Now that you've read our obituary for the great Chuck Berry, who died yesterday at the age of 90, maybe you're in the mood to listen to his songs. Here are 20 of his greatest.
At the urging of his friend Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry arranged a meeting with Chess Records in 1955. He brought along two home-recorded demos: “Wee Wee Hours,” a blues number inspired by Big Joe Turner, and a breakneck country-and-western romp called “Ida Mae,” a rewrite of the hillbilly hit “Ida Red” that always floored the integrated crowds he played. To Berry's surprise, Leonard Chess flipped for the latter. Renamed to sound less country, the tale of a man in a V-8 Ford chasing his unfaithful woman in Cadillac Coup de Ville that was (as Chuck put it, in the first of his many contributions to the English language) “motorvatin' over the hill” changed everything. Chuck Berry was no longer a wannabe blues man. He was a rock 'n' roll star ready to give the kids what they wanted – “the big beat, cars and young love,” as Chess would later put it.
Roll Over Beethoven (1955)
Chuck always claimed that the real target here wasn't Ludwig Van or Tchaikovsky or any of the old white boys in the highbrow European musical canon, but his sister Lucy, who used to hog the piano at home to practice the classics when he was a boy. To the teenagers catching on to the wild new music (and the adults who feared them) this sure sounded like a call to rebellion though. Though he's afflicted with both the “rockin' pneumonia” and “the rollin' arth-i-ritis,” Chuck doesn't directly mention rock 'n' roll by name because he doesn't have to -- the guitar intro, an embryonic version of the lick that would become Chuck's trademark on “Johnny B. Goode,” says it all.
Too Much Monkey Business (1956)
Maybe the first ever rock 'n' roll protest song. In seven rapid-fire verses, Chuck populates an entire nation of Americans upset with the “botheration” of modern life. The heroes are a millworker, a filling station attendant, an army dogface, and a school kid who gripe about their busy days. The villains are a car salesman offering layaway, a blonde angling for a wedding ring, and Ma Bell herself, all out to swindle Berry and his fellow Americans of their hard-earned cash and hard-prized freedom. “Subterranean Homesick Blues” was a rewrite of “Too Much Monkey Business,” Dylan said. But so, in a way, is every other Dylan song of the '60s that's populated by American grotesques on the make.
Brown Eyed Handsome Man (1956)
Berry wrote the b-side of “Too Much Monkey Business” while touring California, where he “didn't see too many blue eyes," as he put it in his sharp and entertaining autobiography. He did however witness a police officer threatening to lock up a fine Latino man for loitering until some woman shouted the cop away. Berry translates that anecdote into class commentary -- his hero is “arrested on charges of unemployment.” But race is the real taboo topic that Berry sneakily broaches: “Brown-eyed” was inevitably heard as “brown-skinned,” and Berry humorously tweaks racist fears that handsome men of his hue were going to seduce away white women and take over professional sports. A man of broad cultural tastes, Chuck also said the verse about “Milo de Venus” was inspired by Venus in Furs, the classic Austrian S&M novella that would later titillate the Velvet Underground as well.
You Can't Catch Me (1956)
“I had a phase of about four or five years of writing songs about cars,” Berry told an interviewer in 1967, describing “a yearning which I had since I was aged seven to drive about in a car. I first started driving at 17 -- one year earlier than I should have.” Berry's first hit to mention “rock and roll” is also his purest expression of the speed and freedom and joy and power of driving. His music publisher sued John Lennon for inserting a version of the line “here come a flat-top/ he come a-movin' up with me” into “Come Together”; as part of the settlement, John had to record “You Can't Catch Me” for his oldies collection, Rock 'n' Roll. Berry's lyric also influenced auto fanatic Bruce Springsteen, who would cap live performances of “Growin' Up” with an adaptation of the lyric “Bye bye New Jersey/ I've become airborne.”
School Day (Ring! Ring! Goes the Bell) (1956)
Berry's first straight-up teen anthem kicks off with the sound of him playing “a guitar just like ringing a bell,” as he'd later put it in a different context. That bell, we learn, is an alarm clock, the first of many noises that regiment the life of the American teenager, who's hurried from class to class, bullied by mean teachers and jerky classmates, and obsessed for the idea of making it to three o'clock so he can dance and flirt with girls. Berry said the rhythmic breaks were meant to mimic how hectic he found high school compared to his one-room elementary school. “That's 90 percent of the song,” he said. “I suppose the remainder could have been talent.”
