He was rock and roll.
Listen to him; listen to his clear, aggressively pleasant, and eminently modern voice, then listen to what he's saying in the songs he wrote. He was a black American born in Missouri, who wrote convincingly about a teenage world that white kids thought was their own - and managed to sneak himself into those songs, a brown eyed handsome man, rounding third and heading for home, subverting everything about the straitened world he wanted to break free of, turning himself into the star.
Listen to that guitar. Rock critic Greg Kot says Berry built his sound on a country base, with blues on top and ramped up rhythm turning it into something new. I like that description. I think it's probably as close as anyone might get in words to describing what came out of his guitar and his throat. And yes, let's acknowledge that he couldn't have done it without Johnnie Johnson's piano, half-pounding, half-trilling, in the background. But it was Berry who blazed, and everyone who came after - Keith Richards, John Lennon (who said that if you wanted to give another name to rock and roll, you could call it Chuck Berry) - wanted a bit of that fire.
Don't just listen to him, though. Watch him - not the duck walk, even though that's a lot less goofy than you'd think, but that wide-legged stance he'd take, sliding to earth while looking at the audience with one eyebrow raised, knowing they couldn't resist watching him, probably knowing he scared the hell out of all the white men in that 1958 audience, then hopping back up, all the while pulling, plucking and clipping at the strings of his guitar and making sounds that would have made Charlie Christian's jaw drop. Look at his face, covered in sweat and alive, never at rest, always seeking out the people watching him, always urging them to pay attention to him and nothing else - that's rock and roll.
He never really broke free of the walls of American racism. His first visit to prison was, I think, purely because he tried, because he was that brown eyed handsome man who dared to say he wanted to go with who he wanted to go with when he wanted to. Mann act, my ass. And like a lot of us humans who don't have the strength to rise above what we are afflicted with, he got bitter. The better angels of his nature stayed in his music, but had a hard time staying in his heart. Put less floridly, he could be a selfish, suspicious dick. And his last go-round with the law, hidden camera and all, reminded us that he was, at the least, creepy about sex and probably deserved a punch in the nose, or some other extreme gender consciousness raising.
And yet, something in his soul never quite died; never quite got completely bitter or completely creepy. He still was able to love, and he still played incendiary rock and roll because he loved it.
Hail, hail, rock and roll. Heaven just got a lot cooler.
Here's a raw and live version of his first hit. I could just erase everything I wrote about his performances and point you to this.
Here's a reminder that his genius wasn't just in ramped up rhythms. Much as I love almost everything of his that I've heard. This is probably my favorite Chuck Berry song.