In one of his most famous songs, Berry told Beethoven to ‘roll over’ in his grave at the shocking new sound he was spearheading— and you might wonder whether he would have done. After all, if alien life-forms ever intercept the Voyager spacecraft and are somehow able to play the “golden record” which is contained onboard, they’ll be surprised to find one song which provides a rather jarring stylistic break from the classical music on the rest of the disc: Berry’s ‘Johnny B. Goode’ was selected in 1977 to represent rock music on behalf of the world.
The influence of Berry’s sound is proven by the fact that so many of his songs have been famously covered: ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ was even considered as a potential name of a band made up of four Liverpudlian lads, and while it wasn’t chosen the Beatles went on to cover Berry extensively, especially in their early career.
Indeed, for an artist who was so often covered himself, it is perhaps ironic that his only number one song in America was itself a cover: ‘My Ding-A-Ling’, a song whose double-entendre subject matter caused so much scandal and was the centre of a censorship battle. For a man whose liberating music marked the age of the teenager, Berry was certainly rebellious in spirit.
All this might seem remarkable in any case, but crucial to Berry’s legacy is his racial identity—a black man growing up under Jim Crow laws, he was sent to prison three times over his career, and under dubious circumstances—on one occasion he was jailed after being sighted kissing a white girl (and subsequently a mob formed) in 1959. Despite the system being rigged against him, Berry managed not only to break through to great success, but in doing so defied the racial politics a step forward. It’s worth noting that the teenage years of a generation of white Americans were soundtracked by a black man—an icon and an idol.
For the ages, apart from the inclusion of the Voyager, Berry’s longstanding legacy is best seen in his crucial role in two of the most iconic films of the late 20th century. In Back to the Future, Martin J. Fox’s Marty McFly plays what is surely the guitar riff, from ‘Johnny B. Goode’ for anyone learning guitar. In Pulp Fiction, as Vincent Vega and Mia Wallace take to the floor at Jack Rabbit Slim’s, it’s ‘Nobody Can Tell’ which plays as they start to boogie.
Clearly, Berry was one of the greats.