Chuck Berry: 20 Essential Songs
Look back at any rock giant’s account of their formative encounters with Chuck Berry‘s music and you’ll discover a common thread: Every one reads like the story of a true, near-religious epiphany. For Paul McCartney and his fellow Beatles, the late Berry’s songs “hit us like a bolt of lightning.” Surveying Berry’s genius for Rolling Stone‘s 100 Greatest Artists list, Aerosmith’s Joe Perry said, “That feeling of excitement in the pit of my stomach, in the hair on the back of my neck: I got more of it from Chuck Berry than from anybody else.”
Elvis Presley will forever be known as the king of rock & roll in name, but few would dispute Chuck Berry’s status as the genre’s true godfather – the one most directly responsible for its endlessly adaptable blueprint. “Chuck had the swing,” Keith Richards told RS. “There’s rock, but it’s the roll that counts.” Here, in the wake of Berry’s passing, we survey a selection of the songs that helped make him immortal.
Rock & roll guitar starts here. The pileup of hillbilly country, urban blues and hot jazz in Chuck Berry’s electric twang is the primal language of pop-music guitar, and it’s all perfected on his first single. The entire song is a two-minute chase scene packed with car-culture vernacular and Berry’s hipster-lingo inventions (“As I was motorvatin’ over the hill …”). Its groove comes from “Ida Red,” a 1938 recording by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys (of a song that dates back to the 19th century). By the time of the May 21st, 1955, session, Berry had been playing country tunes for black audiences for a few years – “After they laughed at me a few times, they began requesting the hillbilly stuff,” he has said. Leonard Chess came up with the title, inspired by a Maybelline mascara box lying on the floor at the Chess studio. DJ Alan Freed had nothing to do with writing “Maybellene,” although he got co-credit and royalties for years in return for radio airplay: payola in all but name.
“Thirty Days” (1955)
Berry’s upbeat call for a lover to come home in a month shows off both his dexterous soloing style, in which he plays chords (!) for the duration of the lead break and his sense of humor. “Gonna put a false charge against ya,” he sings, “That’ll be the very thing that’ll send ya,” and he’s not above bringing it before the United Nations if it will bring his baby back. He wrote in his autobiography that the song was based somewhat on a true story and something he’d seen in a movie where a judge granted a defendant leniency up until he reminded the judge he’d been the one to introduce him to his wife. “It shows that I have found no happiness in any association that has been linked with regulations and custom,” he wrote. “I was stimulated by the judge story and found something similar in category yet different in aspect for a creation of my own.”
“Wee Wee Hours” (1955)
It took Berry only about an hour, by his own estimation, to write “Wee Wee Hours,” the bluesy B side to “Maybellene.” His inspiration for the song was bluesman Big Joe Turner’s smooth “Wee Baby Blues,” a romantic declaration of love at first sight – “I was in love with you, baby/ Way before I learned to call your name,” Turner sang. Similarly, Berry’s song is a tribute to a woman named Margie he met and fell in love with as a teenager when he was playing music for the USO. “In a wee little room, I sit alone and think of you,” he sings. “Blues are simple and only seem to need the lyrics of a lonely confession to be put to music,” he wrote of the song in his autobiography. “It took the memory of one of the evenings that I didn’t get to see Margie at her window to put the words together and the tune is anybody’s cry for companionship.”
“Down Bound Train” (1955)
A bluesy allegory for sin with a locomotive rhythm-guitar line, “Down Bound Train” reflected Berry’s deeply held religious beliefs. The lyrics describe a person who drank so much that he passed out only to awaken on a train lit by a brimstone lamp and barreling through sulphuric fumes – the engineer was “the Devil himself.” “I could say my father, in many ways, really wrote the foundation for ‘Down Bound Train’ in his constant preaching of the horrors of hell once you’ve missed the blessings of salvation and heaven,” Berry wrote in his autobiography. “So let it be known that I’m not alone to reap what I’ve sown in fire and brimstone because of my own bad traits that I’ve shown.” He added that he still got a chill when hear heard the song.
“Roll Over Beethoven” (1956)
“I wanted to play the blues,” Chuck Berry told Rolling Stone. “But I wasn’t blue enough. We always had food on the table.” Berry originally wrote this guitar anthem as an affectionate dig at his sister Lucy, who spent so much time playing classical music on the family piano that young Chuck couldn’t get a turn. But “Roll Over Beethoven” became the ultimate rock & roll call to arms, declaring a new era: “Roll over, Beethoven/And tell Tchaikovsky the news.” Berry announced this changing of the musical guard with a blazing guitar riff and pounding piano from sidekick Johnnie Johnson.
