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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

Chuck Berry: Essential Songs listen dead

Revisit 20 essential Chuck Berry classics, from "Maybellene" to "Reelin' and Rockin'."

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

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.

Chuck Berry: Essential Songs listen dead

“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.

Chuck Berry: Essential Songs listen dead

“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.

Chuck Berry: Essential Songs listen dead

“Carol” (1958)

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.”

Chuck Berry: Essential Songs listen dead

“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.

Chuck Berry: Essential Songs listen dead

“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.

Chuck Berry: Essential Songs listen dead

“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.”

Chuck Berry: Essential Songs listen dead

“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.

Chuck Berry: Essential Songs listen dead

“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.

Chuck Berry: Essential Songs listen dead

“Tulane” (1970)

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.  

Chuck Berry: Essential Songs listen dead

“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.

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