Chuck Berry’s Legacy: Enunciation?!

www.RuthlessEditor.comChuck Berry, considered one of the most influential performers in the history of music, died March 18 at age 90.

Some called Berry the father of rock ‘n’ roll, citing the impact he had on Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds, to name a few.

His passing was covered worldwide. In analyzing his style, his enunciation — yes, enunciation — has emerged as part of what set him apart and contributed to his success.

Berry played a mean guitar, and his energy and moves could be breathtaking.

But it was his way with words and the clarity with which he spoke and sang that made him stand out, that made him different.

New York Times cites Berry’s enunciation
The New York Times put it this way:

And tucked into the lighthearted, telegraphic narratives that he sang with such clear enunciation was a sly defiance, upending convention to claim the pleasures of the moment.

An explanation for Berry’s practice of enunciation appeared in a Rolling Stone article that detailed his life and career.

Berry’s parents shared two visions for their children. They wanted them to be literate — to be aware of poetry, classical music and proper diction. The poetry and diction became important to Berry.

He later said that he had not been a good reader but had developed a natural flair for poesy — for how to construct lyrics — and his insistence on proper diction remained obsessive throughout his life.

In part, this stemmed from a concern that many middle-class blacks shared: Proper enunciation worked against a stereotype that blacks were uneducated. In conversation, his locution was intentionally — even a bit haughtily — proper. In his songs, he would always sing clearly.

From the perspective of a ruthless editor who stresses the importance of skillful writing and speaking as fundamental to success, this insight was — pardon the pun — music to my ears.

Poor enunciation not racial issue
I don’t consider enunciation — the act of clearly pronouncing words — a racial issue; however, it has been considered a class issue.

Revisit the theme of the musical My Fair Lady. In the film version, Professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) tried to help Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) break the bonds of her lower-class station in life, as implied by her cockney accent, by teaching her to enunciate clearly and sound more properly British.

To me, enunciation is a clarity-of-communication issue that reveals a person’s knowledge of language, attention to detail and respect for listeners.

Consider these everyday examples of poor enunciation:

Is he gonna (going to) stop by after work?
He shoulda (should have) been here by now.
Yur (You’re) saying he won’t be able to make it?
I dunno (don’t know) if he was serious about it.
He proly (probably) had to work late.
He ushly (usually) gets done at 5 o’clock.

Chuck Berry had multiple talents and the drive to achieve. Enunciating his words in speech and song added to his appeal and apparently to his success.

Although he never won a Grammy, Berry received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1985. In 1986, he became the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s first inductee.

Berry leaves a legacy not only of catchy lyrics, knockout performances and musical influence; his legacy attests to the value of enunciating every word. Just as his impressive guitar riffs and licks came across clearly and powerfully, so did his lyrics and the stories he wove.

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Kathy Watson

Kathy Watson has a love/hate relationship with grammar; she loves words and the punctuation that helps them make sense, yet she hates those pesky rules. A self-proclaimed ruthless editor, she prefers standard usage guidelines of The Associated Press Stylebook. Her easy-to-use Grammar for People Who Hate Rules helps people write and speak with authority and confidence. She encourages and welcomes questions and comments. (Email)