Chuck Berry: 20 Essential Songs

"Johnny B. Goode," "Roll Over Beethoven" and other masterpieces that laid the groundwork for rock & roll as we know it

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"Johnny B. Goode" (1958)

"Johnny B. Goode" was the first rock & roll hit about rock & roll stardom. It is still the greatest rock & roll song about the democracy of fame in pop music. And "Johnny B. Goode" is based in fact. The title character is Chuck Berry – "more or less," as 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." Berry took other narrative liberties. Johnny came from "deep down in Louisiana, close to New Orleans," rather than Berry's St. Louis. And Johnny "never ever learned to read or write so well," while Berry graduated from beauty school with a degree in hairdressing and cosmetology.

But the essence of Berry's tale – a guitar player with nothing to his name but chops goes to the big city and gets his name in lights – is autobiographical. In 1955, Berry was working as a beautician in St. Louis when he met Chess Records' biggest star, Muddy Waters, who sent him to the label's co-founder Leonard Chess. By 1958, Berry was rock & roll's most consistent hitmaker after Elvis Presley. Unlike Presley, Berry wrote his own classics. "I just wish I could express my feelings the way Chuck Berry does,"' Presley once confessed.

"Johnny B. Goode" is the supreme example of Berry's poetry in motion. The rhythm section rolls with freight-train momentum, while Berry's stabbing, single-note lick in the chorus sounds, as he put it, "like a-ringin' a bell" – a perfect description of how rock & roll guitar can make you feel on top of the world.

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