Si Monumentum Requiris, Circumspice.
I remember when I was a dumbass college kid and he had that stupid hit, "My Ding-a-Ling," and I was confused by that into thinking he was just some old duffer who'd had a few hits and was resurfacing to grab one more -- like Ricky Nelson with "Garden Party."
Well, I shouldn't have slept on Ricky, and I damn sure should have known better about Chuck. It took me playing music myself to realize that the thing called rock 'n' roll pretty much came directly from him. Sure, in the historical traces there were the blues masters when they got wild and there was Ike Turner's "Rocket '88," but that was the primordial ooze, something that just bubbled up; no one knew how to make a regular business out of it, so it wasn't rock 'n' roll. (One way or another, rock 'n' roll is an assembly line. That's why it started dying when the factories started closing down.)
That leaves us with Little Richard and Chuck Berry and mmmmaybe Bo Diddley. These three were serious in their manufacture, but while Bo had the bottom end and Richard could wail, Chuck Berry took the insistence of the one and the exuberance of the other, distilled and bottled them together, and sent it down the line still fizzing like Coca-Cola. He'd have been really rich if he were white, but as it was his sound made a lot of money.
Those records -- "Maybellene," "Johnny B. Goode," "Memphis," "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man," et alia -- have everything; it makes sense that NASA sent "Johnny B. Goode" into space because, with the possible exception of "The Battle Hymn of The Republic," that's the song you could best reconstruct America from. It has the spirit, the swagger, and even patriotism, because who's Johnny B. Goode really but the rock 'n' roll John Henry? Even better, there's no admission anything will make him ever lay down his hammer -- which makes the song double American.
(It's not a serious song, but come on -- America can be grim or mean, but whoever thought it was serious? I love Lou Reed, but he was a New Yorker and thus at least half European; Chuck Berry was from St. Louis and would never have lived in a Lower East Side cold-water flat if he had a choice.)
You can't leave out his guitar, which was more many of us the blueprint: hammer-ons, double-stops, and syncopation; leave the noodley leads to wankers. It's like the blues got amnesia and a handjob -- fun, fun, fun (and for white people, money, money, money).
For me, the signature is "School Days." I could listen to it all day. It's basically about work and getting off work -- except the work is schoolwork so it isn't that serious; it's about getting by, finding a seat, playing off the teacher -- school and work, that is, as seen by an enlightened soul who doesn't care if some asshole thinks he's shiftless because he's something good in his guitar case. And the moment when school lets out -- ah, that's a benediction that anyone who wants shut of the teacher or the boss or the spouse or the world longs and loves to hear: "Close up your books, get out of your seat/Down the halls and into the street." It's crypts breaking open and souls flying to heaven, but better, because it's undraped of the maudlin religious panoply, and you can really believe it, because it happens every working day. If for nothing else we should remember him for that; in fact, maybe inventing rock 'n' roll isn't even the superior achievement.