“Too Much Monkey Business” (1956)
Berry wasn’t just too cool for school, he was above just about everything, as he wrote in the lyrics to “Too Much Monkey Business.” In his mind, everything was a hassle – work, shopping, dating, school, war, work again – and he laid each nuisance out smartly in concise proto-raps before kicking into the song’s memorable chorus. “I realized I needed over a hundred verses to portray the major areas that bug people the most,” he wrote in his autobiography. “I was even making up words then like ‘botheration’ to emphasize the nuisances that bothered people. … I hadn’t received any kickback about using ‘motorvating’ in ‘Maybellene,’ so why not compete with Noah Webster again?” His lexicon lived on in covers by Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Hollies and the Yardbirds, among others.
“Brown Eyed Handsome Man” (1956)
Berry was inspired to write this song while he was touring through heavily black and Latino areas of California. As Berry put it, “I didn’t see too many blue eyes.” He did see a good-looking Chicano nabbed for loitering until “some woman came up shouting for the policeman to let him go.” Over a manic guitar lick, the song spins a riotous tale about a dark-eyed loverman.
“Havana Moon” (1956)
Berry’s story of a Cuban woman missing an American woman came from playing Nat King Cole’s “Calypso Blues” when Berry was still slugging it out at St. Louis’ Cosmopolitan Club at a time when Latin rhythms were popular. He decided to write his own song after a gigging in New York City, where he met Cubans for the first time. “It is the differences in people that I think gives me a tremendous imagination to create a story for developing a lyric,” he wrote in his autobiography. “I had read, seen or heard in some respect all the situations in the Havana story. Certainly, missing the boat and surely missing the girl had bene experienced many times by me.” The Rolling Stones recently paid tribute to the song by naming a concert film, shot in Cuba, after the song.
“Rock and Roll Music” (1957)
Berry’s 1957 tribute to the music he loved most, with its swinging piano and forceful guitar, still stands as one of the most passionate declarations of the power of rock. He made playful jabs at jazz, mambo and tango, styles that were popular at the time, and clearly outlined what rock was, from its backbeat to its wailing saxes. “I was heavy into rock & roll even then and had to create something that hit the spot without question,” he wrote in his autobiography. “I wanted the lyrics to define every aspect of its being and worded it to do so.” It was such a potent summary, the song was covered by the Beatles in 1964 and the Beach Boys in 1976.
“School Days” (1957)
Chuck Berry was 30 years old when he sat down to write “School Days,” a.k.a. “School Day (Ring! Ring! Goes the Bell),” but you’d never know it
from the song’s vivid evocation of the quotidian experience of high school,
from mean-mugged teachers to crowded lunchrooms (“it’s fortunate if you
have time to eat!”). Its stop-start chugging, punctuated by Berry’s
cheeky guitar fills, is a sound he’d return to again and again – here,
it’s propelled by some of the same musicians who played on Howlin’ Wolf’s unearthly singles, including guitarist Hubert Sumlin. The song’s
lyrics helped establish rock & roll as a direct chronicler of teen
America’s experience, especially in its most famous line, still one of
the greatest couplets rock ever gave us: “Hail, hail rock & roll,”
Berry proclaimed, “deliver me from the days of old.” The details in the
song come straight from Berry’s own life, as he wrote in his
autobiography: “The lyrics depict the way it was in my time. … The phrases
came to me spontaneously, and rhyming took most of the time that was
spent on the song.” And the rhythmic breaks were meant 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.”
“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.
“Sweet Little Sixteen” (1958)
“Sweet Little Sixteen” celebrated kids, America and the power of rock & roll – an ode to an underage rock fan in high-heeled shoes that included a roll call of U.S. cities. The Beach Boys fitted the song with new words and called it “Surfin’ U.S.A.”; Berry threatened to sue and won a writing credit.
Berry blends protective advice (“Oh, Carol, don’t let him steal your heart away”) with good-natured innuendo (“Come into my machine so we can cruise on out”) in this hard-grooving 1958 gem, inspired by the high-school-age daughter of a woman the singer-songwriter was involved with. Berry’s assistant, Francine Gillium, looked after the girl, and as he wrote in his autobiography, the situation helped him greatly in the writing of the song. “Discussing her teenage environment with Francine was much help in putting ‘Carol’ together,” he wrote. “Details from my schooling like meat-loaf and potatoes costing only 5 cents and a notebook with paper for 12 cents were far outdated. Whereas some guy stealing another boy’s girl was a thing that hadn’t changed any.”
“Around and Around” (1958)
The swinging B side to “Johnny B. Goode” tells the story of a reelin’-and-rockin’, all-night party Berry and his band played that had to be busted up by the cops. It’s got a swinging rhythm, with the stop-start pauses he was so fond of at the time and a funky, bluesy guitar solo that was born from jamming with his band before a memorable show. “Sometimes I didn’t jam before a concert, but these guys were on-the-ball musicians and we almost had a concert before the concert started that evening,” he recalled in his autobiography. “For nearly two hours, we jammed, played standard sweet songs to gut-bucket, rock and boogie. One of the riffs we struck upon never left my memory and I waxed I the tune with words about a dance hall that stayed open a little over time. … Let it be known that at the actual experience, the police didn’t knock.” Nevertheless, the story had legs. The Rolling Stones played the song on Ed Sullivan’s show, and the Grateful Dead subsequently played it hundreds of times.
