By Brian Ives
The last time I saw a Chuck Berry song performed live in concert, it was this past summer. Coldplay invited Michael J. Fox onstage to play — of course — “Johnny B. Goode.” Chris Martin’s son had requested — via Instagram — that dad’s band play a song “from the greatest movie of all time,” Back to the Future.
I thought, “Great!” Any artist of Coldplay’s level of popularity, playing a Chuck Berry song to a racially and generationally diverse stadium crowd is a great thing. Indeed, Back to the Future introduced that song to a younger generation in the ’80s.
“Johnny B. Goode” is one of the greatest songs of all time, a point hammered home by the many lists documenting the history of popular music that have been presented by magazines, websites and TV shows. Rolling Stone ranked it seventh on its list of the Greatest Songs of All Time, and number one on its list of the Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame lists it as one of the Songs That Shaped Rock. Guitar World ranked the guitar solo as the 12th best ever. As the decades roll on, the context of a song’s “importance” matters less than the bottom line: is it a good song? Of course it is, as are many of Chuck Berry’s other songs — “Maybellene,” “Too Much Monkey Business,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Around and Around” and the list goes on.
But context matters and the context of Chuck Berry’s songs — not only “Johnny B. Goode” — is worth looking back at, in the interest of not reducing him to one song, one riff, or one moment you’ve seen in a film. For decades, he’s been considered an “oldies” artist, and it’s true that his music is “old.” His classics were mostly recorded between 1955 and 1964. But that term — “oldies” — can dull the fact that Berry’s music was very dangerous indeed in the mid-50s.
His mixture of country music with R&B was integrating audiences when doing so was a potentially dangerous thing to do. And he played with fire, with thinly veiled songs about racism, notably “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man.” Taken at face value, “Two-three count with nobody on/He hit a high fly into the stand/Rounding third he was headed for home/It was a brown eyed handsome man,” seems like an innocent teen anthem about baseball. Change “brown-eyed” guy to one who is brown-skinned, and it takes a bit of a different meaning. The song was released in 1956. Back then, a brown-skinned man would court trouble by renting a hotel room with a white woman; but he most likely couldn’t get a room in a hotel where white people stayed. Berry’s songs appealed to both white and black teens, but often they couldn’t go to the same schools.
In a recent interview, Bob Dylan was discussing the impact of the early rock and rollers, including Berry, as well as Buddy Holly and Little Richard, among others: “They played this type of music that was black and white. Extremely incendiary. Your clothes could catch fire. When I first heard Chuck Berry, I didn’t consider that he was black. I thought he was a hillbilly. Little did I know, he was a great poet, too. And there must have been some elitist power that had to get rid of all these guys, to strike down rock ’n’ roll for what it was and what it represented — not least of all being a black-and-white thing.” If Dylan was right, those “elitist powers” didn’t strike it down fast enough: the cats were out of the bag.
Berry was a major influence on the Beatles: they covered “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Rock and Roll Music.” John Lennon famously said that “If you had to give Rock ‘n’ Roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry,” as the official Lennon account tweeted today.
The Rolling Stones’ first single, “Come On,” is a Berry cover; their repertoire has also included, over the years, “Around and Around,” “Carol,” “Little Queenie” and “Let It Rock.” And today, Mick Jagger — not a guy known for being overly sentimental or nostalgic — tweeted “I am so sad to hear of Chuck Berry’s passing. I want to thank him for all the inspirational music he gave to us. He lit up our teenage years, and blew life into our dreams of being musicians and performers. His lyrics shone above others & threw a strange light on the American dream. Chuck you were amazing&your music is engraved inside us forever.”
There’s probably not too much that Bruce Springsteen and Ted Nugent see eye-to-eye on, but Berry was surely bit of common ground. “Chuck Berry was rock’s greatest practitioner, guitarist, and the greatest pure rock ‘n’ roll writer who ever lived,” Springsteen tweeted, noting that Berry was not just a trailblazing six-stringer, but also an amazing songwriter. “This is a tremendous loss of a giant for the ages.”
Nugent, meanwhile, wrote: “If ever there was an end of a monumental era in the history of mankind it happened today with the death of Chuck Berry. No one deserves the title of creator, founding father, Godfather, genius and wizard of rock ‘n’ roll more than his Majesty Chuck Berry. Being so fortunate to be born in 1948 soon after Les Paul electrified the guitar, it was Chuck Berry that showed us the ultimate application to a musical energy and uppity spirit like never before. Thank God I was bodyslammed by this new music and heard my calling loud and clear. There is not a guitar player in the history of the instrument that doesn’t owe Chuck everything for guiding us into that lyrical, grinding cadence of his honky-tonk gone wild and the unprecedented rhythm of his lyrics and singing style. I ascended the mountaintop of rock ‘n’ roll when I was privileged to play bass guitar for Chuck in 1969. His spirit will be with me every time every day when I play my guitar. Godspeed rock ‘n’ roll BloodBrother.
Nugent’s Facebook post features a video of him playing “Johnny B. Goode.” It’s a song that’s been played so often that it becomes part of the background. Nugent’s version — it’s just him sitting in his living room, playing it on electric guitar — gives it a bit more bite than you might remember. And when he sings the lyrics “Someday you will be a man/And you will be the leader of a big old band/Many people coming from miles around/To hear you play your music when the sun go down/Maybe someday your name will be in lights/Saying ‘Johnny B. Goode Tonight’” you imagine a nation of young men and women with whom these lyrics surely resonated, giving them the idea that they could be the guy or woman with their name in lights.
Earlier tonight, as news of Berry’s passing was circulating, Drake released his More Life project, which the rapper/singer said would provide a “soundtrack to your life.” Will Drake’s songs hold up in fifty years? They might. But at this particular moment, in March of 2017, it’s a fact that Berry’s music has provided the soundtrack to many lives, and it’s no exageration to say that, beyond being a soundtrack, his music changed many people’s lives, many of whom would go on to be pretty influential in their own right.
If you only are familiar with Berry because of “Johnny B. Goode” (or, “You Never Can Tell” from its usage in a classic scene in Pulp Fiction), find a copy of The Definitive Collection or Gold or — if you’re lucky enough to find it — The Great Twenty-Eight, and enjoy some of the greatest music that’s ever been recorded. And, who knows, it may change your life too.