Chuck Berry died over the weekend at the age of 90. He left behind not only some of the most iconic songs in rock 'n' roll, but a sonic basis for those who came up behind him. His simple directness and riff-centric guitarwork have been hugely influential.
It's interesting to think about Berry's career. In his early days, he almost single-handedly created the sound of early rock 'n' roll — before The Beatles mashed it together with pop (for better or worse), before The Rolling Stones pulled out more of its blues influence, before Bob Dylan brought it all to full bloom. Without Berry's influence, we just wouldn't have a huge portion of popular culture. And yet, he was passed, relatively quickly, by those coming after him, and for much of the rest of his life he was all but ignored while those who followed him and built on the foundation he laid reaped more benefits than he did. Certainly, there was respect from those artists, and royalties from the Berry covers recorded by a legion of artists, but neither the public nor the record industry seemed to hold him the same esteem.
It's not uncommon for an artist who's there at the beginning of a movement or genre to be dwarfed in success and acclaim by those who innovate on top of the foundation laid by the former. He rose to prominence in the 1950s, and as with many blues artists, Berry benefited from rock acts (particularly those from the UK) covering his material in the '60s, but he kept playing and touring for decades after that. I guess it's not unusual for a music artist to only have a brief window of fame, whether cut short by death (Jimi Hendrix, Janice Joplin, Otis Redding, etc.) or simply age. Maybe it's unfair to compare every artist to the outliers like Dylan, Miles Davis, or David Bowie, who manage to reinvent themselves continually over the course of many decades. I don't know. I wonder how Berry felt about it all.
An idiosyncrasy I find fascinating is that Berry would tour by himself, having a different local band play behind him at each new venue. Bruce Springsteen relates a story about backing Berry in the 1970s — he and the band were at the venue, waiting for Berry to show up. The concert's start time approached, with no sign of Berry. They didn't have a setlist, nor had they practiced with or even met Berry. Finally, just a few minutes before showtime, in came Berry by himself, carrying his guitar. The band asked what songs they were going to play. Berry's reply was, "We're playing Chuck Berry songs!" Not many artists could pull that off and assume a band would know their material. But Berry could. That's not a bad legacy to leave.