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Berry’s Overseas Influence Led to Changes in Rock Back Home
The death of Chuck Berry brought back a myriad of teen music memories from deep in the last century – and looking back, to the role of Black music in the 1960s integration revolution that swept this country.
Personal anecdotal recollections are perhaps a shaky foundation for such musings, but I am reminded of visits to Oxford, Miss., in the early 1950s. My cousins tuned their car radios to Black stations to listen to what they called “N….. music.”(That word, for those of you who know of it only through its richly deserved exile from today’s vocabulary, was casually used back then – particularly in the South.)
I heard somebody named Bo Diddley pound out “I got a baby that’s oh so pretty…” to a throbbing drum and maraca background that was the most exciting rhythm I had ever heard (think “Willie and the Hand Jive”). Bo Diddley, Howlin’ Wolf, and other Black musicians were building a whole new genre out of the blues tradition, richly modified by the new potential of the electric guitar. They gave birth to a music so powerful that it would in short order push past the white-dominated playlists of 20th century AM radio and record merchandising.
But at first, in the ‘50s, it was segregated music, appreciated by young people in locales with Black radio stations, but largely unknown elsewhere in the country – like New Mexico.
Then a journeyman all-white band, Bill Haley and the Comets (“Rock Around the Clock, 1953”), thrust the style onto the national stage. Thereafter, the new music would not be repressed.
Enter Chuck Berry (“Roll Over Beethoven, 1956) with his driving rhythm, slashing guitar licks and storyline lyrics. I hadn’t really thought about it until the Chuck Berry obituaries pointed it out, but he was an early innovator in trademark guitar licks over the backbeat tempo of rock n’ roll – a part of the music that eventually evolved into the standard of excellence in the genre (Think Eric Clapton, Greg Allman, Jimi Hendrix, etc.).
To young fans, the color line was irrelevant in the appreciation of leading musicians – indeed it was Black musicians topping most lists. The pop music industry was quick to embrace the profit potential.
But the broader institutional racism didn’t give way as easily. Black musicians such as Fats Domino would speak wryly of packing the concert venues with eager white fans – but not being allowed to stay in the segregated hotels nearby. But their domination of the pop music scene was ubiquitous.
The full measure of overdue appreciation of America’s Black rock music heritage ultimately came from overseas – with the British Invasion of the 1960s. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Dave Clark Five, Herman’s Hermits and all the other English groups swept in and quickly dominated the American Top 40 charts. The giants among them spoke reverently of their early musical education listening to recordings by the ‘50s American artists. It was credit respectfully given by the disciples from abroad – continuation by emulation.
This pop music revolution didn’t set the stage for Dr. Martin Luther King or the march on Selma, to be sure – but it nurtured a scene of cultural equality in the pop music world, as white teenagers reached across old racial barriers to embrace their music idols, and the old rigidity of segregation frayed at the edges.
“Hail, Hail Rock and Roll, deliver me from the days of old,” wrote Chuck Berry in his 1957 hit “School Days.”
Amen, Brother – but the job isn’t yet finished.