When you hear the name “Chuck Berry”, do you normally think about innovation and entrepreneurship? Or do you simply hear the unmistakable guitar licks in his foundational rock and roll songs such as “”Johnny B. Goode“, “Roll Over Beethoven“, or “Maybellene“?
If you’re too young to know who Chuck Berry was, it doesn’t matter —you’ve been hearing the echo of his musical genius for your entire life. I’ve loved the true King of Rock and Roll’s songs for as long as I can remember listening to music. When my sister brought home a stack of worn-out Beatles albums one night in Nebraska in 1971, it was really the Beatles’ covers of Chuck Berry songs on those LPs that I found most irresistible.
So I was saddened to hear of Chuck’s passing at age 90 this past weekend. But as I read more about his life, I realize that he can teach us a lot about innovation and creativity — great lessons for startups and entrepreneurs.
1). He did not give up on his greatest passion. Chuck worked as a licensed beautician while in his 20s. But he did not worry about being too old to try a new career. He continued to play his guitar, and write amazing songs, so that by the time he first stepped into a recording studio — at age 28 — he had a complete body of polished, fantastic work. This nicely reflects the entrepreneurial approach of “The Lean Startup”, summed up as “Nail it. Then scale it.”
2). He reached out to successful people in his industry for help. In 1955, Berry was an unknown, aspiring musician when he attended a concert of one of his heroes, Chicago blues singer Muddy Waters. Chuck had the courage to approach Muddy after the show, and ask him how to get a recording deal. Muddy referred Chuck to Leonard Chess, the head of Chess Records. Chess was thrilled by what he heard, and Chuck’s first album quickly ensued.
3). He used new technology. It’s hard to imagine popular music without rock and roll. And it’s hard to imagine rock and roll without the electric guitar. But when Chuck picked up the electric guitar, it was really a very new sound coming from a new technical innovation.
4). He learned and borrowed from others. Chuck used to say that there was nothing new under the sun. As he started out, he learned and borrowed guitar skills and showmanship from earlier masters such T-Bone Walker. Guitarists such as Keith Richards, John Lennon, Brian Wilson, and Jerry Garcia all cited Chuck as their influence — but it’s good to remember that even Chuck Berry learned from his predecessors.
5). He created a hybrid from various influences. Chuck mixed heavy-beat blues with up-tempo country and western music. His sounds and songwriting narratives did not fit neatly into these previous categories, because he was creating a new category — “rock and roll”. Whereas Elvis Presley embodied an unprecedented sort of 1950s pop star, Chuck Berry’s imaginative compositions, daring singing, sizzling guitar playing, and mesmerizing performances created an even better concept: “Rock Star”.
6). He experimented with different products, and pivoted into new markets. If you listen to Chuck’s earliest recordings on Chess Records, you’ll hear that he recorded a lot of blues songs which were quite conventional for African-American audiences at the time. But he experimented with faster-paced songs, which eventually launched his rock and roll success.
7). He knew his customers — recognizing trends and reflecting the spirit of his times. Even though Chuck was an African-American singer in his 30s, many of his songs seemed to illustrate the life of white, middle-class, high school kids living in their Eisenhower-era bubbles of suburbs, juke boxes, dances, fast cars – and disapproving parents. His fans identified with the protagonists of these songs. Within a decade, they became the anti-establishment Hippies. (Read more about “The Hippie Values that Made Yahoo the Coolest Company in the World.”)
8). He pushed boundaries. Dealing with 1950s American social mores, Chuck used incredibly funny and creative double entendres and metaphors to describe sexual adventures. You might relate to the challenges in “No Particular Place to Go”. To see how his lyrics evolved over time, check out the original 1958 version of “Reelin’ and Rockin’ “, and then the more risqué version from 1972.
9). He was so insanely great at what he did, that he was able to break down some of the barriers of discrimination. The U.S. in the 1950s suffered from disgraceful racism and segregation. (We still have a lot of room for improvement, by the way.) He wrote songs of black pride, such as “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man.”
Black audiences started requesting his country music-inspired tunes. And white audiences left their all-white neighborhoods to go to the African-American clubs to hear Chuck play. As one of Chuck’s colleagues commented, “That was how we were able to desegregate.”
Did Chuck “sing like a white man”?
Did he “play guitar and move like a black man”?
Was his rock and roll “really black music aimed at a white audience”?
I don’t think Chuck Berry much cared. He used his amazing talent, creativity, courage and resilience to pioneer a newly emerging industry, and disrupt societal conventions in the process. Chuck’s music became anthems for American post-war optimism, confidence, and fun — with a touch of rebellion.
That’s a pretty good template for all entrepreneurs, startups, and innovators.
That’s a pretty good template for what the techies in Silicon Valley call “changing the world.”
Thanks, Chuck. Hail! Hail! Rock and roll!