Best of Chuck Berry, Part II
In the first section of this overview on Chuck Berry’s work, we looked at deep album tracks, R&B hits, singles, and b-sides. In this article, we see Berry’s influence on Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones, and The Beatles.
25. “Festival.” From his 1971 album “San Francisco Dues,” Chuck discovers a wah-wah pedal and dreams of a two-week national musical festival, namechecking some of the biggest acts from rock, pop, country, and blues. Only Chuck would equate two of his backing bands (the Woolies from Detroit and the Loading Zone from San Francisco) with The Who, CCR, and The Rolling Stones. The hippie era let Chuck stretch out a bit, this song goes four minutes, and Johnnie Johnson sets his piano keys on fire.
24. “Oh What a Thrill.” Chuck Berry’s 1979 “Rockit” album was his first album of new material since 1975 and would be his last until 2017. On “Oh What a Thrill,” Berry managed to turn back the clock two decades, writing a song that was both fresh and sounding like it could have been a Top Ten hit in 1959. Nothing deep, but it’s a joy to hear Chuck and the band work their groove. Best cover – the Dave Edmunds 1980 Rockpile version from their 1980 “Seconds of Pleasure” album.
23. “Run Rudolph Run.” The songwriting credits “Run Rudolph Run” are somewhat of a mystery. Johnny Marks, who wrote “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” is credited as one of the writers. However, it has also been theorized that Berry was required to give publishing/writing credits to Marks, because of the copyright on the Rudolph character. Nobody can identify credited co-writer Marvin Brodie, so that name may have been a pseudonym used to hide publishing/royalty money. In any event, it sounds like a Berry song, he recorded it first, and had a minor hit with in 1958 (#69 on the pop charts). “Run Rudolph Run” has appeared in several Christmas films (including “Home Alone,” “Jingle All the Way,” and “The Santa Clause 2”) and annually helps to rock away those holiday blues.
22. “Come On.” On this 1961 non-charting single, Chuck’s life is nothing but frustration since his baby left him. Chuck’s guitar sounds oddly distorted on the short solo and Martha Berry provides literal soul sister backing vocals. “Come On” would famously become the first single from The Rolling Stones, hitting #21 on the U.K. charts in 1963. However, their version sounds positively tame compared to the original. Colin Robinson on the influence of “Come On,” “Those wailing horns, lushly expanding and contracting, would be the basis for many a Motown song for Barry Gordy to produce, usually built upon Lamont Dozier’s uncannily catchy melodies and lyrics and delivered by the Supremes, Tammi Tarrell, and Mary Wells.”
21. “Reelin’ and Rockin’.” “Reelin’ and Rockin’” was the b-side to the 1958 #2 pop hit “Sweet Little Sixteen” and a live version of the song peaked at #27 in 1973, following “My Ding-A-Ling” onto the charts and being Berry’s last Top 40 hit. As was the case with many of Berry’s early singles, Chess studio musicians Willie Dixon and Fred Below served as the rhythm section. Chuck captures the all night, dance party mood of “Rock Around the Clock” on this stop and start boogie woogie record.
20. “Carol.” “Carol” was a #18 pop hit for Berry in 1958, a distillation of teen angst hooked by the line, “Don’t let him steal your heart away.” The narrator knows he must learn how to dance to keep his love and fully intends to do so. The Rolling Stones covered “Carol” on their 1964 debut album and the song resulted in a fascinating alpha male showdown between Berry and Keith Richards in the 1987 film “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll.”
19. “Little Queenie.” Chuck moves into sexual fantasy mode on this 1959 #80 pop hit, where a teenager who looks like a model causes a lump in his throat and his knees to wiggle. The internal strategy session line, “Meanwhile, I was still thinkin’” was later referenced by Marc Bolan on T. Rex’s “Get It On,” (known in the States as “Bang a Gong (Get It On)).” “Little Queenie” was often covered by The Beatles during their Hamburg era and Jerry Lee Lewis released his version as a single in 1959, an odd selection given his well-documented problems with teenage girls.
