Predictably, the rock n' roll community has been quick to pay homage to Chuck Berry since his recent passing, with stars such as Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger and Ringo Starr among those to issue public tributes. However, with almost equal predictability, the world at large remains relatively unaware of Berry's demise. Unlike his contemporary Elvis, or his successors such as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Beach Boys, the Missourian's fame has not lasted into his latter years. But even without realising it, music and society still show his influence.


In a modern world enlivened by Lady Gaga soaking herself in blood and Miley Cyrus publicly highlighting other performers' crotches, it may be difficult to see the big deal in Chuck Berry doing the splits or his trademark duck walk on stage. To consider his stage antics child play, though, would be akin to dismissing the achievements of the Wright brothers by comparing their plane to the latest British Airways jet. So much that we now come to expect in both music videos and live performances has grown from Berry's daring individuality.

Furthermore, we mustn't forget the difficulties that Berry faced, not only in front of an audience, but even walking down the street in 1950's America.

Having grown up in times of extreme racial tension, the audacity needed to put on such a spectacle in front of a white audience is something that few would have.

Race in music

Which brings us to the most significant aspect of Berry's lasting legacy: his eagerness to cross boundaries founded on race. Whereas blues giants such as Muddy Waters and T-Bone Walker were still playing predominantly for black audiences, while the country music of Chet Atkins and Merle Travis was mainly enjoyed by white listeners, Berry's bold move to fuse blues and country and target white audiences made him arguably the first of his kind.

Not only that, but it would make the genre he played such a crucial role in creating the first of its kind. Jazz came into existence as black music, before gaining popularity with white audiences and over time seeing white performers join the throng. Blues went in and out of style in black America before being reinvented in by white Britons a number of years later.

By contrast, classical music remained within European circles for centuries before some Americans began to have their say, and it has only been in far more recent times that a host of Asian performers and composers have taken their place at the top table. But rock n' roll brought different races together right from its beginnings, paving the way for so many other musical styles and forms of entertainment to do likewise. And while he is by no means the sole cause of this, Chuck Berry's contribution to both the birth of rock n' roll and to the comfortable coexistence of contrasting races cannot be denied.

So even if you have never listened to Johnny B. Goode, Roll Over Beethoven or Sweet Little Sixteen, it is almost certain that you have felt their writer's influence at some point in your life.

If you have enjoyed rock music in any of its now multiple forms, or marvelled at the spectacular feats of choreography now prevalent on stage and in video, or even enjoyed the same forms of entertainment as someone whose ethnic background and skin colour differs from your own, then you are experiencing the benefits of a modern society that Chuck Berry helped to shape.