I would be embarrassed to be seen to offer up another me-too tribute - it's an activity I disapprove of. Private feelings are nicer and somehow more sincere when they remain private.
I am reminded by yesterday's news of the passing of Chuck Berry that - rather to my surprise, in the long run - he was a sort of hero of mine. Someone who made my life a little richer, in the influence he wielded as much as by his own work.
Already the media are wheeling out all sorts of has-beens from show business to make over-inflated utterances about pop music as Great Art, and all that. I really wouldn't know, and would hesitate to attempt an academic assessment.
Berry is especially significant for what he represents. A black man from St Louis, he began recording for Chess Records in the mid 1950s. Chess, bear in mind, were a specialist blues label who published artists like Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon and Bo Diddley - primarily for black audiences - and a worse fit than Berry with the accepted marketed image of the popular music world of the day is hard to imagine. The spending power of the record-buying teenager was a new phenomenon, and major record labels in the US were struggling to push coiffed, sterilised, parent-approved products such as Johnny Tillotson, Fabian and similar - white, acceptable to the church, not overtly masculine. He was surprisingly old, too - if I recall correctly, his first commercial success, Maybelline, was released in 1955, when he was 29. That is positively ancient.
He was not an admirable character, in many ways. He had spells in prison - notably for tax evasion and (once) for statutory rape (a charge which looks a bit like police entrapment, all these years later). He is famous for being difficult to deal with, complicated, devious. I read his autobiography some years ago and was disappointed - it wasn't a great read, overall, and he came across as an unusually self-obsessed character. I suspect that I wouldn't have warmed to the great man's company. I saw him once, live - he was excellent, a consummate showman, but he was accompanied by a disappointing English tour-band which did nothing for him at all.
There is a definite thread of racism through many of the bad breaks which he suffered - especially in the early years, though his combative personality cannot have helped. He came through a hard school. I read that in the dance-halls and the provincial theatres he got into the habit of threading his guitar lead through the handle of his guitar case before plugging into his amplifier - thus making it impossible for anyone to steal the case without the matter coming to his attention. He also would not play until someone put actual cash into his hand. Incongruously, he still insisted on these technical safeguards when he was appearing at the Paris Olympia - a quirk which is not without a certain rough charm.
It would be wrong to claim that his records were history-changers in their own right - famously, he was very fortunate in that his music impressed the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and the (white) rock bands that swept to power in the 1960s. Without that connection, Berry and a lot of his contemporaries would probably have disappeared without trace decades ago. This has all been much-discussed in the past - however it worked, it worked. I love him because of the unpretentious nature of the music (though he did tend to release thinly-disguised rehashes of his earlier successes), and his cute, street-poet lyrics, which offer an interesting social history of American youth.
This is getting close to a tribute, and I wouldn't want that.
Thanks, Chuck. That's really all I wanted to say.