AS NEWS OF THE PASSING of rock’n’roll progenitor Chuck Berry sinks in, MOJO celebrates his legacy through 10 of his foundational compositions.
Berry was already 29 when his first single on Chicago’s Chess label emerged in 1955 and something of his already-colourful life reflected in his witty, knowing songs. Meanwhile, his rip-and-run guitar style – mashing jumpin’ country and blues in an innovative, roughshod manner – was to blow through a new generation of musical thrill-seekers like a divine wind.
“His already-colourful life reflected in his witty, knowing songs.”
In fact, it was Berry’s version of a country song – the Bob Wills-popularised Ida Red – that convinced label boss Leonard Chess to sign him, and it was that, rejigged as Maybellene, which hit Billboard Number 5 and laid down Berry’s marker. His run of classic Chess singles – generously represented below – were to inspire the second wave of rockers, notably The Rolling Stones, who covered Berry’s Come On (for their first single) and Carol to notable effect.
Enjoy our celebration of Berry’s most important songs and, if you’re already a fan, complain about the absence of Little Queenie, Rock And Roll Music, Carol, Back In The USA in the usual places. It’s a Top 10, so someone has to miss out.
10. Sweet Little Sixteen(Chess single, 1958)
She gets around, this gal: Pittsburgh, New Orleans, San Francisco. How exactly she finds her way back to her school desk every Monday morning is a mystery, but that’s no concern of Chuck’s. He’s too busy making like Tex Avery’s wolf, just like all those other nogoodnik rock’n’rollers on bandstands nationwide. The swaggering model for The Beach Boys’ Surfin’ USA.
9. Come On(Chess single, 1961)
A pile-up of bad vibes – terrible car, departed sweetheart, multiple wrong numbers – that swings like a bastard, due in no small way to Ebby Harding’s syncopated drums and Martha Berry’s earthy backup vox. The Stones have much to be grateful for, and here’s Keith paying back some of the interest in Taylor Hackford’s 1987 doc, Hail! Hail! Rock’n’Roll.
8. Promised Land(Chess single, 1964)
Berry’s ability to create instant myth with a few words and an elegant sufficiency of chords is typified by this odyssey across America by wheels and wings. Silk suit, T-bone steak and Los Angeles is his reward.
7. You Can’t Catch Me(Chess single, 1956)
Relentless rocker with an elastic beat, notoriously borrowed by John Lennon in the lyric for Come Together ("Here come old flat top..." etc) that was later to cause him so much aggro. Not much song, but lots and lots of rock’n’roll.
6. Brown Eyed Handsome Man(Chess b-side, 1956)
“Arrested on charges of unemployment...” Try armed robbery, Mann Act infractions and misdemeanour possession of marijuana, Chuck! Again, a game Robert Cray does the hard yards on Berry’s behalf in Hail! Hail! Rock’n’Roll.
5. Memphis, Tennessee(Chess b-side, 1959)
Wistful, almost ghostly b-side to Back In The U.S.A., whose vocal must have had some impact on the Dylan of Highway 61 Revisited, and later, this. The guitar tuning goes a bit south in the middle, but that’s all part of Chuck’s devil-may-care charm. Spoiler alert! It’s his daughter.
4. No Particular Place To Go(Chess single, 1964)
Chuck is nonchalance incarnate during a typically risqué attempt to remove a young lady friend’s safety belt – while driving! – to better facilitate his nefarious plans. On the original 45, Chuck is actually outplayed by the unknown bassist, until the concluding solo, which is as persistent as his previous fumblings.
3. Maybellene(Chess single, 1955)
Berry’s hillbilly jazz DNA shows in his high-energy debut single for Chess. Cars and girls figure (he’s chasing his cheatin’ woman in his “Cadillac doing about 95”), pointing the way forward for rock themes generally. Maracas-player Jerome Green adds a soupçon of Bo Diddley.
2. Roll Over Beethoven(Chess single, 1956)
Berry’s King Of Rock’n’Roll status (the Queen of course was Little Richard) rests partly on his ownership of the rock’n’roll manifesto song (see also, Rock And Roll Music, Let It Rock...) and this is his best. Don’t forget to tell “Chikoski” the news.
1. Johnny B Goode(Chess single, 1958)
The most memorable guitar intro in the entire history of music encapsulates everything rock’n’roll about rock’n’roll. Just ask Marty McFly.