Best of Chuck Berry, Part III – The Top Ten
It’s been an interesting ride delving into Chuck Berry’s music over the past month. He was even deeper than I had even imagined as a lyricist and even more disturbing than I had imagined as a human being (I’ve chosen not to get into those details here). He was a complicated man, to say the very least, but had few peers as a rock ‘n’ roll innovator.
10. “Lady B. Goode.” The third entry from the 2017 “Chuck” album is a true family affair – the lyrics are about Mrs. Berry and son Charles Jr. and grandson Charles III perform on the record. A reworking of “Johnny B. Goode,” “Lady B. Goode” tells the story of a marriage that survived the tribulations of rock ‘n’ roll stardom through mutual dedication (ha!). Chuck met Themetta “Toddy” Suggs after he had completed three years of reform school and while working as a janitor. Little has been written about the dynamics of their marriage, but she must have been a very…understanding…person.
9. “No Particular Place to Go.” This 1964 #10 pop & R&B hit is musically a rewrite of Berry’s 1957 “School Days” with the lyrical emphasis back on automobiles and young love. The punchline of the song is that as Chuck’s curiosity blossoms during a romantic interlude, he’s unable to unfasten the “safety belt” of his female counterpart. Longtime Elmore James bandmember and Chicago session musician Odie Payne provides the backbeat. Included on the 1964 “St. Louis to Liverpool” album, “No Particular Place to Go” was Berry’s biggest hit of the 1960s.
8. “Maybellene.” Chuck Berry’s first hit wasn’t based in the world of rhythm and blues, but came from the unlikely influence of Western swing. Berry used the 1938 recording of “Ida Red” by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys to develop this motorvatin’ number about an unfaithful girlfriend. “Rolling Stone” has described the influence of “Maybellene,” Berry’s first single and a #5 pop hit, by proclaiming “Rock and roll guitar starts here.” Chuck also got a lesson on how the music industry works when he discovered that disc jockey Alan Freed and Chess financer Russ Fratto were listed as co-writers. Although “Maybellene” came his first recording session, his skills as a lyricist and story teller were fully formed.
7. “Back in the U.S.A.” Supposedly written after touring Australia, Chuck’s Americana is replete with drive-ins, sizzling hamburgers, and jumping jukeboxes. Background singers on this 1959 #37 pop hit included Etta James and Marvin Gaye, then a member of The Marquees. This tale of national pride was a bigger hit for Linda Ronstadt in 1978 and Paul McCartney repurposed the title for “Back in the U.S.S.R.” Best cover – The MC5 kicking out the jam.
6. “Let It Rock.” This under 120 seconds explosive rocker peaked at #64 in 1960 in the U.S. and went Top Ten in the U.K. in 1963. The three verse, no chorus song describes a dice playing, railroad worker who is in the midst of a panic when an off schedule train starts bearing down on their makeshift gambling hall/teepee. Similar musically to “Johnny B. Goode,” Berry gives Johnnie Johnson the first instrumental break and replicates a train engine sound on his guitar on his spotlight turn. Keith Richards, “Chuck adapted his guitar riffs and keys from Johnnie Johnson’s piano keys, not Johnnie playing around Chuck’s keys. Guitar keys are played in A, E, D using open strings, and if you listen to the music, it uses piano keys, jazz keys, horn keys, Johnnie Johnson keys. Chuck adapted his guitar around Johnnie’s sound and put those great lyrics behind them.”
5. “You Never Can Tell.” Like “Maybellene,” “You Never Can Tell” was inspired by hillbilly music, having a melody similar to Mitchell Torok’s 1953 #1 country hit “Caribbean.” In tandem with the “c’est la vie” attitude, Berry takes a more relaxed vocal approach, spurning his guitar for piano and sax solos. In an era of teen tragedy, these Coolerator cramming lovers have found fulfillment with employment, love of music, and their honeymoon period marriage. Quentin Tarantino gave new life to “You Never Can Tell,” a 1964 #14 pop hit, incorporating the song in an unforgettable manner into his 1994 masterpiece “Pulp Fiction.”
4. “School Days.” On this 1957 #3 pop/#1 R&B hit, Berry perfectly encapsulates the dreariness and excitement of teenage life. The drudgery of school includes studying, being hassled by classmates, the regimented lunch routine, and coping with unpleasant teachers. When school’s out, life becomes about juke joints, dancing, romancing, and feeling the music “from head to toe.” Berry constructed the stop and start rhythm to “emphasize the jumps and changes I found in classes in high school compared to the one room and one teacher I had in elementary school.” Also, “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll!” was the perfect rallying cry for the still embryonic cultural movement.
3. “Promised Land.” Here, once again, we find that Berry is communicating about racial issues in a way that would easily escape the casual listener. On the surface, “Promised Land” is an updated travelogue version of “Wabash Cannonball,” a journey to California, where Los Angeles provides an opportunity for the American dream to come true. However, on deeper inspection, the lyrics are about the 1961 Freedom Riders, a group of civil rights activists who made a series of bus trips to protest segregation in interstate bus terminals. The cities listed replicate the travels of the Freedom Riders and notes the conflicts that were part of the journey (the Freedom Riders were attacked by a mob when they entered a bus station in Montgomery, Alabama). “Promised Land” was a #41 pop hit for Berry in 1964 and a #14 pop hit for Elvis, the ultimate poor boy made good, in 1974.
2. “Roll Over Beethoven.” Berry was raised in a middle class, African American community in St. Louis. His father was a carpenter and his college educated mother was a school principal. The Berry family piano was most often occupied by older sisters Thelma and Lucy, who took lessons in classical music. There was little time for Chuck to engage in his self-taught, rudimentary skills. Berry was somewhat teasing his sisters with his glow worm wiggling wink at the masters of classical music, whose shelf spaced had been replaced by his electric guitar. Louis Jordan, Carl Perkins, and Bo Diddley are indirectly referenced, but, in the bigger picture, this was Berry defining the mood of the new youth culture. He was too old to be a part of that culture, but documenting their lifestyle in exquisite detail was his greatest achievement. “Roll Over Beethoven” was a #29 pop hit for Berry in 1956. The most popular cover versions are by The Beatles and The Electric Light Orchestra, who simultaneously rolled with and over Ludwig van.
1. “Johnny B. Goode.” Depending on your source, “Johnny B. Goode” was inspired by pianist Johnnie Johnson or it was Berry writing his own rag to riches bio or it was a combination of the two. The “Goode” is a reference to Berry’s childhood home, which was located at 2520 Goode Avenue. Half a century after “Johnny B. Goode” was released, “Rolling Stone” magazine named the !958 #8 pop hit as “The Greatest Guitar Song of All Time.” Cub Koda, “’Johnny B. Goode’ is the Horatio Alger story of rock & roll, a message so basic that the song has become the inspiration for every kid who ever wanted to be in a rock & roll band or become a rock & roll star.” Robert Christgau, “The definitive guitar anthem.” Marty McFly, “Your kids are going to love it.” Go, Johnny, go.