Chuck Berry passed away today, 3/18/17, at age 90. R.I.P. This feature originally ran in 2016.
Chuck Berry sons them all.
Elvis, the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles — if they picked up a guitar and called their music rock ‘n’ roll, Berry’s influence is undeniable as a progenitor of the genre.
Berry was 29 when Leonard Chess, founder of Chicago’s Chess Records, signed him based on the inventive strength of his blistering, agile guitar playing — playing that injected effervescence into a combination of bluegrass, country, and blues, and made the meld irresistibly infectious. Berry’s rendition of Bob Wills’ country jig “Ida Red,” which was developed into his early chart hit “Maybellene,” is what inspired Chess to sign him to his namesake imprint. It hit #5 on the Billboard pop chart (and #1 on the R&B chart) and was the catalyst for an impressive run of smash hits that would inspire the icons above and leave an indelible mark on music.
Along with the news of Berry turning 90 today — and getting ready to grandson them all with his first new album in 38 years — we’d like to celebrate his legacy by looking back on his best and most influential work. It’s damn near impossible to whittle the list down to 10, so feel free to complain in the comments as usual. Here are Chuck Berry’s 10 best songs.
10. “Sweet Little Sixteen” (from 1958’s One Dozen Berrys)
It’s hard to name many early rock ‘n’ rollers that didn’t steal from Berry, so this will be a common motif in this list. The Beach Boys didn’t really try to hide their thievery at all; they had already used plenty of Berry’s material, incorporating it into their live sets. But Brian Wilson took it a step further when he used the slightest variation on the driving riff of “Sweet Little Sixteen,” sun-bleached it, and took Berry’s tour of American cities to the California coast fun in the sun on “Surfin’ USA.” Wilson’s father and manager, Murry Wilson, ended up agreeing to give publishing rights to Berry’s publisher, Arc Music, to avoid being embroiled in a legal battle. Berry would eventually receive a writer’s credit in 1966, three years after “Surfin’ USA” was written.
Wilson intended the song to be a nod to Berry, and though early rock was built on a handful of tri-chord progressions and licks, the likeness was too easily apparent. One of the first major music copyright cases ensued as “Surfin’ U.S.A” landed at #3, higher on the charts than “Sweet Little Sixteen” ever would.
9. “Come On” (1961 single)
“Come On” led to Motown hits, surf classics, and the launch of the Rolling Stones in 1963. Berry had a way of taking the chicken grease chords popularized on the Chitlin’ Circuit, playing them fast and slick and blending them seamlessly with other elements. The chords are popular throughout his catalog, but “Come On” is perhaps the most exemplary with instrumentation that can be traced to other genres. Those wailing horns, lushly expanding and contracting, would be the basis for many a Motown song for Barry Gordy to produce, usually built upon Lamont Dozier’s uncannily catchy melodies and lyrics and delivered by the Supremes, Tammi Tarrell, and Mary Wells.
The Rolling Stones’ first single was actually a faster, dirtier cover of “Come On” that earned them their first placement on the UK charts. Keith Richards traces the Rolling Stones’ origins to two specific songs in his documentary Keith Richards: Under The Influence. Aside from the band taking its name from “Rollin’ Stone” by Berry’s labelmate Muddy Waters, Mick Jagger was carrying The Best Of Muddy Waters and Berry’s Rockin’ At The Hops at the time they were completing their first album. Songs from those albums, Waters’ “I Just Want To Make Love To You” and Berry’s “Let It Rock,” would become routine entries on their setlist.
8. “Back In The U.S.A.” (1959 single included on 1962’s Chuck Berry Twist)
Berry had a thing for naming off American cities in his songs, but this is probably the best of the bunch. It’s a super simple tune, relatable, catchy as hell, and bursting with nostalgic pride for the country he loves, despite its being in racial unrest that would hit a tipping point less than a decade later. There are few things more American than a road trip taking in all the sights the countryside has to offer, and Chuck provided the perfect narrated soundtrack to do so.
The feeling he evoked on this record would be reinterpreted by many as well. Most notably, the Beatles would parody the jam on “Back In The U.S.S.R.,” and Linda Rondstadt’s remake of the song for her 1978 album Living In The USA would hit #16 on Billboard Hot 100. Detroit punks MC5 would use their cover of the tune as the title track for their second album in 1970 as well.
Fun fact: Harvey And The Moonglows sang background vocals on this one with a young, pre-Motown Marvin Gaye on the top note.
7. “You Can’t Catch Me” (From 1956’s Rock, Rock, Rock OST)
Again, this is Berry and his obsession with zooming through American landscapes. In this case it’s the New Jersey Turnpike, but damn does he know how to add the perfect sounds for mashing your foot on the gas to escape whatever it is you’re leaving behind. The interplay between the tickling stride piano, his ever bouncy guitar strums, and intricate clicking percussion is masterful. The emphasis on Berry as a guitar virtuoso often masks his ability to craft rolling melodies that slyly built excitement without adding or subtracting implementation. His songwriting was simple, but he knew how to temper his delivery to enhance the chords whizzing around them. There are references to hits “Maybellene” and “Wee Wee Hours” cleverly weaved into the loose storytelling that are just the cherry on top of an already sweet song.
