The world lost one of popular music’s most important and influential musical architects on Saturday, as Chuck Berry died at the age of 90. Berry’s profound lyrics, melodies, and guitar stylings are the very bedrock of all rock-influenced music made in the past six decades. Without the iconic St. Louis-born musician, the sounds coming out of your radio, streaming service, or record player would be profoundly different.
“If you tried to give rock and roll another name,” said John Lennon, “You might call it ‘Chuck Berry’.”
A virtuosic guitarist who brought a fiery, blues-laden sound to usher in a revolutionary musical era, Berry motivated musicians to think beyond the very basic song structures of early rock, pushing the genre to new heights with his songwriting.
While virtually all modern rock artists owe a debt of gratitude to Mr. Berry, below we’ve outlined five major acts — each universally influential musical pioneers in their own right — who drew directly (and heavily) from Chuck Berry’s music. Whether covering Berry outright, or simply synthesizing the sounds into their own take on musical concepts he pioneered, it’s not an exaggeration to say that each of these famed artists likely would never have made it big without Berry’s music to inspire them.
Perhaps the most famed Chuck Berry fan was The Beatles’ John Lennon, who drew heavily from his blues-laden sound, and had many kind words to say about Berry publicly. Over the course of his career with the Beatles, he and the other lads from Liverpool played over a dozen different Berry songs at live shows and on recordings, which helped the band eventually evolve their own original (and utterly iconic) take on the genre.
While Berry’s blues-rock influence is most obvious on earlier Beatles compositions like I Saw Her Standing There, even later songs like Back In The U.S.S.R. and 1969’s Come Together borrowed heavily from Berry’s lyrical influence.
The Rolling Stones
Growing up in a similar place and time as their oft rivals The Beatles, The Rolling Stones also owe Berry a debt of gratitude for his music, having recorded his song Come On as their first ever single, alongside numerous other songs he wrote in the following decades. In fact, Berry’s recordings were the reason the band’s iconic guitarist Keith Richards decided to pick up the instrument in the first place.
“I don’t even know if Chuck realizes what he did,” said Richards in a statement following Berry’s passing, “It was just such a total thing, a great sound, a great rhythm coming off the needle of all of Chuck’s records. It’s when I knew what I wanted to do.”
The Beach Boys
Like the Stones and the Beatles, the first recorded material from The Beach Boys’ seminal songwriter Brian Wilson bore unabashed Chuck Berry influence. In fact, Surfin’ USA, the Beach Boys’ first hit, was a reworked version of Berry’s song Sweet Little Sixteen with new lyrics penned by Wilson. It helped launch the career of the band that many critics consider to be among the most influential songwriters in pop music history.
Though he changed the lyrics to reflect surfing culture, Wilson kept the rapid-fire mention of American cities that existed in Sweet Little Sixteen, exchanging Berry’s Boston, MA and Pittsburgh, PA for Manhattan Beach, CA and Waimea Bay, HA.
An impressive songwriter in his own right, Elvis was a huge fan of Chuck Berry’s work, recording numerous hits written by Berry throughout his career, including Johnny B. Goode and Memphis, Tennessee. Apart from the songs themselves, the King also mixed Berry’s sharp new guitar-laden sound into his own music as soon as he encountered it.
In fact, Elvis liked Berry’s first hit — 1955’s Maybellene — so much when he first heard it, he immediately added it to his live repertoire. The respect went both ways, with Berry once calling Elvis, “The greatest who ever was, is, or ever will be.”
While you may not hear Berry’s influence in Dylan’s music as readily as the other bands on this list, the poetic lyricism that Chuck Berry brought to the world of rock music was of the utmost importance to Bob Dylan, who once called Berry “The Shakespeare of rock and roll.” That’s because, prior to Berry, most rock songs relied on simple and boring thematic structures.
“In the ’50s, when people were just singing virtually about nothing, he was writing social-comment songs,” said John Lennon, “He was writing all kinds of songs with incredible meter to the lyrics, which influenced Dylan and me and many other people.”
Though Dylan also relied on the works of classic American songwriters like Woody Guthrie for influence, he incorporated the clear and poetic lyrical delivery of Berry into much of his music. A good example of this can be found in Berry’s Too Much Monkey Business, which employs rapid-fire lyrics and a blues structure that is remarkably similar to Dylan’s later classic, Subterranean Homesick Blues.
Renowned songwriters like Bruce Springsteen, guitar legends like Jimi Hendrix, and even hard rock Gods like AC/DC were all heavily influenced by the music of Chuck Berry, each recording versions of Berry’s songs in their prolific careers. Suffice it to say that without Berry’s perfect word choice, his revolutionary guitar sound, and his blues-inspired chord structures, the world’s musical landscape would strike an entirely different sound. An inferior sound, in our book. To take a memorial musical journey with the great Chuck Berry and friends, follow our Spotify playlist below.