If you review any account of a rock giant about his formative encounters with the music of Chuck Berry, you will discover a common thread: they all let themselves be read as the story of a true almost religious epiphany. For Paul McCartney and his Beatles colleagues, the songs of the late Berry “hit them like a flash.”
Elvis Presley will forever be known as the king of rock & roll, but few would dispute Chuck Berry’s status as the true godfather of the genre – the one most directly responsible for his infinitely adaptable footprint. “Chuck had a swing,” Keith Richards told RS. “There’s rock, but roll also counts.” Here, a few days after Berry’s death, we toured a selection of songs that made him immortal.
The rock & roll guitar starts here. The clash between the rural country, urban blues, and hot jazz in Chuck Berry’s electric vibration is the primal language of the pop music guitar, and in this first single it is already fully perfected. The entire song is a two-minute chase scene filled with the jargon of car culture and Berry’s hipster inventions (“While I was going ‘motorvatin'” down the hill … “).
This cheery request from Berry for a mistress to come to her house in a month exhibits both her great style for solos, in this case, she plays chords (!) During the main guitar break, as well as her sense of humor. “I’m going to make a false complaint to you,” he sings, “that’s going to be all I send you,” and he doesn’t rule out taking the case to the United Nations if that is going to bring his girl back. He wrote, in his autobiography, that the song was somehow based on a true story and something he had seen in a movie in which a judge was indulgent before a defendant until he was reminded that he had introduced him to his woman.
Wee Wee Hours
It didn’t take Berry more than an hour, by his own estimate, to compose “Wee Wee Hours,” the bluesy B-side of “Maybellene.” His inspiration for the song was “Wee Baby Blues,” the bluesman song Big Joe Turner, a romantic declaration of love at first sight – “I was in love with you, baby / Long before I knew how to say your name,” he sang. Turner. Similarly, Berry’s song is a tribute to a woman named Margie whom he met and fell in love with as a teenager and played for the USO.
Down Bound Train
A blues allegory of sin, with a rhythm guitar moving like a locomotive, “Down Bound Train” reflected Berry’s deep religious beliefs. The lyrics describe a person who drinks to the point of fainting, only to wake up in train lit by a sulfur lamp, moving through sulfuric fumes – the driver was “the Devil himself.”
Roll Over Beethoven
“I wanted to play blues,” Chuck Berry told Rolling Stone. “But it wasn’t bluesy enough. There was always something to eat at home.”
Berry originally composed this hymn as a joke to his sister Lucy, who played classical music on the piano in the family home all the time, to the point that Chuck couldn’t play the piano.
Too Much Monkey Business
Berry was not just too cool, he was actually beyond everything, as he said in the lyrics of “Too Much Monkey Business.” In his head, it was all a hassle – working, shopping, going out with girls, school, war, work again – and he deals with each of these annoyances in concise and clever proto-raps before launching into the memorable chorus of the song.
Brown Eyed Handsome Man
To make this song, Berry was inspired during a tour of California’s blackest and Latino areas. As Berry said, “I didn’t see many blue eyes.” He did see a good-looking Chicano whom the police wanted to grab for lazing around until “a woman appeared yelling at the police to leave him alone.” Mounted on a manic guitar arrangement, the song unfolds a rebellious tale about a dark-eyed lover.
Berry’s story about a Cuban who misses an American came from playing Nat King Cole’s “Calypso Blues,” when Berry was still playing everything at the Cosmopolitan Club in St. Louis, at a time when Latin rhythms were popular. He decided to compose his own song after a recital in New York, where he first met Cubans.
Rock and Roll Music
Berry’s 1957 tribute to the music he loved most, with a wobbly piano and hard-hitting guitar, continues to stand out as one of the most passionate statements by the powers of rock. He jokingly scoffed at jazz, mambo, and tango, styles that were popular at the time, and clearly portrayed what rock was, from its rhythm to its complaining Saxo.
