Chuck Berry, 1926–2017

The Punk Meets The Godfather. Buffalo Tom guitarist Bill Janovitz meets Chuck Berry at the JFK Library in Boston, February 2012. The look on both their faces tells you pretty much everything you need to know about rock n roll.

Sometime in 1987, Green’s leader Jeff Lescher decided the band would cover “Brown Eyed Handsome Man.” Chuck Berry had fallen out of favor somewhat around then—a collection of sex mini-scandals and just the awfulness of the 80s reduced him to a Back to the Future joke—too uncool for an indie band.

Green had a long tradition of honoring and covering gigantic has-been songs and trying to wring new life from them—Elvis (20 Flight Rock), Everly Brothers (So Sad To Watch Good Love), Girl from Ipanema, If I Had a Hammer, etc. As Green’s bass player starting in 1986 when I was 17, I knew and understood so little about music then—I had almost no context or sense of history. I just knew I loved all those songs.

Lescher told me that he viewed Brown Eyed Handsome Man as Berry’s way of standing up for black people. You couldn’t say in a 50s pop song that “a whole lot of good women shed a tear” for a brown man, so Chuck Berry said “for a brown eyed handsome man.”

Actually, the lyrics to that whole song are unbelievably poignant and prescient. It starts with a guy “arrested on charges of unemployment” and then goes through a list of the indignities blacks have suffered, all within the 3-chord confines of a perfect origin-of-rock song. We did wring new life out of it — I remember the biker crowd at the Royal Albert Arms in Winnipeg going crazy for this one. 

In 2016, I saw Coldplay do Johnny B Goode with Michael J Fox and about once a year Bill Janovitz from Buffalo Tom has been digging out his photo of meeting Chuck Berry; the look of total awe on his face as he meets the godfather is just priceless.

The night that Berry died, I wandered into a neighborhood hangout to get hammered with some friends. We didn’t even know there’d be music. That’s almost always a disaster. Suddenly, the call from a guy whaling on a guitar and a drummer sitting next to him and one song after the next just perfect in its simplicity and energy and passion. I was zero surprised to learn that the guy from Coach n Commando turns out to be a huge Chuck Berry fan.

From Maybellene to jail to Winnipeg to Pino’s in Highland Park, NJ, these musical giants who have uplifted my soul my entire life—and who all seem to be dying right about now—I’m so grateful to them all. And to Jeff Lescher and my brother and others for pointing them out and making me take notice. Thank you Chuck Berry for elevating my existence since the moment I studied your riffs on my first “you too can play guitar” cassette.

Ken Kurson

Ken Kurson is the founder of the Globe suite of sites. He is also the founder of Green Magazine and greenmagazine.com and covered finance for Esquire magazine for almost 20 years. Ken is the author of several books, including the New York Times No. 1 bestseller Leadership, co-written with Rudy Giuliani.

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