Let’s be honest. If Chuck Berry were white, he’d likely be universally recognized as the undisputed King of Rock and Roll.
Instead, Elvis Presley, whose 30th anniversary deathday was today, is possessed of the moniker.
Now, it’s all a matter of opinion of course and there are those who think Little Richard or Jerry Lee Lewis, or others, are the kings of rock and roll. Actually, Lewis admitted (once, anyway) that Berry was the real king. I've got the evidence in the liner notes of Chuck Berry's 1979 album, Rockit. It was his last studio album. (By the way, try the Berry track Pass Away off that album on for size. Very different, not traditional Berry, and very cool.)
"My mama said, 'You and Elvis are pretty good, but you're no Chuck Berry'," The Killer says in the liner notes.
Fact is, all of these artists, and beyond, regardless of race, are great. And legendary.
But to say Chuck Berry is the king of rock and roll (my view) is no slight on Elvis, necessarily. Elvis did, by appealing to white audiences, make it OK or safe for them to delve into the black R & B and blues artists whom he and/or his writers used, in some measure at least, for source material. And black R & B audiences liked him, too, as whites did Chuck Berry.
The black artists appreciated Presley, much as blues legends Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and others appreciated and paid homage to The Rolling Stones for paying homage to them and bringing the black blues to white audiences. There are many such examples in pop music if one cares to delve deeper.
One thing is beyond argument. Elvis didn’t write much. Chuck Berry did. Berry wrote almost every one of his many hits. Elvis fans counter with the argument that in his day, performers didn’t write many of their own tunes. That’s true. But Berry and Elvis were of the same era, rising to prominence in the mid-1950s, meaning Berry took it a step further and broke that mould. He wrote his own stuff, performed it and brought a certain guitar-playing style and sound to the equation, without which one could legitimately argue there would have been no Beatles or Rolling Stones to advise the white youth of North America that they had all this music in their own backyards in the person of the black R & B and blues source artists — but had chosen to ignore it.
So if you judge by the whole package, Chuck Berry is the king. That won’t change the mainstream view of Elvis being "officially" recognized as The King. It’s become an automatic appellation: Elvis Presley, The King of Rock and Roll.
Even if it isn’t true. For my money, anyway.