Go Johnny go
“There’s only one true king of rock ‘n’ roll,” said Stevie Wonder. “His name is Chuck Berry.”
The Chicago bluesman, who has died aged 90, basically invented rock.
Sure, there were other contributors: Bill Haley’s northern band rock ‘n’roll; Pat Boone and his New Orleans dance blues; and Berry’s label mate at Chess Records, Bo Diddley.
But no-one else shaped the instrumental voice and lyrical attitude of rock like Chuck. His recordings were lean, modern and thrilling. In the words of pop critic Bob Stanley, “they sounded like the tail fins on Cadillacs”.
He was the first to admit he drew inspiration from days of old. “There is really nothing new under the sun,” he said in the mid-1980s tribute film Hail, Hail Rock ‘n’ Roll – citing the likes of T-Bone Walker and Charlie Christian as his forebears.
What he did with those influences, though, was something else. He gave country the bite of the blues, writing defiant odes to cars and girls at a time when rock lyrics were all Tutti Frutti and A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop.
As Brian Wilson said, he wrote “all of the great songs and came up with all the rock and roll beats”.
“He laid down the law,” added Eric Clapton.
Here are seven of his most influential songs.
Chuck’s first single sounded like nothing that had ever come before – and gave him a top five hit in the US a full year before Elvis made his debut.
It was based on Ida Red, a 1938 hit for Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys – but was nowhere near as polite.
Chuck adds a thunderous rhythm section and a scuzzed up guitar, while his lyrics lived out a teenagers’ fast-car fantasy (even though he was in his mid-20s when he wrote it).
“As I was motorvatin’ over the hill, I saw Maybellene in a Coupe-de-ville / Cadillac rollin’ on the open road / Tryin’ to outrun my V-8 Ford.”
Disc jockeys Alan Freed and Russ Fratto were “encouraged” to play the song – by being credited as co-writers – and a career was born.
ROLL OVER BEETHOVEN (1956)
“I wanted to play the blues,” Chuck once told Rolling Stone. “But I wasn’t blue enough. We always had food on the table.”
So he channelled his other frustrations into music. Roll Over Beethoven, widely believed to be a manifesto for rock and roll music, was in fact an affectionate dig at his sister, Lucy, who spent so much time at the family piano he couldn’t get a look in.
Still, the swagger and the message – that Beethoven and Tchaikovsky had been rendered redundant by the sheer power of Chuck and his cherry-red Gibson – resonated with musicians all over the world.
The song has subsequently been covered by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, ELO and even Iron Maiden.
SCHOOL DAY (1957)
Most rock lyrics deal in generalities but Chuck had an obsessive eye for detail, in a way that spoke directly to his teenage audience. School Day is a perfect example – pinning down that awful, caged feeling of children waiting for the school bell to ring.
Berry was in his thirties by the time it was released but the memories still seem fresh.
“Back in the classroom, open your books,” he sings. “Gee, but the teacher don’t know how mean she looks.”
BROWN EYED HANDSOME MAN (1956)
While most of his songs are carefree, cartwheeling teenage librettos, Brown Eyed Handsome Man takes a more political tone.
“Arrested on charges of unemployment / He was sittin’ in the witness stand / The judge’s wife called up the district attorney / She said, ‘Free that brown-eyed man’.”
Berry was inspired to write the song while he was touring through heavily black and Latino areas of California at the start of his career.
“What I didn’t see, at least in the areas I was booked in, was too many blue eyes,” he wrote in his 1987 autobiography.
“The auditoriums were predominantly filled with Hispanics and ‘us’. But then I did see some unbelievable harmony among the mix, which got the idea of the song started.”
YOU NEVER CAN TELL (1964)
Chuck’s most danceable song, You Never Can Tell becomes slightly more sinister when you discover it was written after the musician’s arrest for transporting a 14-year-old girl across a state boundary without her parents’ consent.
“It was a teenage wedding and the old folks wished them well,” he sings over Jamie Johnson’s rollicking piano riff. “You could see that Pierre really did love the mademoiselle.
“And now the young monsieur and madame have rung the chapel bell / ‘C’est la vie,’ say the old folks. It goes to show you never can tell.”
The song mounts a spirited protest, but Chuck was sentenced to three years in prison and by the time he was released in 1963, after 20 months, rock was being overtaken by the British R&B boom.
MEMPHIS, TENNESSEE (1959)
Featuring some of Chuck’s best and most tender lyrics – he worked on it for more than a month – Memphis, Tennessee was inspired by the Muddy Waters’ classic Long Distance Operator.
In the lyric, the star is pleading with a telephone operator to help him find a girl called Marie – explaining they have been “pulled apart” by her mother.
It is not until the final verse that you discover the girl is his six-year-old daughter, whose mother fled home, taking Marie with her.
In a devastating aside, he tells the operator: “Last time I saw Marie she’s waving me good-bye / With hurry home drops on her cheek that trickled from her eye.”
JOHNNY B. GOODE (1958)
Powered by the most memorable guitar intro in rock, Johnny B. Goode is a semi-autobiographical tale of a down-at-heels guitar player who ends up with his name in lights.
The writing of the song illustrates Chuck’s ruthless commercial instinct: “The original words [were], of course, ‘that little coloured boy could play’,” he told Rolling Stone in 1972. “I changed it to ‘country boy’ – or else it wouldn’t get on the radio.”
Chuck’s genius as an arranger is also on display on this song, one of the first ever singles to utilise overdubs – with Chuck playing his solo over the top of the original studio recording.
A stone cold classic, it has proved to be supremely adaptable – with cover versions by Jerry Lee Lewis, Jimi Hendrix, Buck Owens, Peter Tosh and the Grateful Dead.
As long as rock exists, someone, somewhere will be playing a version of this song. Just ask Marty McFly.