“You Can’t Catch Me” is another Berry cut that has been heavily scavenged by others. John Lennon played a version of “Come Together” for the rest of the Beatles and Paul McCartney noted that it sounded a lot like “You Can’t Catch Me,” telling Lennon “Well, do anything you can do to get away from that.” Apparently that just amounted to slowing the song down and adding a murky bassline. That may have been enough to mask the source, but a bold, almost direct lift of Berry’s lyrics — “Here come a flat-top/ He was movin’ up with me” fashioned into “Here come old flat-top/ He come groovin’ up slowly” — was too much for Morris Levy, the publisher of “You Can’t Catch Me” to ignore. Levy sued Lennon in 1973 and it started a chain of suits and counter-suits between the two, resulting in Lennon including three Levy songs on his 1973 covers album Rock ‘N’ Roll including “You Can’t Catch Me” and two renditions of Lee Dorsey’s “Ya Ya.”
6. “Carol” (from 1958’s compilation album Chuck Berry Is On Top)
“Carol” was initially overshadowed as a B-side to “Johnny B. Goode,” but it’s a hell of a song. That classic surf-leaning guitar mixed with his sultry warnings to a woman he’s trying to seduce makes for one of his racier songs, and it would drive crowds absolutely nuts. Again his songwriting may be obscured by his deft control over tempo, gliding between sections of the song both settling into the quieter breakdowns and lifting to the raucousness of the hook.
Both the Beatles and the Stones covered “Carol” in 1963 and 1964, respectively. The Beatles did so in a live performance that was later included on the 1994 album Live At The BBC. The Stones recorded a studio version that was included on their self-titled debut in 1964.
5. “Memphis, Tennessee” (1959 single)
Berry has a way with twang too, and it subtly roars on “Memphis, Tennessee.” But as with most of his best songs, that’s not the only thing going on. “Memphis” melded country, bluegrass, and Delta blues in a way no one had done before. It’s a big reason why the clippety-clop rhythms of rockabilly made it into the mainstream and the standard 4/4-metered rock ‘n’ roll beat. And that’s why it’s been covered by a veritable who’s who across multiple genres, including: the Who (as the High Numbers), Bo Diddly, Marvin Gaye, Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones, Roy Orbison, Johnny Rivers, the Animals, and so many more. This song perhaps hints the most at Chuck’s sweet-sounding genre potpourri.
4. “No Particular Place To Go” (from 1964’s St. Louis To Liverpool)
Just sing “Driving along in my automobile” in a random place and you can see exactly how far this song reaches. What’s more classic than some American automotive engineering failing you in your time of need? And though Berry’s guitar riff is just as classic, as usual, this song has a great four-verse story that highlights songwriting ability and knack for simple but telling detail. I’m personally still salty that Mos Def didn’t quite do it justice in Cadillac Records. This song was important in the Civil Rights movement because it helped Berry reach a level where he was just as popular with blacks as whites on unsegregated radio, but he would perform live to segregated crowds. This inspired other artists like Ray Charles to get the gumption to refuse to play segregated venues in protest, adding to the Civil Rights movement’s visibility.
3. “Maybellene” (1955 single included on 1959’s Chuck Berry Is On Top)
This is the song that put Berry on the map so to speak. It got him his deal with Chess Records, and was the first hint that he had figured out how to combine the country, folk, blues, and bluegrass he grew up on and inject them with an energy the world had never seen before. It’s the first glimpse of his technical prowess, deft arrangement, and the stringent band leader and evocative songwriter he would become. No one could have imagined a country song recorded by Bob Wills And His Texas Playboys in 1938 would have turned into a wheeling and dealing romp about a hot rod race and a severed romance that would inspire thousands of similar songs. Rock ‘n’ roll guitar perhaps definitively starts here.
2. “Roll Over Beethoven” (1956 single included on 1959’s Chuck Berry Is On Top)
“This is a song about a man who had a lot to do with music,” Berry said in a live performance for French TV. Man, could he say a lot in the simplest way. Is there anything more rock ‘n’ roll than telling the most recognizable name in classical music to turn over in his grave and listen up? “Roll Over Beethoven” is one of a few songs on which Berry crystallized an outright rock ethos (along with “Let It Rock” and of course “Rock And Roll Music”), but none were quite as badass as this one. Even without the layer of racial feather-ruffling that inevitably accompanied a black man respectfully telling the greatest composer ever that it was his time, it’s an incredible song with a motto that would propagate through punk, hardcore, emo, rap, and anything that’s meant to shake up the mainstream. Berry is surely revered for his guitar playing, songwriting, and arrangement skills, but he also had a smooth swag to him that let him get away with things like talking back to the dead. That attitude got him into a lot of trouble in his personal life, but on record he surely embodied that rock ‘n’ roll spirit early.
1. “Johnny B. Goode” (from 1959’s Chuck Berry Is On Top)
This is the song people think of when they refer to a Chuck Berry intro. It’s also an all-out jam that incorporates the most elements that make Chuck Chuck. Vivid lyrics, a subdued but infectious energy, crazy guitar riffs, enthralling solos, and the ability to encompass it all in three minutes or less. He’s a singular visionary.
Listen to the playlist on Spotify.