Chuck Berry (1926-2017) is a guitarist, singer and songwriter from St. Louis, Missouri. He grew up in a stable family environment; his parents Martha and Henry both worked, and raised their six children in a middle class neighborhood. Though he took an early interest in music, his emergence as a gifted guitarist and lyricist came relatively late in life. Newly married, working in town and playing in a local band at night, Berry received a phone call from pianist Johnnie Johnson on New Year’s Eve, 1952. Johnson’s saxophone player had had a stroke, and the Sir John’s Trio needed a replacement musician on short notice. Joining Johnnie Johnson’s trio was Berry’s first big step towards stardom. Within three years, Chuck Berry and Johnnie Johnson were making rock and roll records in Chicago.
Chuck Berry (b. 1926), singer, guitarist, songwriter
Chuck Berry is recognized as one of the great rock and roll musicians in pop music history. Johnnie Johnson and bassist Willie Dixon deserve credit for helping create many of Chuck Berry’s best songs with Chess Records.
Johnnie Johnson (1924-2005), piano
Willie Dixon (1915-1992), bass
It’s fitting that a musician from Missouri, the geographic center of America, would be responsible for integrating elements of country/western swing and rhythm and blues music into a popular new hybrid. The introductory guitar flourish, the jump blues guitar riff and driving 4/4 back beat all became common characteristics of rock and roll music. As the new member of Sir John’s Trio, Berry incorporated hillbilly songs and riffs into the band’s repertoire. The predominantly black audience at the Cosmopolitan Club, where Sir John’s Trio worked, was amused and taken aback, but soon enjoyed the songs and requested them as dance numbers. Though Johnnie Johnson was a gifted pianist and a formidable talent, he slowly ceded the band’s leadership to the ambitious Berry, whose inventiveness and stage presence were undeniable. As a result, the trio began to attract a larger, integrated audience.
In 1955, Berry traveled to Chicago in search of a recording contract, and contacted Leonard Chess of Chess Records. After auditioning with Chess, he went home and then returned to Chicago with Johnnie Johnson to record four songs including “Maybellene”, an adaptation of the Bob Wills & The Texas Playboys song “Ida Red”. Through the inducement of Payola, “Maybellene” became a #1 rhythm and blues hit, and sold over a million copies.
Chuck Berry became a fixture on AM radio, achieving lifelong popularity as “the King of Rock and Roll”, writing and performing dozens of songs recognized as pop standards. It is worth noting Berry’s relationship with groundbreaking disk jockey Alan Freed, who featured Berry’s music on his radio shows and several rock and roll movies during the fifties.
I learned about Chuck Berry early in life. I’m sure I heard “Johnny B. Goode” and “Sweet Little Sixteen” on the car radio at an early age, but the first real connection to Chuck Berry’s music was reading song credits on family records, and seeing (Berry) as the author of the early Beatles hits “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Rock And Roll Music”.
My mother bought me my first Chuck Berry album, a two-disc compilation called Chuck Berry’s Golden Decade. I was probably in ninth or tenth grade. Perhaps the interest in Berry was prompted by the popularity of the novelty hit “My Ding-A-Ling”. I liked this record so much that Mom helped me buy the companion Chuck Berry’s Golden Decade, Vol. 2 a year or so later. I still have them. The first volume is worn out, the record sleeves split long ago.
The Rock And Roll Poet
Berry’s greatest strength is the clever, syncopated lyrics which drive the music’s rhythms:
“Johnny B. Goode”
His mother told him “Someday you will be a man,
And you will be the leader of a big old band.
Many people coming from miles around,
To hear you play your music when the sun go down,
Maybe someday your name will be in lights,
Saying Johnny B. Goode tonight.”
“Brown Eyed Handsome Man”
Beautiful daughter couldn’t make up her mind,
Between a doctor and a lawyer man,
Her mother told her daughter go out and find yourself,
A brown eyed handsome man.
That’s what your daddy is a brown eyed handsome man.
Milo Venus was a beautiful lass,
She had the world in the palm of her hand,
She lost both her arms in a wrestling match,
To get a brown eyed handsome man.
