Been gone for a while, but now I'm back with a post about Elvis Presley, the King of Rock & Roll, and Chuck Berry, the rocker who probably deserves the title more than Elvis. What Elvis Presley did for rock & roll was create a new image with his incredible stage presence, his swinging hips, his eccentric outfits, his handsome looks, and his melodramatic voice. This is not to say that Elvis was all about image and his songs were bad. Quite the contrary. His image just spread his popularity and therefore spread his quality music. His first national hit “Heartbreak Hotel” has become a rock & roll standard with his rockabilly guitar playing and a bluesy piano accompanying him in the background. The subject matter is also rather gloomy, being based on a suicide that was reported in the news. The report included a suicide letter that said, “I walk a lonely street.” And so the song's lyricists envisioned a hotel for the lonely and the broken hearted, and thus “Heartbreak Hotel” was written.
Whereas Elvis Presley established an image for rock, Chuck Berry established the sound with his revolutionary guitar playing and his simplistic yet catchy song-writing. He created new standards for the genre that caught on in both the U.S. and England. It could be said that if there were no Chuck Berry, there would be no Beach Boys, Beatles, or Rolling Stones. Heck, the Beach Boys even used the intro riff from Berry's smash “Johnny B. Goode” for their own song “Fun, Fun, Fun”. Listen to the beginning of each song to just hear the similarities. Brian Wilson, the creative brains behind the Beach Boys, once said, “[Chuck Berry] wrote all of the great songs and came up with all the rock 'n roll beats.” You can tell Chuck Berry also had a great influence on the Rolling Stones seeing “Johnny B. Goode” was the first rock & roll song that Keith Richards, their guitarist, ever heard. And the Beatles covered a couple of Chuck Berry's songs over their career, such as “Rock And Roll Music” and “Roll Over
Beethoven”. Even their famous song “Back in the U.S.S.R.” from The White Album was based on a Chuck Berry song called “Back in the U.S.A.”
Some wonder why Elvis Presley is considered the King of Rock & Roll and Chuck Berry is not since Berry obviously had a bigger influence on the genre. Part of it was due to the racism of the time. Before rock & roll had really been established as a genre, kids would go out and buy rhythm & blues albums, which were primarily made by black artists. For the most part, white kids had to buy these without their parents' knowledge because a lot white parents didn't want their kids listening to that dirty, black R&B. Once old-school R&B branched off into rock & roll and grew in popularity, Sun Records started looking for a white guy with a black voice and bodily rhythm: the ultimate moneymaker. They found what they were looking for in Elvis Presley. He was everything that the public liked about black music in a white man. Now I don't mean to sound like I'm demonizing Elvis. He was a quality rocker, no doubt. But there were definitely some racial issues involved in his signing to Sun Records, his first label. If Chuck Berry were white then he may have been more popular and might be proclaimed the King of Rock instead of Elivs, but he was black and was therefore the subject of the racial profiling of the day. I don't think Berry will be given the title anytime soon because of Elvis's well-established popularity that is still embedded in our society. I don't even think it's that big a deal; it's just semantics. And most people know about Berry's contributions to rock & roll, so it all works out.