The two most important names in making 1955-1965 rock and roll the most popular music of the that era were Bill Haley, a Country & Western singer who performed the grand experiment of introducing white audiences to R&B; and Elvis Presley whose high-quality voice, singing style, good looks and sensual stage presence were a magnet for young folks. But, they didn’t invent anything. They were not song writers, visionaries or creators.
The four performers who “invented” rock and roll were Fats Domino (who sold more records in the 1950’s than anyone other than Elvis), Little Richard Penniman, Jerry Lee Lewis and, most importantly, Chuck Berry. He was the best music writer, most rhythmic, the best poet and best businessman of all six of the above.
First, he created a new rhythm. All pop dance music is based upon 4/4 time where the foundation of each measure is 4 pairs of 1/8 notes (hence the expression, “eight-to-the-bar”). Whether it be ragtime, swing, R&B, rockabilly, boogie-woogie, the 1/8 notes are played with a bounce, like dah-di-dah-di-dah-di-dah. The first (dah) of each pair of 1/8 notes lasts longer than the in between notes (di). It can last slightly longer (60/40 bounce) like R&B and boogie-woogie, twice as long (66/33 bounce) like swing music or much longer (75/25 bounce) like rockabilly. Jerry Lee brought the bounce down to 55/45 and Chuck made it an exactly even 50/50 (think of the guitar intro to Johnny B. Goode or Roll Over Beethoven. This was huge. It gave rock and roll a hard drive that swing, country or R&B didn’t have.
Second, he didn’t use a lot of “blue-notes” (flatted thirds and fifths) like the other, more bluesy forms of pop music. In fact, the melody of his songs can all be played using only the white keys of a piano, for instance. In that regard, his creations were more like country and western with a driving beat, than they were like R&B. This made rock and roll a money machine.
Third, his lyrics were about things all teenagers (particularly more affluent white kids) were interested in: 1950’s cars (of which Chuck had a collection), girls, juke boxes, dancing, school, etc. This was very important, because it was a departure from country, blues, R&B where the lyrics were about adult love, drinking, sex, work, etc.
Fourth, he came from an educated family and had a keen sense about how to make money. He stopped touring with his own bands, equipment and busses early on because of the unreliability of doped up or drunk musicians as well as the expense of transporting tons of equipment and feeding and lodging a group of bad behavers. Chuck asked for his performance money up front so he wouldn’t get stiffed like so many others. He carried his own Gibson ES-335 on the road, and that was it! He would hire local bands along the way, which usually consisted of the cities’ high school music department recommendations. I was one of those (drummers) in 1963 in Springfield, MA my senior year of high school. No rehearsal, just had to know all his songs by heart ahead of time. That night, while Bo Diddely opened, Chuck stood at the back of the auditorium to listen to the acoustics. He was a perfectionist for getting the sound right.
Chuck was the best. When he went on Carson at 61 years old with no rehearsal, the audience went nuts, standing, and he took up the whole hour and a half; and Carson’s other guests were sent home. I’m glad he made it to 90 and was still doing concerts in his 80’s, duck-walk, scoot, splits and all.