John Lennon once remarked, “If you tried to give rock n roll another name, you might call it 'Chuck Berry'.” And he wasn’t far from the truth. While the origins of this genre aka lifestyle could fill volumes, there’s no denying the fact Chuck Berry was the rock n roll pioneer who went on to write some of the most memorable tunes ever. The Beatles, Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix - the list is endless when it comes to popular artists who were influenced by the Prime Minister of rock n roll.
The only way to listen to Chuck Berry is to crank your music system and that’s exactly what I did on Sunday morning, straight out of bed. My first introduction to Chuck Berry came via a cassette my uncle got down from the States. It was Christmas and I was ten having my first official drink. When the first guitar licks of Johnny B. Goode crackled through the speakers, everybody was up and jiving. It was more than just the alcohol for sure.
Chuck Berry and rock ‘n’ roll are the reason why I play in a band. Image source: playbuzz.com
Ninety is not an easy age to live till and Chuck Berry had a whirlwind of a ride. His first album in nearly four decades, Chuck, is set for a posthumous release this year and I can’t wait to get my hands on it. Rock n roll music is the reason I play in a band today (that's my band 'The Ritornellos' in the picture above) and if this playlist can turn you on to one of the greatest musicians ever, even better.
It’s not cool if you haven’t heard any of his songs and his back catalogue can take days to sift through. So here are a few tunes, off the back of my head, that would serve as the perfect introduction to the guitar player, singer, songwriter who managed to shape rock n roll back in the Fifties, when musicians were still fiddling around trying to find that perfect blend of pop and blues.
Here’s to you Chuck and I hope you’re rocking that duck walk wherever you are.
1. Maybellene (1955)
The song that got the ball rolling and put the man on the map. By the end of the year, the record had sold a million copies all because Chuck took the best parts of country, folk, bluegrass and infused it with youthful lyrics, inimitable guitar work and energy never seen before on the scene.
2. You Can’t Catch Me (1956)
The automobile as a metaphor pops up in a number of Chuck Berry tunes and this one is no different. With a chorus like: “Now you can't catch me/ no baby you can't catch me/ 'Cause if you get too close/ you know I'm gone like a cool breeze...” Besides Berry’s weaving guitar parts, the clicking drums and that piano playing makes for classic rock n roll. John Lennon was sued over similarities with the Beatles song, Come Together, but they managed to reach a settlement. Then again, a number of artists have borrowed off the king of rock n roll.
3. Carol (1958)
Johnny B. Goode stole the show, but the B-side had a tune usually ignored. When he played this song at his 1972 concert in London, the second and third verses were sang with the drummer pulling out and that’s when you see Chuck Berry in his element. Keeping those bass notes going, the man not only nails the song, he puts on a show. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones covered Carol, the former for a live album and the latter on their eponymous debut record.
4. Sweet Little Sixteen (1958)
The Beach Boys are synonymous with surf rock but the song that made them was a complete rip-off of Sweet Little Sixteen. Chuck Berry’s original doesn’t have the pitch-perfect harmonies but it’s a straightforward rock n roll tune with an unforgettable vocal melody. It took three years for Berry to receive songwriting credits and it’s tough to find an early rock n roller who didn’t lift from this pioneer.
5. Come On (1961)
The beauty of a Chuck Berry song lay in his catchy melodies, lyrical twists and short guitar licks that made you wish his songs weren’t that short. Come On influenced a number of Motown hits and was the first single recorded by The Rolling Stones. Keith Richards, on many an occasion, has said he wouldn’t be where he was if he hadn’t heard Chuck Berry.
6. Promised Land (1964)
The narrator leaves his hometown in Norfolk, Virginia, boards a Greyhound and intends to travel across America all the way to California. It’s a bumpy ride and the song gains all the more significance because Berry wrote this while behind bars. Elvis did a cover but, as always, nothing beats the original.
7. Memphis Tennessee (1959)
Rockabilly, Delta blues and good ol country would have found it hard to blend into mainstream pop if it wasn’t for Chuck Berry’s innovation. Memphis Tennessee is the perfect example of Berry taking rockabilly and writing a song about a father separated from his daughter. His BBC performance in ‘72 stands out for his intricate guitar rhythm as well as his showmanship. After all, not everybody can carry off purple trousers and a silk psychedelic shirt.
8. Bye Bye Johnny (1960)
It made no sense to include Johnny B. Goode in this list because if you haven’t heard it already, you’re probably into Nucleya. Bye Bye Johnny is the opening track on Chuck Berry’s fourth studio album and it’s a sequel about the same character. Berry was a sensitive songwriter and this tune starts off about how Johnny’s mother scrapes together enough dough to get her son to Hollywood. He writes back saying he’s in love and intends to come home with his wife but the songs ends on that note
9. Roll Over Beethoven (1956)
Chuck Berry was the man who embodied the rock n roll ethos, early on. A certain cockiness is evident in this tune but Berry was always a straight shooter. The guy who biffed Keith Richards for touching his guitar and Roll Over Beethoven is one of the most badass rock n roll songs ever written with lyrics that go: ‘Well, early in the mornin' I'm a givin' you a warnin'/ don't you step on my blue suede shoes/ Hey diddle diddle, I am playin' my fiddle/ ain't got nothin' to lose/ Roll Over Beethoven and tell Tchaikovsky the news...”
10. Rock and Roll Music (1957)
No other song sums up what Chuck Berry means to rock n roll. Recorded with Chicago blues founding members, this remains one of the most recognizable tunes by the man. It’s a straight out declaration that rock n roll music is the only thing that Chuck lives for and nothing else will do. “Don't care to hear 'em play a tango/ I'm in the mood to dig a mambo/ It's way too early for a congo/ So keep a rockin' that piano/ So I can hear some of that rock and roll music...”
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101India.com.
By Nicholas Rixon
Cover photo credit: Naman Saraiya