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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

“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.