15 Essential Chuck Berry Songs
Originally published March 19, 2017 at 1:11 pm
In the decade from 1955 to 1965, Chuck Berry created a body of work filled with dozens of perfectly crafted masterpieces. Here are just some of them.
By Alan Light
The New York Times
John Lennon said, “If you tried to give rock ‘n’ roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry.’” Bob Dylan once called the musician, who died Saturday at 90, “the Shakespeare of rock ‘n’ roll.” His songs staked out the territory, in both sonics and lyrics, for a new art form, and in the decade from 1955 to 1965, he created a body of work filled with dozens of perfectly crafted masterpieces. The 15 songs below are just some of Berry’s greatest compositions and recordings.
Berry’s first single sounds like nothing that came before it, and the key ingredients are all in place — revved-up guitar, clever language (“as I was motorvatin’ over the hill”), girls and cars. Based on “Ida Red,” a 1938 Western Swing hit for Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, the new title and beefed-up rhythm section were the ideas of producer and Chess Records co-owner Leonard Chess.
“Too Much Monkey Business” (1956)
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No one before Berry thought to write a pop song about the headaches of paying bills or losing your change in a pay phone. In his 1987 autobiography, he wrote that the lyrics were “meant to describe most of the kinds of hassles a person encounters in everyday life.” The chugging, rapid-fire vocal delivery would inspire Dylan’s breakthrough word salad “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” and when Berry won the first PEN New England Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence Award in 2012, Dylan sent a congratulatory note saying, “That’s what too much monkey business will get ya.”
“Brown Eyed Handsome Man” (1956)
Berry said this song — a sly and daring commentary on race relations — was written after an episode he witnessed outside a concert he was giving in California. (A Hispanic man was being handcuffed by the police when a woman ran up, screaming for him to be let go.) In typically masterful manner, Berry was able to draw effortlessly on the worlds of art (the Venus de Milo) and baseball to convey the wide-ranging allure of “brown-eyed” — barely encoded to mean “nonwhite” — men.
“Roll Over Beethoven” (1956)
A declaration of musical independence for a new generation, “Beethoven” was initially aimed at Berry’s younger sister, who monopolized the family piano practicing classical music. The rest, he said, came “out of my sometimes unbelievably imaginative mind.” Covers of the song include versions by the Beatles, Jerry Lee Lewis and Electric Light Orchestra. Leonard Cohen once compared the song to Walt Whitman’s “barbaric yawp,” adding that “if Beethoven hadn’t rolled over, there’d be no room for any of us.”
“Havana Moon” (1956)
The Latin rhythm was based on Nat King Cole’s “Calypso Blues,” while the setting was picked up from Berry’s exposure to New York City’s Cuban population while he was performing at the Paramount in Brooklyn and at the Apollo Theater. But the exotic feel was matched to a universal narrative, straight out of an O. Henry story.
“School Day” (1957)
By 1957, rock ‘n’ roll’s teenage takeover was complete, and Berry responded with a song that directly targeted these new consumers — set in the focal point of their daily life, regardless of race or class. He wrote that the stop-and-start rhythm was meant to reflect the “jumps and changes” he experienced in high school, compared with the one room/one teacher structure of elementary school. The final verse gave Berry’s genre its greatest rallying cry (and became the title of his 1988 concert film): “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ roll!”
“Rock and Roll Music” (1957)
The music itself was Berry’s greatest subject and greatest muse. Laying out the merits of rock ‘n’ roll against modern jazz, tango and symphonies, the popping rumba rhythm proved its own argument — “It’s got a backbeat, you can’t lose it.” The Beatles recorded a raucous version, and the Beach Boys had a Top 10 hit of this song that Berry intended to “hit the spot without question” and “define every aspect of [rock’s] being.”
“Johnny B. Goode” (1958)
if rock ‘n’ roll has a national anthem, this would be it. The stinging introduction (pinched from jump-blues star Louis Jordan’s “Ain’t That Just Like a Woman”) set a standard that every rock guitarist still chases. The story, a semi-autobiographical rags-to-riches tale, was a classic articulation of the American dream, although Berry was savvy enough to change the original lyric about a “colored boy” to “country boy” for a shot at radio play. The song has been covered countless times, with a memorable appearance in the movie “Back to the Future,” but its reach may go much further — Berry’s recording was one of four U.S. songs included on the gold discs shot into the cosmos in 1977 on the Voyager I and II spacecraft.
