Chuck Berry, who has died aged 90, was to some the greatest rock ’n’ roll artist of all time: he was certainly among the most influential.
All the big British bands of the 1960s, in particular The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Animals, looked to Berry for both inspiration and material. Their early hits such as “Roll over Beethoven”, “Come On” and “Memphis Tennessee” had all been written and recorded by the man from Missouri. As John Lennon once said: “If you tried to give rock ’n’ roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry.”
Born in St Louis on October 18 1926, he spent some of his teens in prison for robbery but by the early 1950s was working as a hairdresser by day and playing guitar in clubs in the evening. In 1955 he made his break for fame, going to Chicago with a handful of songs. Blues singer Muddy Waters secured him an audition with Chess Records and, with the promotional help of Alan Freed, the leading radio disc jockey of the age, he quickly had his first hit, “Maybellene”: Freed’s reward was a joint writing credit on the song.
Over the next few years Berry wrote “Johnny B Goode”; “Sweet Little Sixteen”; “Rock ’n’ Roll Music” and “Reelin’ and Rockin’’” as well as headlining concerts throughout the US. These were the glory years of rock and Berry was, with Elvis Presley, the joint king although, unlike Presley, he wrote his own material.
Then things fell apart. In 1959 Berry was arrested for taking a minor across state lines for immoral purposes and eventually spent two years in jail. By the time of his release, most of his best work was behind him. Yet Berry was commercially more successful than ever — the young British bands had given his early songs a new lease on life.
Although his songs were usually joyous and exciting, full of teenage drive and optimism, Berry was a reserved man who treated rock music primarily as a lucrative profession. Almost by the way, he created and recorded many of the classic songs of the mid-20th century.
His only number 1 hit was “My Ding-a-Ling”, recorded live in a UK concert in 1972.
My all-time favorite Chuck Berry song is is Johnny B Goode. It only reached #8, a travesty of justice.
The song was written by Chuck Berry while he was on tour in New Orleans in 1958. In the official version of events, supplied to Rolling Stone magazine by Berry himself, the song is autobiographical: A poor boy from a rustic corner of the Deep South with little education and few prospects masters the electric guitar and becomes the leader of a famous band. In fact, Berry was not from the Deep South; he grew up on Goode Street in Saint Louis, an unusually cosmopolitan Midwestern city with a rich musical tradition. Nor was he unschooled; he was the first and perhaps the last songwriter to use the word “omit” in a pop song (Little Queenie). And he was certainly not a hick from the sticks; he had a degree in hairdressing and cosmetology. What’s more, the song was originally written for the famous pianist Johnnie Johnson, with whom Berry had worked for years. A half-century later, Johnson would sue Berry, contending that he had co-authored many of his colleague’s hits, but the case was thrown out of court, as these cases usually are. Thus, other than not being from the South, or a yokel, or an illiterate, or white, or bearing the name “Johnny,” Berry was exactly like the character in his most famous song.
Johnny B. Goode was recorded in 1958 with a band that included the legendary bassist Willie Dixon, author of such classics as Spoonful and Back Door Man. It is ironic that Berry should have recorded so many of his hits with a band containing luminaries like Dixon, because throughout his career, Berry was notorious for showing up for his gigs backed by a local band he had hired cheap, sight unseen and with whom he had not rehearsed. These back-up bands included an outfit headed by the young Bruce Springsteen, who later recalled Berry’s annoying habit of switching to difficult keys halfway through a song.
The song appears in one of my favorite movies. Billboard explains How Chuck Berry’s ‘Johnny B. Goode’ Helped Define ‘Back to the Future’
It wasn’t a coincidence that, out of all of the songs for director Robert Zemeckis had to choose from for his extended 50s-kids-get-a-preview-of-rock-n-roll scene, “Johnny B. Goode” was the clear and enduring choice. Although Berry’s 1958 single only hit No. 8 on the Hot 100 chart, “Goode” perfectly represented the disruptive nature of Berry’s blues-influenced music, the first rock-star origin story defined by a swagger and showmanship that had not yet invaded radio.
Original Recorded Version
Thanks Chuck Berry, you are one of a kind, and missed already.
Mike “Mish” Shedlock