Last Monday, October 18 marked the 84th birthday of rock and roll pioneer Chuck Berry. He has led a controversial life filled with stints in jail, but no one can deny that he ranks as a leading architect of rock. He combined country with rhythm and blues, adding a healthy dose of innuendo-filled lyrics, to create a new kind of music that thrilled teens and horrified parents in the 1950s. As the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame states on its Chuck Berry page, his music is “required listening for any serious rock fan and required learning for any serious rock musician.” Classics such as “Johnny B. Goode,” “No Particular Place to Go,” and “Sweet Little Sixteen” are such an integral part of the rock and roll canon that it’s easy to forget how groundbreaking these songs were, and how they inspired teenagers such as Brian Wilson, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, John Lennon, and Keith Richards to delve into music.
Born in St. Louis, Berry showed talent for writing lyrics and a deep love for the blues as a student. By the early 1950s he played in a variety of St. Louis clubs, forming the popular Chuck Berry Trio in 1954. Playing to African-American audiences, Berry honed his craft and developed a flair for showmanship. He caught the attention of blues great Muddy Waters, who advised him to approach Chess Records with a demo. That demo turned out to be an early version of “Maybellene”; when Chess released the single in 1955, it became a top-twenty hit. Scoring such a hit served as a milestone not only for Berry, but for music. An African-American artist had cracked the largely white pop charts, a rare achievement in the 1950s. Subsequently he racked up hits, enthralling audiences with his energetic live shows, which included his signature “duck walk” move. Despite his success, he failed to score a number one hit until 1972, when a live recording of the risqué “My Ding-A-Ling” became a surprise success. Astoundingly, Berry still performs extensively today.
What comprises the Chuck Berry sound? Take a hard-driving beat, add in blistering guitar solos, and overlay both elements with sophisticated lyrics that touch on universal themes of teenage angst and the power of rock. The recordings incorporate a raw, live sound, firmly entrenched in the blues tradition. However, instead of the typical “my baby left me” laments, he used clever wordplay. Who else could have penned a lyric like “Roll over Beethoven and tell Tchaikovsky the news” from “Roll Over Beethoven”?
Numerous artists cut their teeth on Berry songs, particularly The Beatles. “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Too Much Monkey Business,” and “Little Queenie” are just a few examples of the tunes the Fab Four performed on record or live. Berry also paved the way for The Rolling Stones; their bluesy, gritty style built on Berry’s signature sound. Keith Richards counted himself as such a fan that he became musical director for Berry’s 60th birthday concert, later documented in the 1987 film Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll. The Beach Boys clearly modeled their 1963 hit “Surfin’ USA” from Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen”–in fact, he sued and eventually won a songwriting credit. Lennon admitted to borrowing a line from Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me” for “Come Together,” specifically the lyric “Here come ol’ flattop, he come groovin’ up slowly.” Berry’s original line was “Here come a flattop, he was movin’ up with me.” Berry sued Lennon in 1973, and the case was settled out of court. But Lennon continued to cover his songs, including “You Can’t Catch Me” and “Ya Ya” on his Rock ‘n Roll album. He even invited Berry to appear with him and Yoko Ono on the Mike Douglas Show in 1972, jamming together on “Johnny B. Goode” and “Memphis, Tennessee.”
Celebrating the legend’s 84th birthday provides the perfect excuse to delve into Berry’s catalog and experience the excitement and raw energy of his recordings. The following list is a guide to some of his best songs, all of which are available on CD and iTunes. The soundtrack to Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll is also worth a listen, as it features Berry as well as guests and fans such as Linda Rondstadt, Julian Lennon, Eric Clapton, Robert Cray, and Etta James.
- “Maybellene” (1955): The chugging beat propels the track while Berry sings memorable lines like “As I was motivatin’ over the hill/I saw Mabellene in a Coup de Ville.” The beat and incredible guitar solo announce that a new kind of music has arrived.
- “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” (1956): Berry’s guitar and some rocking piano belie the serious lyrics that subtly address interracial relationships. Many of the words describe white women in love with African-American men, but the last stanza dips a toe in political waters; narrating a baseball game, he states that “He hit a high fly into the stand/
- Rounding third he was headed for home/It was a brown eyed handsome man” He emphasizes that point by ending the song on the line “That won the game; it was a brown eyed handsome man.” “Sweet Little Sixteen” (1957): Featuring killer guitar riffs, this song addresses the liberating sexual power of rock. When she goes to a rock concert, Berry sings, she wears “Tight dresses and lipstick/She’s sportin’ high – heel shoes.” But tomorrow, he points out, “She’ll have to change her trend/And be sweet sixteen/And back in class again.” Here the music has transformed the stereotypical ’50s “good girl” into a provocative, aggressive woman. No wonder the song probably raised some parental eyebrows!
- “Rock and Roll Music” (1957): In some ways, Berry functions as the Shakespeare of rock and roll; so many of his lyrics have become famous and are frequently quoted. This track exemplifies this fact, containing oft-cited lines like “It’s got a back beat, you can’t lose it/ Any old time you use it.” While he admits that “I’ve got no kick against modern jazz,” he still prefers listening to a “rockin’ band” that plays “like a hurricane.” As in his other songs, he hints at the dangerous, forbidden quality of rock; Berry describes a party where “They’re drinkin’ homebrew from a water cup/The folks dancin’ they all got shook up.” Again, rock music represents liberation and rebellion, which teenagers can definitely relate to.
- “School Days” (1957): One of Berry’s more rhythmic songs, the classic also serves as a call to arms with its famous chorus: “Hail, hail rock ‘n roll/Deliver me from the days of old.” The words suggest a major paradigm shift, a change in music where “the beat of the drum is loud and bold,” and “the feelin’ is there body and soul.” Obviously rock changed the face of popular culture and affected social morays, and “School Days” predicts this change in its fiery lyrics.
- “Johnny B. Goode” (1958): Consider this track the rock musician’s anthem. Berry plays scorching guitar while singing of the democracy of this new music. Instead of being elitist, he argues, rock encompasses everyone; in other words, anyone, regardless of social standing, can play music. The song tells the story of a boy who lives in a log cabin, cannot read or write, but he could “play the guitar like ringing a bell.” Carrying his guitar in a “gunny sack,” emphasizing the boy’s poor status, he amazes people passing by with his playing skills. The final verses are from the mother’s perspective, saying that perhaps someday the boy “would be the leader of a big old band” and that “Many people coming from miles around/To hear you play your music when the sun go down/Maybe someday your name will be in lights.” If he tries hard enough, he can become a success by playing this new, exciting music.
- “Memphis, Tennessee” (1959): One of my personal favorites, the song tells the story of a lovesick man trying to reach his lover. He tells the operator that the woman’s mother drove them apart and “tore apart our happy home in Memphis, Tennessee.” Berry even adds a comic twist by expressing surprise that the operator gave him the wrong number: “Marie is only six years old, information please!” It features an intricate, shuffling beat and a Berry solo that perfectly accents the tempo.
Other worthy tracks to listen to include “Too Much Monkey Business” (1956), “Carol” (1958), “Little Queenie” (1959), “You Can’t Catch Me” (1956), and “No Particular Place to Go” (1964), among many others. Dig deep into Chuck Berry’s extensive catalog and experience the liberation, excitement, and raw power that is rock and roll, performed by one of its architects.