She fought and won herself a brown eyed handsome man.
Two, three count with nobody on,
He hit a high fly into the stands,
Rounding third he was headed for home,
It was a brown eyed handsome man.
That won the game; it was a brown eyed handsome man.
“Nadine (Is It You?)”
I got on a city bus and found a vacant seat,
I thought I saw my future bride walking up the street,
I shouted to the driver hey conductor, you must,
Slow down, I think I see her, please let me off this bus.
Nadine, honey is that you?
Oh, Nadine, honey, is that you?
Seems like every time I see you darling you got something else to do.
I saw her from the corner when she turned and doubled back,
She started walkin’ toward a coffee colored Cadillac,
I was pushin’ through the crowd, tryin’ to get to where she’s at,
And I was campaign shouting like a Southern diplomat.
— Chuck Berry
Three examples, with lyrics that roll off the tongue, melody wed perfectly to the words. “Johnny B. Goode” is arguably the greatest rock and roll record ever written, a song inspired by Johnnie Johnson’s alcoholic sprees. American pop culture historian Glenn C. Altschuler notes that “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” played “slyly with racial attitudes and even fears”, while “Nadine” is pure Berry on the chase. My mother was named Nadine; I have a special place in my heart for the song featuring her name. When I was in grade school, Mom came home one day with two 45s singles, “Nadine” and the Marvelettes’ “Don’t Mess With Bill”. This was a year or two before the divorce. She was either sending a message, or she just needed to hear these for strength.
The Chess Records Sound
I love the sound of Chuck Berry records. Not just the music, but also the low fidelity, echo laden sound of records made in the Chess studio. Good examples of the Chess sound are Berry’s “Havana Moon” and “Around And Around”. The Rolling Stones recorded “It’s All Over Now” and “2120 Michigan St.” there, too. Modern recordings are so sonically bright and refined it loses a human element of imperfection, a reason why I find many post-1980 popular songs hard to listen to; another reason is my belief that the simple forms of American popular music had been explored by then.
Listening again to the Chuck Berry classics, I’m struck by what a great singer he is. On “Maybellene” and “Johnny B. Goode”, he shouts the words with authority and emotion. On “Sweet Sixteen” and “Merry Christmas Baby”, his voice is sweet and seductive. In between, he consistently strikes the proper emotional tone. Add lyrics that teenagers could relate to, top notch studio musicians and the Chess Records sound, you have some of the greatest rock and roll records ever made, and the primary influence on The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Along with Nat King Cole, Berry is one of the two black musicians to achieve mainstream popularity before the civil rights movement.
Hail! Hail! Rock N’ Roll
In 1986, a documentary was filmed to commemorate Chuck Berry sixtieth birthday, with two concert performances at the Fox Theater in Berry’s home town of St. Louis. Director Taylor Hackford assembled a first rate orchestra, headed by guitarist Keith Richards and featuring many guest stars, to support Berry during the two performances. Hail! Hail! Rock N’ Roll released into movie theaters in 1987, is one of the great rock documentaries, perhaps second only to A Hard Day’s Night. If you have a chance to peruse the upgraded 4-DVD set, make sure to watch the second disc about the making of the film.
Many of the artists in the big countdown are eccentric people. Not because I choose eccentric musicians; great artists are often introverted people who require time alone to create music. They are adored by fans, who bombard them with requests for time and attention. They are often very wealthy, and have great freedom to do as they please. After watching Hail! Hail! Rock N’ Roll, it becomes clear that Chuck Berry is among the most eccentric.
Berry has a domineering, alpha-male personality. In this rehearsal scene, Berry and Richards battle over the details of “Carol”, specifically a guitar slur in the song intro, a primal exercise where Berry establishes who the top dog is:
Other than music, Chuck Berry appears obsessed with two pursuits, money and women. He spent decades traveling to gigs by himself, with only a guitar and suitcase, demanding to be paid in cash before taking the stage and playing with a backup band, unrehearsed and assembled by the promoter. As a result, it is difficult finding good concert performances for this profile. During the filming of the documentary, he identified “loopholes” in his contractual obligations, and demanded to be paid with a “bag of cash” each morning before showing up to work.