Rock 'n' Roll Music (1957)
Here's where Chuck decided to define the music that made Beethoven roll over. It's not modern jazz, which tends to “lose the beauty of the melody” when it speeds up, but it does have a little of that Latin tinge, even if it's not a tango, a mambo or a -- what's that, Chuck, a “congo”? The backbeat here rolls more than it rocks, a showcase for Johnnie Johnson's piano, which helped define the sound of rock 'n' roll music as much as Chuck's guitar. “Rock 'n' Roll Music” was a part of the Beatles' earliest Hamburg sets, and they recorded their own version to celebrate Berry's 38th birthday.
Sweet Little Sixteen (1958)
An anthem that recognized rock 'n' roll as a nationwide phenomenon, from Boston to Philadelphia to Pittsburgh to Texas to Frisco Bay to Saint Louis to New Orleans, and also celebrated the teen girls who made up the music's fan base. The inspiration was a girl Chuck witnessed desperately chasing after Paul Anka at the Ottawa Colliseum for an autograph to stuff “in her fat little Mickey Mouse wallet that she held like the torch on the Statue of Liberty.” “Sweet Little Sixteen” was also the blueprint for the Beach Boys' “Surfin' U.S.A.,” a fact that did not escape the attention of Berry's music publisher, who strong-armed the Wilson boys' dad Murry into signing over the copyright. This number two hit would be Chuck's biggest until “My Ding-a-Ling" in 1972.
Reelin' and Rockin' (1958)
The b-side to “Sweet Little Sixteen” was Berry's attempt to recapture how he felt at 16 after he snuck into a Chicago nightclub to watch Big Joe Turner masterfully wail his way through “Rock Around the Clock.” The song became a staple of Berry's live show in later years, though after hearing other performers change the lyrics to double entendres --“leaning toward the permissiveness of the changing times,” as he put it -- he decided to assay some risque rewrites himself. You can hear a few of those, such as “Looked at my watch and it was eleven thirty/ She turned back and called me somethin’ dirty,” on the live version that became a hit 1972. But the original, which doesn't try quite as hard, is the still the greatest.
Johnny B. Goode (1958)
When asked how he developed his style, Berry would say, “I did the Big Band Era on guitar.” And in fact, the famous guitar intro here may have been directly adapted from the Carl Hogan's lick that kicks off Louis Jordan's "Ain't That Just Like A Woman," though it also owes a debt to the piano work of Berry's longtime collaborator, Johnnie Johnson. The greatest rock 'n' roll song of all time is many other things as well: a kind of autobiography, a tribute to Johnson, and a celebration of every “little colored boy” (as the lyrics went before “country boy” was substituted) who wanted to be a star. And it's also just a knockout performance -- Berry's such a distinctive guitarist and he's often overlooked as a singer, but many an MC should envy his astonishing breath control here.
Here's the first (but hardly the last) time that famous guitar lick from “Johnny B. Goode” resurfaced, showing that Chuck had decided to make it his personal trademark – and marking its next step along the way to becoming a genuine rock 'n' roll convention. Berry named this song after the four-year-old daughter of a girlfriend of Clyde McPhatter's, but he got the idea for the lyric from personal experience: Adolescent life was plenty different in the '50s than it had been since Berry was a teen, he admitted, but “some guy stealing another boy's girl was a thing that hadn't changed any.”
Back in the U.S.A. (1959)
You have to wonder just how patriotic Berry intended his song about landing on a runway back in his native country to be – as critic Dave Marsh once noted, the reason Berry was “looking hard for a drive-in” is “because it was so tough to find one that would serve a black man.” Other performers seemed to pick up on the irony just beneath the surface here: the Beatles tweaked it for “Back in the U.S.S.R” and rabble-rousing lefties the MC5 snarled their take on it with a proto-punk attitude. (Linda Ronstadt did play it straight on her hit version, though.) But whatever his skepticism, Berry is clearly infatuated with the nation of hamburgers and jukeboxes and skycrapers and freeways. And if the U.S.A. ever decides to replace its national anthem with a rock 'n' roll song we can all sing, this better be at the top of the list of nominees.
Memphis Tennessee (1959)
Chuck Berry recorded the b-side of “Back in the U.S.A.” by himself on a $79 Sears reel-to-reel recorder in a St. Louis office building, cooking up a slinkier groove than usual. There's no Johnnie Johnson piano this time, just a guitar rhythm chinking sneakily against a rubbery bass and as Chuck described them, some “ticky-tick drums that trot along in the background,” which he added later. Adapted from an old Muddy Waters lyric, the song tells a short story about a man pleading with an operator to connect him with a girl back home, Marie, who turns out not to be a former lover, but the singer's daughter. After Johnny Rivers' 1964 version became a number two hit, Chuck would make an extended version of the song a part of his live sets and later write a sequel, "Little Marie."
