The Father of Rock and Roll!
Chuck Berry was in many ways the link between blues and modern music. He’d take existing songs and rewrite them with lyrics about teenage life, driving cars, fame, and mainly, ensure there was plenty of sexual undertones!
Instead of “woke up this morning, my baby was gone”, Chuck went “All the cats wanna dance with Sweet Little Sixteen”.
Instead of complaining, he made Rhythm n Blues fun, which I guess is what Rock n Roll is. For a black man to want to party with your white teenage daughter in America’s 1950s was, to say the least, controversial, but somehow it worked!
White radio loved Chuck Berry whose best tunes include Maybellene, Roll Over Beethoven, Rock and Roll Music, Johnny B. Goode, Sweet Little Sixteen, You Can’t Catch Me, No Particular Place To Go, You Never Can Tell, My Ding-a-Ling, and Nadine.
Chuck essentially took piano boogie-woogie, adapted it to the guitar, sang about having fun, and became a worldwide superstar in the 50s and 60s.
His main influences were Nat King Cole, Muddy Waters, T-Bone Walker, Country music tunes, and unbeknown to most, his own Boogie-woogie piano player Johnnie Johnson who actually wrote most of Chuck’s tunes but didn’t get credited for any of them.
Apart from ripping off his band mate, Chuck’s two best steals include the intro for Johnny B. Goode which came from Louie Jordan’s Ain’t That Just Like A Woman, and the old traditional country tune Ida Red which became his breakthrough single Maybellene.
What Chuck didn’t expect was that “borrowing” was a two-way street. In turn, Surfin’ U.S.A by the Beach Boys was Chuck’s Sweet Little Sixteen. Now that the tables had turned, Chuck was pissed off!
Unfortunately, he couldn’t see that this was what rock n roll songwriting was all about, you take a little bit of this, and a little bit of that and now it’s your own. Which is ironic as Chuck is the master of this himself. It was as if Chuck didn’t want to take his own medicine.
If you’d like to follow this rabbit hole of Beach Boys and Chuck Berry further, check out Back In The U.S.S.R by The Beatles and see how California Girls (Beach Boys) became Ukraine Girls. This tune is actually a spoof on Back In The U.S.A, a Chuck Berry composition!
But Chuck Berry wasn’t just all about “borrowing” tunes, he was also a showman, pioneering the Duck walk for example. Although, some say, most of his showmanship ideas came from one of his heroes, T-Bone Walker.
It’s strange to think of an artist so seemingly original and one of a kind like Chuck Beery as someone who would just take bits from all over the place and make it his own, but that’s how it was done in the 50s and 60s when modern songwriting was developed.
It’s only lately that copyright infringement and suing each other left right and center have become common practice.
Speaking of lawsuits, Chuck’s old piano bandmate, Johnnie, ended up suing Chuck in 2000, but the judge dismissed the case saying it was just too long ago. At least Johnnie was immortalized in Chuck Berry’s signature song, Johnny B. Goode.
I guess what we can all learn from Chuck Berry is that if you want to be a rock n roll songwriter, all you need is a big record collection (Spotify!) a great work ethic, and don’t forget to include some sexual undertones!
Chuck Berry | Related pages
Johnny B. Goode
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Deep down in Louisiana close to New Orleans,
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way back up in the woods among the evergreens.
Go to Johnny B. Goode chords.