18. “Sweet Little Rock & Roller.” Berry returns to innocent fun on “Sweet Little Rock and Roller,” where a mere child discovers the life affirming qualities of his genre of music; a theme that Lou Reed revisited on The Velvet Underground’s “Rock & Roll” in 1970. Ray Davies may have discovered the phrase “well respected man” from this 1958 #47 pop hit. Best cover – Rod Stewart’s 1974 version, when he had the voice, the band, and the attitude for sloppy arena rock excellence.
17. “Rock & Roll Music.” Berry, “I was heavy into rock & roll and had to create something that hit the spot without question. I wanted the lyrics to define every aspect of its being.” Berry used a rumba rhythm to define his love for rock ‘n’ roll, while lyrically disavowing modern jazz, tangos, and mambos. The original version of “Rock & Roll Music” went to #8 in 1957 and The Beach Boys peaked at #5 with their 1976 cover. Best cover – The Manic Street Preachers’ 2000 irony free, artillery blast release.
16. “Memphis, Tennessee.” This long distance plea for help was originally the b-side to “Back in the U.S.A.” in 1959 and hit the U.K. Top Ten in 1963. Musically, “Memphis” sounds like a muted form of rockabilly, but the hook is in the story. As the song develops, it is revealed that the phone call was made in hopes of finding a six year old daughter, the victim of a broken family. A 1963 Lonnie Mack instrumental version of “Memphis” preceded the Johnny Rivers cover that peaked at #2 on the pop charts in 1964. Most interesting cover – Wilson Pickett’s 1973 release sounds like a Blaxploitation film waiting to happen.
15. “Big Boys.” This 2017 single, the first Berry had released since 1979, went back to teen/high school concerns about being too young to enjoy what “the big boys” can do. Of course, most of the interaction Chuck was concerned about involved “big girls.” Tom Morello and Nathaniel Rateliff contributed to the song, which manages to sound like a 1950s number, yet with a crisp, modern production sound.
14. “You Can’t Catch Me.” Chuck sped up the intro that Muddy Waters used on “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl” for this 1958 non-charting, fast car tribute. Berry referenced his prior hits “Maybellene” and “Wee Wee Hours” while writing lyrics and rhythms that would later be appropriated by John Lennon and Bruce Springsteen. In fact, The Beatles’ “Come Together” was such an obvious reworking of “You Can’t Catch Me” that it resulted in a lawsuit between music publisher Morris Levy and John Lennon. Lennon’s 1975 cover of “You Can’t Catch Me” was recorded as part of the settlement. Again, you can hear the influence that Berry had on Bob Dylan’s lyrical flights of fancy. In 2016, Dylan stated that Berry was “the Shakespeare of rock and roll.”
13. “Brown Eyed Handsome Man.” Released as the b-side to “Too Much Monkey Business” in 1956, “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” is Berry at his sly, subversive best. The song notes social inequities and female lust for a “brown eyed handsome man” without mentioning what skin color may be attached. Berry was inspired to write the song after performances in southern California where he “didn’t see too many blue eyes.” Buddy Holly had a posthumous #3 U.K. hit with “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” in 1963 and the title lyric was referenced in John Fogerty’s “Centerfield.”
12. “Sweet Little Sixteen.” This 1958 #2 pop hit/#1 R&B number was Berry’s biggest single until “My Ding-A-Ling” in 1972. Lyrically, it’s about a teenage girl, living her fantasies through getting autographs from rock ‘n’ roll stars, wearing high heels and being chased by all the boys, then changing her persona for her high school reality. Brian Wilson admittedly wrote The Beach Boys 1963 #3 pop hit “Surfin’ U.S.A.” using “Sweet Little Sixteen’ for the melody. Due to potential legal action, Berry was giving a co-writing credit on “Surfin’ U.S.A.” in 1966. Jerry Lee Lewis, who often covered Berry material to include “Sweet Little Sixteen,” said the two men became friends after having a fight. Lewis, “He whupped my butt. He said he was king of rock ‘n’ roll. I said I was.”
11. “Tulane.” From the 1970 “Back Home” album, “Tulane” is a street smart tale about two dope dealers who hide behind a novelty store façade to ply their trade. Johnny winds up in jail but remains confident that Tulane can get an alibi and a judge willing to deal. “Tulane” is a deft look at counterculture politics from a musician who never got a break from the authorities with his race undoubtedly being a factor in those decisions. Musically, Bob Baldori from the Woolies deserves a mention for his spirited blues influenced harmonica work.