Let It Rock (1960)
Though the title might have you expecting another anthemic celebration of rock 'n' roll, “Let It Rock” begins as something of a blues lament, with a railroad worker singing about his daily routine and waiting for payday and a chance to shoot dice with the other men on his crew. Then, unexpectedly, this slice-of-life vignette becomes an action story, as the foreman frantically breaks the news that a train is headed toward the work camp, the engineer doesn't have time to pull the brakes, and the men have to scramble off the tracks. An overlooked showcase of how sharply Berry could write and play.
Come On (1961)
As much as Chuck Berry is known for celebrating the freedom that fast cars could offer, he spent a good amount of time complaining about how those machines let him down, and never more frustratedly than on this track, originally titled “Everything Is Wrong.” The instrumentation is uncharacteristic for a Berry recording, with saxophone, slide guitar, and Chuck's sister Martha singing backup, and the rhythm sounds a little like a late attempt to cash in on the twist craze -- in fact, the cut would surface on the Chuck Berry Twist LP the following year. It was the last single before Berry went to prison for a questionable Mann Act conviction, and though it wasn't a hit, the Rolling Stones recorded it and released it as their first single.
Berry spent most of 1962 and 1963 in jail. When he got out, the British Invasion had already landed in the U.S., and many of the newly famous young Englishmen were recording their own versions of Chuck's '50s hits, which they cited as significant inspirations. Berry had been writing while he was locked up, and on his comeback single, he reeled off the most vivid language of his career. On “Nadine,” his narrator was again chasing after a woman, as on “Maybelline,” but this time, the poor guy didn't have a car to race after her in. He glimpses her while riding a bus, hops off and races after her “coffee-colored Cadillac,” “campaign-shoutin' like a southern diplomat,” then hops into a taxi.
No Particular Place to Go (1964)
This blue-balled classic was yet another hit that Berry wrote while serving his prison sentence. Musically, it's a revamp of “School Day,” but here the singer learns that there's something way more frustrating than being stuck in class all day. A young man drives his girlfriend out to the Kokomo for some necking. He steals a kiss. They cuddle. She starts blowing in his ear. The guitar licks between the verses build up the sexual anticipation. But then he parks and, to his botheration, can't undo her seat belt, and the sexually frustrated guy has to drive her home and settle for a fiery guitar outro.
You Never Can Tell (1964)
The girl groups of the '60s may have sung longingly about wanting to get married, but Chuck Berry wrote the greatest rock 'n' roll song ever about what happens after your wedding day. Chuck's last Top 40 hit in the '60s is a tale of young love that unexpectedly works out, with a “teenage wedding” no one expects to last turning into a lifelong dance party. Newlyweds Pierre and his mademoiselle cram their “coolerator” (another genius Berry coinage) “with TV dinners and ginger ale” and grow old together without quite growing up, twisting their happy lives away to a creole beat that not even a watusi-ing Travolta in Pulp Fiction could reduce to camp.
Promised Land (1965)
Chuck Berry songs are about getting from point A to point B in the shortest amount of time with the maximum amount of style, and on “Promised Land,” he gets from Norfolk, Virginia to Los Angeles -- via Greyhound, train, and airplane – in just two minutes and twenty three seconds. That'd be at the least a 2,700-mile trip, but Chuck doesn't choose the shortest route west, or the most hospitable -- he travels through the deep south, getting stuck first in Alabama and then Louisiana, two states where no black man wanted to be stranded in 1965 after the sun went down. Berry wrote “Promised Land” while he was in prison, and had a hard time finding a road atlas to fact-check his lyrics against. “The penal institutions then were no so generous as to offer a map of any kind, for fear of providing the route for an escape,” he would later write.
Chuck Berry wrote three great songs named for women being chased by men. Unlike Maybellene and Nadine, though, Tulane isn't fleeing a frustrated suitor: The cops are on her trail after busting the “novelty shop” where she and her man Johnny have been peddling dope. In the space of a few verses, Johnny instructs Tulane on how they'll beat the rap -- she's got to go back to their pad, devise an alibi, and raise bail -- and each chorus cheers her on. With its rough guitar grain and its harmonica solo, “Tulane” is the bluesiest of Berry's great songs -- the times had finally caught up with his tastes. And as the rebellious teens of the 1950s had became an outlaw counterculture by the end of the '60s, Chuck Berry was still standing off to the side, taking notes and reporting on what he saw.
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