“Little Queenie” (1959)
With a guitar intro that echoes “Johnny B. Goode” and another “go! go!” chorus, “Little Queenie” – released a year after “Johnny” – shows how deftly Berry could make a variation on the theme, since he sings the second verse (“Meanwhile, I was thinkin’/If she’s in the mood no need to break it”) with a brand-new swagger. In his autobiography, he wrote that the song was a fair depiction of how he was as a teenager. “That was typical of me in high school, to stand around thinking instead of acting during occasions when I’d have the opportunity to get next to a girl by dancing,” he wrote. “It’s just like me even today to wait around ’til it’s too late to latch on to the chance to meet a person I favor.” It went on to become one of Berry’s most covered songs – by everyone from the Beatles and Stones to Bruce Springsteen and the Velvet Underground – even though it peaked at 80 on the charts.
“Back in the U.S.A.” (1959)
Whatever mixed feelings Berry may have had about his native country were wiped away, at least temporarily, when he toured Australia for the first time, playing shows in Melbourne and Sydney in January and February of 1969. Witnessing firsthand the mistreatment of Aborigines clearly rattled Berry, since 10 days after he returned to the States, he cut this unabashedly grateful homage to the States. Backed by, among others, Johnnie Johnson on piano and Willie Dixon on bass, Berry salutes skyscrapers, drive-ins, burgers, freeways and major cities from New York to L.A. to Baton Rouge (it’s as close to a National Anthem as Berry would ever write); even the uncredited backup singers sound pumped.
Released as a single in June 1959, the song only hit Number 37 on the charts, but it didn’t go unnoticed by the next generation of rockers. The MC5 and Linda Ronstadt each offered up faithful covers (Ronstadt’s version was bigger than Berry’s), and it was, of course, the inspiration behind the Beatles’ cheeky “Back in the USSR.” “Chuck Berry once did a song called ‘Back in the U.S.A.,’ which is very American, very Chuck Berry,” Paul McCartney said in 1968. “Very sort of, you know, you’re serving in the army, and when I get back home I’m going to kiss the ground. It’s a very American sort of thing, I’ve always thought. … In my mind [the Beatles’ song] is just about a spy who’s been in America a long long time… It concerns the attributes of Russian women.”
“You Never Can Tell”
Chuck Berry wrote “You Never Can Tell,” along with “No Particular Place to Go” and “Nadine,” while doing time in Springfield, Missouri’s Federal Medical Center prison for allegedly bringing a 14-year-old across state lines with unsavory notions in mind – which didn’t seem to stop him from writing his ditty about a “teenage wedding” and skeptical old folks. But perhaps more interesting is the fact that rock’s great guitar hero hardly plays guitar this 1964 single, which sports heaping helpings of boogie-woogie piano and sax solos.
“No Particular Place to Go” (1964)
Further proof of the transportive powers of Chuck Berry’s imagination: He wrote this 1964 comeback single, a beguiling tale of teenage idyll, freedom and sexual frustration, while he was locked in prison (for transporting a 14-year-old girl across state lines, but that’s another story). The song was the first of his own recordings to benefit from his post–British Invasion visibility, with the Beatles and Rolling Stones covering his songs and touting his genius. Musically, it’s just about identical to 1957’s “School Days,” but the rhythm section hits harder and Berry finds a pleasing new vocal growl. And then there’s his guitar solos, which positively crackle: The slashing second break seems downright angry, as if Berry was letting his real post-prison feelings slip out through his amp.
Berry returned to Chess Records after years at Mercury with his 1970 album Back Home, and its standout track is one of his great later gems. With a taut, rollicking riff, “Tulane” is a funny, detailed story song with timely lyrics about a pair of hippie pals who run a “novelty shop,” specializing in “the cream of the crop.” When the place gets busted and one of them ends up in “a rotten, funky jail,” they’re able to call in “a lawyer in the clique of politics” to get the whole thing fixed. In a simple, fun two-and-a-half-minutes, Berry is able to poke loving fun at the counterculture he helped create while pointing out some light American class hypocrisy.
“Reelin’ and Rockin'” (1972)
One of Berry’s great boogie-woogie numbers, “Reelin’ and Rockin’,” with its cascading piano lines and stop-on-a-dime verses, is a simple ode to dancing to rock & roll music ’til the break of dawn. “I’m gonna keep on dancin’ ’til I get my kicks,” Berry sings on what was originally the B side to “Sweet Little Sixteen.” He recalled in his autobiography sneaking into a Chicago club as a teenager and seeing Big Joe Turner sing “Rock Around the Clock.” “If ever I was inspired as a teenager, it was then,” he wrote. “What I then heard and felt, I tried to reprovoke in the song I then entitled, ‘Reelin’ and Rockin’.” He captured a feeling with staying power; the tune was reissued as an A side in 1972 and charted in the Top 30.