Ask any of rock’s greatest living legends who influenced other great rock legends – people like Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney of the Beatles or Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys – which artist’s early guitar work influenced them the most.
The short list would unanimously include the Father of Rock and Roll Chuck Berry, the legendary and highly influential singer/songwriter/guitarist who passed away Saturday, March 18, 2017, in St. Charles County, Missouri. He was 90 years old.
Born Charles Edward Anderson Berry on October 18, 1926 in St. Louis, Chuck would take up music at an early age but wouldn’t achieve fame until he was nearly 29 years old with his first hit recording, “Maybellene.”
That song in 1955, and three more in the next three successive years: “Roll Over Beethoven” (1956), “Rock and Roll Music” (1957) and “Johnny B. Goode” (1958) set the table for what would ultimately become guitar rock in the 1960s and beyond – and those songs helped create a legacy that perhaps no other foursome of songs by one artist has done before or since.
Berry’s success began with the famous Chess Records label right here in Chicago. A meeting with Chess label chief Leonard Chess (suggested to Berry by blues legend Muddy Waters) led to a contract signing and “Maybellene” quickly being released as his first single. The song – an adaptation of an earlier country tune called “Ida Red” – introduced the masses to a brand of guitar-oriented rhythm and blues that most of the world had not yet heard.
He quickly followed up “Maybellene” with other hits, including the three I mentioned earlier, which led to a total of 17 top-20 singles on the R&B charts between 1955 and 1960, with nine of those reaching the top-40 on the pop charts. After a nearly four-year break due to legal issues, Berry resumed his career in 1964 and churned out even more hits, including a surprising No. 1 pop hit on his 46th birthday, which I’ll get to later in the article.
But the songs that mattered most to the evolution of rock and roll were those four iconic ones.
1. “Maybellene” (1955)
The guitar riff that began “Maybellene” – along with its shuffling uptempo beat and lyrics that everyone could relate to about a man driving a Ford and chasing a wayward lover in a fast Cadillac – led to it being one of rock’s first and biggest crossover hits. It spent eleven weeks at No. 1 on the R&B charts in 1955 and crossed over to the top five on the pop list.
Berry didn’t stray too far from the “Maybellene” formula for some of his next records, including “Thirty Days” and “You Can’t Catch Me,” both of which used that same shuffling beat but neither of which reached the pop charts, despite Berry’s distinctive style and unique ability to cater to black and white audiences.
2. “Roll Over Beethoven” (1956)
The next major crossover for Berry occurred in 1956 with “Roll Over Beethoven.” It was a playful directive to classical artist Ludwig van Beethoven imploring the late musician to roll over in his grave at the news that Berry’s brand of rhythm and blues was replacing classical music as the genre of choice in America. It was also one of the earliest songs to mention “rockin’ and rollin'” in its lyrics.
“Roll Over Beethoven” peaked at No. 2 R&B and became Berry’s second pop top-40 single (reaching No. 29). Despite its relatively low pop-chart showing, the song was so influential that it has the distinction of being the first song the Beatles performed at their first U.S. concert upon landing in America in 1964. The late George Harrison provided lead vocals on the Fab Four’s’ version of the song, which was a favorite of the band’s even before they called themselves the Beatles.
As Rolling Stone magazine stated in its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (where the song ranks No. 97), “Roll Over Beethoven” became “the ultimate rock & roll call-to-arms, declaring a new era.”
3. “Rock and Roll Music” (1957)
The era’s next iconic rock record in Chuck Berry’s fearless foursome was “Rock and Roll Music” in 1957. The song is widely recognized as one of Berry’s most enduring, having been covered by many of rock’s greats like the Beatles and Beach Boys, along with Bill Haley & His Comets (whose 1955 No. 1 single “Rock Around the Clock” is largely credited with beginning the rock and roll era of popular music). Other rock acts who covered it include REO Speedwagon, Humble Pie and Bryan Adams.
Berry’s original of “Rock and Roll Music” reached the top tens of both the R&B and pop charts at Nos. 6 and 8, respectively. However, in a true case of the students surpassing the teacher, the Beach Boys’ 1976 remake of “Rock and Roll Music” out-did Berry’s original when it reached No. 5 on the Hot 100.
4. “Johnny B. Goode” (1958)
The Berry quaternity of iconic rock songs was complete in 1958 with “Johnny B. Goode,” a somewhat autobiographical tune that was initially inspired by Berry’s piano player, Johnnie Johnson.
There were two key lyrical anomalies about the song worth noting: Berry was from St. Louis, but the character in “Johnny B. Goode” was from New Orleans; also, a planned lyrical reference to “Johnny” as a colored boy was changed to “country boy” to avoid alienating pop radio.
The guitar riff that begins “Johnny B. Goode” would begin a trend of such openings in rock music, particularly by Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones who used the approach for several of his own band’s iconic songs like “Satisfaction,” “Paint It, Black,” “Beast of Burden” and “Start Me Up” – all of which begin with a distinctively identifiable guitar riff.
