] is the greatest rock 'n' roll vocalist, but Chuck Berry was able to tell a story in a song like "Too Much Monkey Business" or "No Particular Place to Go." He just told these stories, and he was able to tell them because of the voice he delivered those stories in. it was captivating.
With Chuck, I heard that stuff on the radio when I was a kid. The Stones' first three records were practically all Chuck covers, and that reintroduced me to Chuck. I was 13 years old and buying Chuck Berry's albums because of the Stones. The Beatles did some of his songs, and the Stones did a ton. That was my introduction to Chuck, hearing it on the radio as a little kid and hearing Elvis and all that stuff. When the Brits came in and reintroduced our own music back to us, I did study Chuck. One of my favorite songs was "Down the Road a Piece," and I liked "I'm Talking About You." I also learned to play "Johnny B. Goode." It came naturally and wasn't all that difficult, especially because the opening lick for every song is almost the same. "Roll Over Beethoven" is the hardest one to play because that's a little more intricate. "Oh Carol" is one of my favorite tunes of ever. The root of everything is Chuck. He's got that feel and that rhythm style. It was so prevalent all the way through the '50s, '60s, '70s and '80s, when people played rhythm guitar, which they don't do anymore. Even the Beach Boys took "Sweet Little Sixteen" and turned it into "Surfin' U.S.A." The influences go far and wide. It's that pure rock 'n' roll gut feel. It's what drives everything.