LOS ANGELES—In the later years of his career as a live performer, Chuck Berry famously toured by himself, opting to play with local musicians hired to back him for individual gigs rather than traveling with (and paying the salaries of) his own band.
The mistaken idea this could suggest was that Berry's music was easy to play — that it was so generic that any promoter in any town could find a couple of guys to handle bass and drums while Berry held the crowd's attention on vocals and guitar. (The practice also suggests that Berry wasn't interested in spending money he didn't have to spend.)
And, in a sense, that idea is accurate: Berry, who died Saturday at his home near St. Louis at age 90, basically invented rock 'n' roll with songs from the mid- and late 1950s such as "Maybellene," "Roll Over Beethoven" and "Johnny B. Goode," each an audacious yet crafty blend of riff, melody, rhythm and attitude.
So of course Berry's music soon came to seem elementary. It defined a genre, one that grew quickly after his example thanks to acolytes such as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys.
To think of Berry's work as simple, though — as vague or without specifics — is a profound misunderstanding of the compositions and classic recordings that made him a star.
Take "Maybellene," his very first single, which he based on an old country tune but tricked out with an indelible guitar lick and his own invented word: "As I was motor-vatin' over the hill / I saw Maybellene in a Coupe de Ville," he sings, creating a vivid image of newness even as he sets the scene in a familiar American landscape.
"School Day" does something similar. Writing about the slow-burn misery of high school as he himself was in his 30s, Berry uses his experience as an older man to enrich the song's action: "Back in the classroom, open your books / Gee, but the teacher don't know how mean she looks."
What a line! All at once Berry is telling us what it feels like to be in the classroom — what it feels like to be one of his teenage fans, in other words — and what it feels like to be the teacher doing her best to civilize these little twerps.
Berry's catalog is filled with such lyrical complexity, be it the picture of American ambition in "Johnny B. Goode" or the picture of American oppression in "Brown Eyed Handsome Man," which opens by putting us in a courtroom with a man "arrested on charges of unemployment."
And then there's the picture of America itself in "Promised Land," Berry's epic travelogue from Norfolk, Va., to Los Angeles.
Yet it wasn't just his words that distinguished his music. It was the way he sang them, enunciating as crisply as that mean schoolteacher might have while somehow communicating his essential rebelliousness.
Listen to "Roll Over Beethoven": This isn't a crass rock 'n' roller writing off yesterday's masters; it's game recognizing game.
As a guitarist, Berry saw infinite variety in a handful of moves. And he knew the intricate contours of each of his riffs, as he demonstrated in a famous scene from Taylor Hackford's 1987 documentary "Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll."
Rehearsing his song "Carol" with a band that includes the Rolling Stones' Keith Richards, Berry keeps halting the music, pointing out little mistakes Richards is making with the main lick.
"You wanna get it right," Berry says, "let's get it right."
It makes you wonder how this master of detail treated the guys in those pick-up bands.