Chuck Berry was 30 years old when he sat down to compose “School Days”, also known as “School Day (Ring! Ring! Goes the Bell)”, but it is not something you can know based on the vivid evocation of the daily experience of high school, from grumpy teachers to crowded canteens (“You’re lucky if you have time to eat!”).
Johnny B. Goode
“Johnny B. Goode was the first rock & roll hit about rock & roll stardom. It remains the best rock & roll song about the democracy of fame in pop music. And “Johnny B. Goode” is based on fact. The title character is Chuck Berry – “more or less,” as he told Rolling Stone in 1972. “The original words [were], of course, ‘That little boy of color knew how to play well.’ I changed it to ‘Chiquito country’ – because otherwise, it wasn’t going to be on the radio.” Berry took other narrative liberties. Johnny was from “deep inside Louisiana, near New Orleans,” rather than Berry’s native St. Louis. And Johnny “never learned to read or write very well,” while Berry graduated from beauty school with a degree in hair and cosmetics.
Sweet Little Sixteen
Sweet Little Sixteen ”celebrated girls, the United States, and the power of rock & roll – an ode to high-heeled, minor rock fans, which also includes a roll call from American cities. The Beach Boys adapted the song with new lyrics and called it “Surfin’ U.S.A. “; Berry threatened to sue them and earned credit as a songwriter.
Berry mixes protective advice (“Oh Carol, don’t let him steal your heart”) with kind-hearted naivety (“Get on my machine so we can ride”) in this heavily grooved gem from 1958, inspired by the teenage daughter of a woman the singer-songwriter had become involved with.
Around and Around
The lively B-side of “Johnny B. Goode” tells the story of a party where Berry played with his band, and which had to be interrupted by the police. It has a swing rhythm, with the breaks that he liked so much back then, and a funky and bluesy guitar solo that was born from a zap with the band before that memorable show.
With a guitar intro reminiscent of “Johnny B. Goode” and another chorus that says “go! go! ”,“ Little Queenie ”–launched a year after“ Johnny ”—shows the skill with which Berry could make variations on the same theme, given that he sings the second stanza (“ Meanwhile, I thought / If he’s on cheer up, no need to break it ”) with a brand new waddle.
Back in the U.S.A.
Any mixed feelings Berry had about his native country disappeared, at least temporarily, when he toured Australia for the first time, doing shows in Melbourne and Sydney in January and February 1969. Witnessing firsthand abuse of the Aborigines made noise to Berry, considering that 10 days after returning to the United States, he recorded this blatantly grateful tribute to the United States.
You Never Can Tell
Chuck Berry composed “You Never Can Tell,” along with “No Particular Place To Go” and “Nadine,” while serving a sentence at the Federal Medical Center in Springfield, Missouri, allegedly for having crossed the state border with a girl from 14 years with dubious intentions – which doesn’t seem to have stopped him from writing this little song about a “teenage wedding” and old skeptics.
No Particular Place to Go
Another proof of Chuck Berry’s powers of imagination: He composed this 1964 single, a captivating tale of teenage idyll, freedom, and sexual frustration, while in prison (for crossing state lines with a 14-year-old girl, but that’s another story).
Berry returned to Chess Records after a year on Mercury with Back Home, his 1970 record, and his featured track is one of his best late gems. With a tense and fun riff, “Tulane” is a humorous and detailed story with timely lyrics about a couple of hippies who have a “weird shop,” specializing in “cream of cream.” When they raid the place, and one of them ends up “in a rotten jail,” they call in a “lawyer with political contacts” to fix things.
Reelin’ and Rockin
One of Berry’s best boogie-woogie songs, “Reelin ‘and Rockin'”, with its cascading piano arrangements and stanzas that stop dead, is a simple ode about dancing rock & roll until dawn. “I’m going to keep dancing until I’m happy,” Berry sings on what was originally B-side for “Sweet Little Sixteen.”