“Johnny B. Goode” is perhaps Berry’s most well-known hit. It was featured in several films, including the 1973 coming-of-age flick, “American Graffiti,” and in the 1985 movie “Back to the Future” during a scene when lead character Marty McFly was transported back to the 1950s and encountered a rock band whom he “helps” perform the song.
The following year “Johnny B. Goode” was one of the records attached to a NASA Voyager spacecraft during an interstellar flight in admiration of the music that Berry had given to “this world” (emphasis added). In a letter to Berry commemorating the moment, the “Voyager Interstellar Record Committee” wrote that while most people are exaggerating when they say music will live forever, “these records will last a billion years or more,” in reference to the spacecraft containing the recordings being two billion miles from earth and “bound for the stars.”
Having occurred during the third week in October 1986, it was a great way to celebrate Berry’s 60th birthday.
The Four Songs’ Legacies:
Since then, all four of Chuck Berry’s most iconic tunes have been duly recognized by various halls of fame and other noted industry trade publications as being among the best rock tunes ever. All four classics have been entered into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame among the “500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll.”
All four tunes – along with two of Berry’s others: “Sweet Little Sixteen” and “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” – are also included in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time,” with “Johnny B. Goode” ranking the highest at No. 7.
Three of the tunes – “Maybellene,” “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Johnny B. Goode” – are also in the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Now, some 30-plus after “Johnny B. Goode” was literally sent into orbit to channel the stars, we remember the man to whom many rock legends – and musicians in general – owe a great deal of debt. For without Chuck Berry and those four iconic songs, rock music might not have ever existed as we have known it for the past sixty-plus years.
Indeed, it may not be billions of years away, but I can see Chuck Berry being remembered at least a few centuries from now for what he contributed to popular music.
For he was indeed rock and roll personified.
Here are some other interesting facts about the rock and roll icon that was Chuck Berry:
The late Berry had a way of celebrating birthdays with milestones. In addition to his 60th birthday present of literally having “Johnny B. Goode” sent into space…
On his 21st birthday in 1947, he was released from a boys reformatory school after having robbed several stores and stealing a car as a teenager.
On his 46th birthday in 1972, the No. 1 song in America was Berry’s “My Ding-a-Ling,” a novelty song about, well…his ding-a-ling. It still holds the distinction of being one of the few songs by a black lead artist to reach No. 1 on the pop chart without reaching the Top 40 of the R&B/Soul list (it stalled at No. 42 on Billboard’s Hot Soul Singles chart).
Joining “My Ding-a-Ling” in this distinction (since the R&B chart was reinstated in 1965) are songs by Sammy Davis, Jr. (who did it the same year as Berry with “The Candy Man”), Stevie B (“Because I Love You”), Seal (“Kiss From A Rose”), Jason Derulo (“Whatcha Say”), two songs by Flo Rida (“Right Round” and “Whistle”) and two songs by LMFAO (“Party Rock Anthem” and “Sexy and I Know It”).
On his 90th birthday last year, Chuck Berry announced that he was recording his first album in 38 years – a tribute to his wife of 68 years, Themetta, an album simply titled Chuck that would be released in 2017. We hope to be hearing more about it soon.
Other CB linkages:
The Beach Boys’ first top-ten hit, 1963’s “Surfin’ U.S.A.” was a straight rip of Berry’s 1958 smash “Sweet Little Sixteen.” After “My Ding-a-Ling,” “Sweet Little Sixteen” is Berry’s second-biggest pop hit, and it peaked one position higher (No. 2) than did “Surfin’ U.S.A.” (No. 3).
Rock and roll legend Johnny Rivers‘ first hit, “Memphis,” was a cover of Berry’s “Memphis, Tennessee.” Rivers’ 1964 version was the first of 30 Hot 100 hits for the singer and his first million-seller.
Also in 1964, after Berry’s release from prison for violating the Mann Act (transporting an underage girl across state lines), he reworked one of his own hits, 1957’s “School Day,” into a song about car seat belts, entitled “No Particular Place To Go.” It followed “Nadine (Is It You)” – also in 1964 – to become his first charting hits in over three years…a delay brought on by his legal woes.
All of Berry’s charting singles were on the famous Chess Records label out of Chicago, IL., despite the singer having left Chess in 1966 for a three-year stint with Mercury Records (five albums) and another stint in 1979 with Atco Records (one album). It’s rare that an artist can claim to have as many chart songs as Berry did (27 pop, 22 R&B) with all of them being on one label.
Chuck Berry was among the inaugural class of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees in 1986…and appropriately so.
Oh…and that “duck walk,” don’t forget his famous duck walk!
Rest in Rock and Roll Heaven, Chuck Berry.
You will definitely be missed.