I heard Chuck Berry around age five, then realized a few years later that he'd written those fabulous covers by the Beatles, "Roll Over Beethoven" and "Rock & Roll Music." As I got deeper into his catalog (purchasing more albums than singles by the time I was 15 and going wild over Chuck Berry's Golden Decade), I discovered that beyond the radiant riffs and sly vocals, his lyrics were pure magic.
There was the triumph of "Johnny B. Goode," the geography lesson in "Promised Land" (love it when he says they "bypassed Rock Hill [SC]," a well-known KKK haven), a love for his country ("Back In the U.S.A.," where "hamburgers sizzle on an open grill, night and day") and especially "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" (from 1956), a profound assertion of black pride, made all the more powerful because Berry's message was constructed between the lines, where it went over the head of the average music fan without failing to draw them in.
"Brown Eyed Handsome Man" (covered by Buddy Holly, and raved about by Carl Perkins during the taping of what would be known as The Million Dollar Quartet in December of 1956) has never sounded so contemporary as it does in 2017. Consider what the Trump administration wants to do with people of color in this era and the first line of the song: "Arrested on charges of unemployment."
That's just one of the great scenes that Berry could capture in just a few words; one of the first books I read about songwriting pointed out the energy and desperation he created in "Nadine (Is It You?)," a perfect answer to any schmuck who says that "every Chuck Berry song started out with the guitar riff from 'Johnny B. Goode'." Among my many favorites are "Almost Grown" ("I don't hang out with no mob/got myself a little job"), "Havana Moon" (the story is loaded with missed opportunities while the music is lonely and subdued), "Reelin' and Rockin' " (both the '50s studio take and the raunchy 1972 live version work well), "No Money Down" (he wants space age features put into his new car, escaping from the "broke down, ragged Ford") and "Roll Over Beethoven" (the title alone is an upstart thing). Then there's "Memphis, Tennessee." "Memphis" is an epic song, where the "Marie" Berry refers to is not his ex but the six year old child who is caught in the middle of a devastating breakup--and that's not revealed until the end of the tune. Just brilliant.
I loved singing "Memphis" with my band the Distractions and over the years we also got to do "Carol" and "No Particular Place to Go." I always wanted to get to "School Day" (some call it "School Days"), which concludes with "Hail hail, rock'n'roll/deliver me from the days of old" (I used "the feeling is there, body and soul" from the same song in the first published review I ever did of a Bruce Springsteen show). There was a sweet nostalgia in plenty of Chuck Berry songs but not when he was referring to repression, either imagined or real. Everything I've mentioned is available on Anthology (MCA, 2000), a two-disc set that is thorough and without filler, save for "My Ding-a-Ling."
There may be only a few Berry classics done as well as the original, and those include the Rolling Stones' "Around and Around" (possibly due to the groove that drummer Charlie Watts sets); the Beatles' "Rock & Roll Music" (Lennon's vocal is out of this world and the crazed piano, played by four hands--McCartney's and producer George Martin's); Elvis Presley's "Promised Land" (cut in 1973; the words aren't delivered as well as Berry yet guitarist James Burton zips through it like a streamroller). And maybe Johnny Winter's "Johnny B. Goode," although that may be pure muscle. No--I take that back: Berry's guitar intro on "Johnny B. Goode" is pure excitement and his gleeful singing carries it through--it's still the version.
And who could forget the sparkling piano of Johnnie Johnson or Layette Leake on those records? Or how Nick Lowe couldn't have written "I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock'n'Roll") or Bob Seger "Get Out of Denver" without the inspiration of Chuck Berry. Or how about Berry's "Too Much Monkey Business," whose rapid-fire delivery brought us Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues," Elvis Costello's "Pump It Up" and R.E.M.'s "It's the End of the World As We Know It"?
It is the end of my world, in some ways--I was very sad about this news. I saw Chuck Berry open for Joe Ely in 1981 at the Paramount Theater in Austin. He was rather pissed at the pickup band he was saddled with--a weird thing to say about the normally first class musicians in Austin. I remember that they didn't know the tunes like they should have--didn't know the "stops" he would do in the middle of his transcendent songs. At one point, he put his left leg out horizontally in a perfect ninety degree angle, dropping it back to the floor to show them what he wanted. Did I ever want to be playing drums in that band! While I might not have known what key all the released versions of those songs were in (as Keith Richards does), I wouldn't have missed those breaks. I may be a cheerful underachiever of the world, but I wouldn't have screwed that up.