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Thursday, March 24, 2022

March 24, 2022: Rock and Roll Groundbreakers: Chuck Berry and Little Richard

[On March 21st, 1952, Cleveland Arena hosted the Moondog Coronation Ball, an event widely considered the first major rock and roll concert. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that concert and other groundbreaking rock and roll figures and stories, leading up to a special weekend post on 21st century rockers carrying the legacies forward!]

On a pair of foundational icons whose stories represent some of the worst and best of rock and race.

Lists are a famously contested way to commemorate musical history, but also one of the most common ways to do so—and for both reasons I have no qualms about starting a post on Chuck Berry and Little Richard by noting that the pair of musical pioneers account for no less than nine of the top 27 rock and roll songs of the 1950s per this (I’m sure quite authoritative and impossible to dispute) list. And in truth, while that list and all lists might be made for good-natured disputes, there’s simply no arguing with the fact that we can’t narrate nor commemorate the origins of rock and roll without a central place for Charles Edward Anderson Berry (nicknamed the “Father of Rock and Roll”) and Richard Wayne Penniman (nicknamed “the architect of rock and roll”; a nickname perhaps bestowed by himself, but what’s more rock and roll than that?!). They’re far from the only ones, as I hope this week’s series has made clear—but at the same time, if I were to going to narrow it down to just two groundbreaking icons (there’s that list idea again), I think I’d have to go with Chuck and Richard.

While they have much in common, then, it’s fair to say that Chuck Berry and Little Richard’s respective stories and arcs diverged quite a bit, and not just in the ways that the careers and lives of any two distinct artists and individuals always would. After dominating the charts, airwaves, and rock tours throughout the mid- to late-50s and into the early 60s, Berry’s career took a precipitous decline in 1962 when he was charged and convicted under the Mann Act and sentenced to three years in prison, an arrest and sentence that I can’t help but believe were tied to the power structure’s racist fears of both Black sexuality and rock and roll’s cross-cultural influences on young (white) people. To be clear, it seems to be genuinely the case that Berry transported a minor with whom he was in a sexual relationship across state lines, making him legally culpable under the Mann Act; but I would note that just a few years earlier, in 1957, the white rocker Jerry Lee Lewis had famously married a 13 year old (and his cousin to boot) and was to my knowledge never charged nor arrested, and certainly never convicted nor jailed, for doing so. Moreover, after gradually rebuilding his career, in 1979 Berry was once again sentenced to jail for doing something that numerous artists have done and likely continue to do—getting paid in cash to avoid paying taxes.

While Little Richard was not without his share of criticisms and controversies—many also related to issues of sex and sexuality, since Richard was a truly groundbreaking artist who consistently crossed boundaries around those issues, dress and appearance, and many related layers of identity (although he also went through frustratingly regressive periods)—he avoided any such legal challenges and maintained his striking 1950s success throughout the subsequent 60+ years of his career and life. Moreover, Richard similarly and even more influentially crossed boundaries when it came to race and music, as exemplified not just by the constant covers of his works by white peers (including tomorrow’s subject Elvis Presley, who told Richard in 1969 that he was “the greatest”), but also by his influences on The Beatles—the group opened for Richard on some early 1960s tour dates, and Richard apparently taught Paul McCartney some of his vocalizations in the process. The history of rock and roll can’t be told without remembering the racism and double standards faced by artists like Chuck Berry—but at its heart I believe it’s a profoundly cross-cultural and boundary-crossing genre, and no one embodied those trends more than Little Richard.

Last rock and roll remembrance tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other rock and roll pioneers you’d highlight?

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