This was one of the few songs recorded by both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. A simple story about a boy who needs to learn to dance to hold on to his girl, the description of the club they go to is so vivid you can practically smell it (“A little cutie takes your hat and you can thank her, ma’am/Every time you make the scene you find the joint is jammed”). The syncopated string bending of the intro led to an unforgettable argument between Berry and Keith Richards in the “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll” documentary.
Berry’s most tender and arguably most literary lyric had its roots in Muddy Waters’ classic blues “Long Distance Call.” He worked for more than a month on the words, although, other than some of his wife’s relatives, he claimed to have no specific connection to Memphis itself. The song is a one-sided conversation between the narrator and a telephone operator, expressing that he misses a girl named Marie and that they are being kept apart by Marie’s mother. The final verse reveals that Marie is, in fact, the narrator’s 6-year-old daughter and that her mother left home and took Marie with her; in a remarkable phrase, he recalls the girl’s cheeks covered in “hurry-home drops.”
“Back in the U.S.A.” (1959)
A dream vision of ‘50s America, unmarred by racial tension, this song was reportedly inspired by Berry’s return to the United States after a brief tour of Australia. Once again, he found poetry in the everyday details of middle-class life (“Looking hard for a drive-in, searching for a corner cafe/Where hamburgers sizzle on an open grill night and day”). Linda Ronstadt had a hit with a 1978 cover, and the title was spoofed by the Beatles for “Back in the U.S.S.R.”
“Let It Rock” (1960)
Less than two minutes long, with no chorus (and no actual use of the title phrase), “Let It Rock” is one of Berry’s most hard-charging songs, with one of his more cryptic lyrics. Rather than assuming a teenage perspective, the song is delivered by a railroad worker in Alabama trying to “get some money to buy some brand-new shoes.” At the end of the workday, the laborers are playing dice on the tracks when the foreman warns them that a train is approaching and they have to scramble to safety. The Grateful Dead, Motörhead and Bob Seger were among those who later cut the song, but it was the Rolling Stones who gave this one its finest reading.
“Come On” (1961)
A hard-luck story of a guy who has watched everything go wrong since he broke up with his girlfriend, “Come On” is full of seemingly throwaway lines that tell full stories. While he’s trying to persuade her to come back (and Berry’s own sister Martha provides a slightly dissonant background vocal), he wishes somebody would wreck the car that he can’t afford; every time the phone rings, it’s “some stupid jerk trying to reach another number.” A toned-down cover by the Rolling Stones was the band’s debut single.
The first single released after Berry served a 20-month prison term for violation of the Mann Act, “Nadine” was practically a sequel to his debut recording, “Maybellene.” But while the story of pursuing a girl through the bustle of the city (not in a car this time, but on a bus, in a taxi and on foot) tells the same tale, the language and imagery are even more complex. Berry describes himself “campaign shoutin’ like a Southern diplomat” and “moving through the traffic like a mounted cavalier.” This writing would prove a huge influence on the songwriters who were concurrently discovering the Beatles. Bruce Springsteen paid tribute to the song’s famous line “I saw her from the corner when she turned and doubled back/Started walking toward a coffee-colored Cadillac” — “I’ve never seen a coffee-colored Cadillac,” he said, “but I know exactly what one looks like.”
“Promised Land” (1964)
This is the story of a poor boy who “straddles a Greyhound” out of Norfolk, Virginia, with California on his mind. At full sprint (no time to stop for a chorus), he makes it from coast to coast by bus, train and airplane. Berry wrote the song while behind bars — despite, as he wryly noted, the difficulty of getting his hands on an atlas: “The penal institutions then were not so generous as to offer a map of any kind, for fear of providing the route for an escape.” That fact made his lighthearted rendering of the road trip — with its love for a country whose justice system had so recently made him suffer — all the more incredible.