By Maureen Lee Lenker
We lost another legend this weekend when Chuck Berry, once dubbed the “Shakespeare of Rock ‘n’ Roll” (by Bob Dylan) passed away at the age of 90. Berry revolutionized music and created a new genre and art form with his sonic masterpieces. Berry influenced everyone from The Rolling Stones to the Beach Boys. Without Berry there would be no Beatles, Stones, or Bruce Springsteen. He paved the way for a new sound in music and inspired generations of artists.
To celebrate his contributions to music and “rock ‘n’ roll,” here are our five favorite Chuck Berry songs.
5. Sweet Little Sixteen (1958)
Berry’s immense influence on other artists is clear in nearly every song he recorded, but never more so than in this 1958 hit that was an ode to teenagers who loved to dance to rock ‘n’ roll. Even without the lyrical roll call of U.S. cities, a brief listen makes it clear that the Beach Boys merely wrote new words to the melody when they released their celebration of beach travel with “Surfin’ U.S.A.” Indeed, the song is so similar that Berry threatened to sue when he heard it and earned a co-writing credit on the song. With “Sweet Little Sixteen,” Berry unwittingly created two iconic tunes that sum up youth culture in the 1950s and 60s.
4. No Particular Place to Go (1964)
Berry spent three years in jail for transporting a 14-year-old girl across state lines, but his period behind bars didn’t slow down his artistry. He wrote numerous songs while doing time and rose back into prominence after his release with his prison-penned tunes. “No Particular Place to Go” is one of the greatest of this period, telling a tale that riffs on his familiar themes of teenage idleness, cars, guitars, sexual frustration, and rock ‘n’ roll. Yet, its sense of ennui and sense of aimlessness could just as easily be an expression of his frustrations at being trapped behind bars. “British Invasion” superstars The Beatles and the Rolling Stones were avowed Berry fans, citing him as a primary inspiration for their own tunes. No Particular Place to Go was the first to benefit from a post-British Invasion bump with both bands covering it and heralding the artistry and genius of Berry’s songwriting.
3. Maybellene (1955)
Many trace the birth or rock ’n’ roll to Maybellene, Berry’s first single. Its mix of a country-fied twang, urban blues, jazz, and the electric guitar heralded a new sound that would become the defining feature of pop-rock music. By the time he recorded this track, Berry had already been playing gigs for black audiences for several years, but this song helped him transition to the white airwaves (along with “payola” schemes involving DJ Alan Freed). The name came from a mascara box on the floor of Chess studios where Berry recorded, and the groove was sourced from a song called “Ida Red” that dated back to the 19th century in various forms. First heard in 1955, Maybellene made the 1950s the decade of rock ’n’roll, dividing music and culture from everything that had come before.
2. Rock and Roll Music (1957)
The title says it all -- with its guitar rhythms and piano plinks, the song reflected the quintessential sound of 1950s rock ’n’ roll. With its signature sound and lyrics that jab at other musical styles like jazz and mambo, Berry created the perfect ode to the genre he helped define and popularize. It’s a stunning love letter to the sound and power of rock ’n’ roll. "I was heavy into rock and roll even then and had to create something that hit the spot without question," Berry wrote in his autobiography. "I wanted the lyrics to define every aspect of its being and worded it to do so." The father of rock’n’roll wrote the perfect love letter to the music he’d taught the world to appreciate.
1. Johnny B. Goode (1958)
The quintessential Chuck Berry tune, Johnny B. Goode was also an autobiographical song about the fame of rock ’n’ roll stardom and the rise to celebrity. He told Rolling Stone in 1972, “The original words [were] of course, 'That little colored boy could play.' I changed it to 'country boy' – or else it wouldn't get on the radio.” While Berry did have a degree in hairdressing and cosmetology (which shone through in his pompadoured look), the song tells the tale of an uneducated guitar player who rises to fame and fortune on nothing but his talent (essentially, Berry’s own story). The guitar and rhythm section on this song are the pinnacle of Berry’s talent and expression with his instrument. The song set a standard that many rock ’n’ roll guitarists still chase today, and it’s such an iconic American tune that it was one of four American songs included on the gold discs shot into space in 1977 on the Voyager I and II spacecraft. But we here at Night Owl TV have a special place in our heart for the tune because of its role in a more recent cinematic classic. When Michael J. Fox attempts to get Back to the Future, he must first make sure his parents end up together and plays a memorable cover of Johnny B. Goode at the high school dance in the film’s climax. From the record player to the silver screen, Johnny B. Goode has cast a long shadow as the finest of Berry’s songwriting and recording achievements.
As we mourn the loss of an American cultural icon, we’ll put on our dancing shoes and rock out to some of the most memorable rock ’n’ roll tunes ever to be penned. Long live Rock ‘N’ Roll! Thank you, Chuck Berry.