His songs slyly tell stories about a man who pursues women. In his autobiography, Berry is candid about his many affairs on the road. He used his fame and charm to satisfy his considerable libido. On the other hand, Berry has been married for 64 years with four children, able to separate his home and road life to a great extent.
Chuck Berry is a controlling person, selfish in his own pursuits, while demanding compliance by those around him. For those outside his personal circle of friends, he appears both greedy and stingy, while perpetually in pursuit of a beautiful woman’s charms. I also sense that Chuck Berry is a very tough guy, one who doesn’t take shit from anyone.
“My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.”
—- Ayn Rand, “Atlas Shrugged”
Berry’s early business relationships justify his deep mistrust of promoters and other music executives. Two names, including disk jockey Alan Freed, mysteriously appeared as co-writers for his first hit “Maybellene”. For each fifty nine cent single sold, his original contract called for one half-cent royalty. By the early sixties, he had been victimized many times by concert promoters who reneged on their contractual obligations. The severe prison sentences for his two felony convictions appear to be the type reserved for black men; at the time Missouri was a deeply divided society. In an effort to protect himself, Berry developed a strict contract for his live performances.
“In a sense, the contract became another of Chuck Berry’s masks, something to shield and protect him for the rest of the world. He had been burned too many times by his promoters, unscrupulous managers and businessmen, and the American legal system. Now, he had a deliberately cultivated reputation for unpredictability and a strictly enforced business contract behind which he could safely hide and live his private life.”
— Bruce Pegg, “Brown Eyed Handsome Man: The Life and Hard Times of Chuck Berry”
Cadillac, Apple Pie, Cheeseburger, Chuck Berry
With his catchy songs about cars, girls and rock and roll, Chuck Berry captured the zeitgeist of the optimism and affluence of fifties American society. Driving your own car, eating a cheeseburger at the local drive-in, cuddling up with your favorite boy or girl — these remain the greatest and most accessible luxuries of American life. Sixty years later, one senses a fundamental change in society is coming. The world is getting very crowded, and a divide is growing between the few who can afford the American Dream, and those who can’t. Like many people my age, both conservative and liberal, I long for the days of old, when things weren’t so complicated, and the future looked a bit brighter for all. Nothing is more American than Chuck Berry singing and playing his guitar, with his right hand man Johnnie Johnson tinkling the piano keys behind him.
“Did I miss the skyscrapers, did I miss the long freeway?
From the coast of California to the shores of Delaware Bay,
You can bet your life I did, till I got back to the U. S. A.
Looking hard for a drive-in, searching for a corner cafe,
Where hamburgers sizzle on an open grill night and day,
Yeah, and the jukebox jumping with records like in the U.S.A.
Well, I’m so glad I’m livin’ in the U.S.A.,
Yes, I’m so glad I’m livin’ in the U.S.A.,
Anything you want, we got it right here in the U.S.A.”
— Chuck Berry
Chuck Berry Song Notes:
1. Forty seven songs have been chosen. The most famous songs not included are “Let It Rock” and “My Ding-A-Ling (Live)”.
2. The alternate version of “Down The Road A Piece” is the stereo mix, length is 2:26.
3. Otherwise, it’s easy to find these songs on iTunes.
Chuck Berry Songs:
Johnny B. Goode, Chuck Berry ★★★★★
Roll Over Beethoven, Chuck Berry ★★★★★
Maybellene, Chuck Berry ★★★★
Back In The U.S.A., Chuck Berry ★★★★
Memphis, Tennessee, Chuck Berry ★★★★
Nadine (Is It You?), Chuck Berry ★★★★
Around And Around, Chuck Berry ★★★★
School Days, Chuck Berry ★★★★
Sweet Little Sixteen, Chuck Berry ★★★★
No Money Down, Chuck Berry ★★★★
Brown Eyed Handsome Man, Chuck Berry ★★★★
You Can’t Catch Me, Chuck Berry ★★★
Too Much Monkey Business, Chuck Berry ★★★
No Particular Place To Go, Chuck Berry ★★★
Havana Moon, Chuck Berry ★★★
Rock And Roll Music, Chuck Berry ★★★
Almost Grown, Chuck Berry ★★★
You Never Can Tell, Chuck Berry ★★★
Sweet Little Sixteen (Take 11), Chuck Berry ★★★
Wee Wee Hours, Chuck Berry ★★
Thirty Days, Chuck Berry ★★
Downbound Train, Chuck Berry ★★
Carol, Chuck Berry ★★
Little Queenie, Chuck Berry ★★
Down The Road A Piece, Chuck Berry ★★
Promised Land, Chuck Berry ★★
Confessin’ The Blues, Chuck Berry ★★
I’m Talking About You, Chuck Berry ★★
Come On, Chuck Berry ★★
Around And Around (Take 2), Chuck Berry ★★
Merry Christmas Baby, Chuck Berry ★★
(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66, Chuck Berry ★★
Down The Road A Piece (Alt), Chuck Berry ★★
Oh Baby Doll, Chuck Berry ★
Reelin’ And Rockin’, Chuck Berry ★
Too Pooped To Pop, Chuck Berry ★
Jaguar & Thunderbird, Chuck Berry ★
Reelin’ And Rockin’ (Live), Chuck Berry ★
Run Rudolph Run, Chuck Berry ★
Don’t You Lie To Me, Chuck Berry ★
Deep Feeling, Chuck Berry ★
Guitar Boogie, Chuck Berry ★
I’ve Changed, Chuck Berry ★
You Two, Chuck Berry ★
The Things That I Used To Do, Chuck Berry ★
Night Beat, Chuck Berry ★
Sweet Sixteen, Chuck Berry ★
Johnny B. Goode (Live), Grateful Dead ★★
Roll Over Beethoven, The Beatles ★★★★
Roll Over Beethoven (Live), The Beatles ★
Roll Over Beethoven (Live), The Beatles ★★
Roll Over Beethoven, Electric Light Orchestra ★
Roll Over Beethoven (Live), The Rolling Stones ★
Memphis, Tennessee, Lonnie Mack ★★★★★
Memphis, Tennessee, Johnny Rivers ★★★★
Memphis, Tennessee (Live), The Beatles ★★
Memphis, Tennessee, Elvis Presley ★
Around And Around, The Rolling Stones ★★★★★
Around And Around (Live), The Rolling Stones ★★
Sweet Little Sixteen (Live), The Beatles ★
Too Much Monkey Business (Live), The Yardbirds ★★
Too Much Monkey Business (Live), The Beatles ★
Louie Louie, Richard Berry & The Pharaohs ★★★
Louie Louie, The Kingsmen ★★
Louie Louie, Toots & The Maytalls ★★★
Rock And Roll Music, The Beatles ★★★
Promised Land, Johnnie Allan ★★
Carol (Live), The Beatles ★
Carol (Live), The Rolling Stones ★
Down The Road A Piece, Amos Milburn ★★
Down The Road A Piece (Live), The Rolling Stones ★★
Don’t You Lie To Me, Tampa Red ★
The Things That I Used To Do, Guitar Slim ★★
Merry Christmas Baby, Charles Brown ★★★
Merry Christmas Baby, James Brown ★★★
(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66, The Rolling Stones ★★★★
(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66 (Live), The Rolling Stones ★★★
(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66, Nat King Cole Trio ★★★★
(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66 (Alt), Nat King Cole Trio ★★
(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66 (Alt), Nat King Cole ★★
Come On, The Rolling Stones ★★
Come On (Live), The Rolling Stones ★
Confessin’ The Blues, Walter Brown With Jay McShann ★★★
Confessin’ The Blues, The Rolling Stones ★★★
Confessin’ The Blues (Live), The Rolling Stones ★★
Fun, Fun, Fun (Alt), The Beach Boys ★★★
Surfin’ U.S.A., The Beach Boys ★★