CHUCK BERRY (born 1926) rightfully wears his crown as a duck-walking, guitar-playing genius and avatar of early rock and roll, but his brilliance as a lyricist is wildly under-appreciated. (I know what some of you are thinking, so let’s get it out of the way: Berry did not write the puerile “My Ding-a-Ling,” his only number-one hit.) At their best, Berry’s words — like all great lyrics — fit emotive, supple stories into the short, rhythmic space that is a song. Buddy Holly’s “Peggy Sue,” for example, doesn’t actually have a lot to say. Don’t get me wrong; I love the song, and Holly puts over the simple, repetitive words with a bang. On the other hand, Berry’s “Memphis, Tennessee” tells a bittersweet story of lost love and has a twist at the end worthy of O. Henry, not to mention evocative details like “my uncle took the message and wrote it on the wall.” Other favorites include “No Particular Place to Go” (rhyming “calaboose” with “belt too loose,” and “holding a grudge” with “for the safety belt that wouldn’t budge”), “You Never Can Tell” (all of it, but especially the “two-room Roebuck sale” and the “coolerator… crammed with TV dinners and ginger ale”), and “Nadine” (“I was campaign-shouting like a Southern diplomat”). Maybe it’s because we don’t expect a lot from those early rockers, other than boppin’ shoes and tears in one’s malted, that Berry’s little masterpieces surprise. Forget three-minute fiction; a three-minute song has fewer words and every one of them counts.
READ MORE about members of the Postmodernist Generation (1924-33).