Friday, March 24, 2017

Chuck Berry – "Johnny B. Goode" (1958)

Deep down in Louisiana close to New Orleans,
Way back up in the woods among the evergreens
There stood a log cabin made of earth and wood
Where lived a country boy named Johnny B. Goode
Who never ever learned to read or write so well
But he could play a guitar just like a ringing a bell

(Yes, I'm aware that's more than two or three lines, but this verse is so good that it deserves to be quoted in its entirety.)

The late Chuck Berry was the first person inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, which is fine with me.

Here’s the first sentence from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s biography of Chuck Berry, who was 90 years old when he died on March 18:

After Elvis Presley, only Chuck Berry had more influence on the formation and development of rock & roll.

Chuck Berry in 1964
Writing on, Jack Hamilton (an American studies professor at the University of Virginia) begged to differ:  

“Who invented rock and roll?” is a truly unanswerable question, but Chuck Berry’s claim is as solid as any.  Jackie Brenston’s “Rocket 88,” the 1951 song most frequently cited as the music’s Big Bang, predates Berry’s emergence by four years, and Lloyd Price, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Carl Perkins, and even Elvis Presley had all made records before Berry broke through with “Maybellene” in 1955, at the shockingly advanced age of 28.  But Berry . . . was rock and roll’s first great auteur, blessed with an effortless ability to render the specific into the universal, and vice versa. He wrote songs infused with play, humor, ennui, pain, rage, swagger, and sex. They spoke to a generation who assumed they were about them, which was always only partially true.

Hamilton goes on to identify exactly what it was about Berry’s early hits that was revolutionary:

Musical revolutions tend to happen more gradually and subtly than pop mythology would like . . . [T]here are precious few moments on record that you can point to as a precise, tectonic shift in music itself.  But Berry’s early hits provide just this.  If you listen closely to “Roll Over Beethoven, “School Days,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Johnny B. Goode,” or any number of other Berry sides from the period, you’ll hear a rhythm section playing a standard shuffle, the swung eighth-note rhythm that was the most common backdrop of 1940s and 1950s Chicago blues and R&B.  Berry and pianist Johnnie Johnson, on the other hand, are playing the arrow-straight eighth notes that would soon become the defining rhythmic currency of rock and roll.  It’s a startling clash, the sound of the old world colliding with the new, and once it’s pointed out, the drums and bass on these recordings sound instantly out-of-date, a relic of an earlier era. 

*     *     *     *     *

I think that Berry was a better performer than Elvis Presley.  And I know he was a better songwriter.

Elvis was credited as the co-writer of a number of his songs, but he contributed significantly to only a very few.  By contrast, Berry wrote not only “Johnny B. Goode” but also “Roll Over, Beethoven,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Back in the U.S.A.,” “Memphis, Tennessee,” and many others.  

But I can’t argue that Elvis Presley was a bigger star than Berry.

Was that only because Elvis was white?  I don’t think so.  It didn’t hurt that Elvis was only 21 in 1956, when he had five #1 hits.  Berry turned 30 in 1956, plus he was a bit of a skeeze.  (I wouldn’t describe Elvis as exactly clean-cut, but he was a helluva lot more appealing to teenaged girls than Chuck Berry.)

Berry was still in high school when he was arrested for armed robbery after robbing three stores and stealing a car at gunpoint.  (Berry later wrote that the gun he used to flag down the motorist driving the car he stole wasn’t functional.)

In 1959, he was prosecuted and convicted under the Mann Act, a federal law that forbade the transportation of women across state lines for immoral purposes.  (Berry was found guilty of having sex with a 14-year-old girl he had transported across state lines to work as a hatcheck girl in a St. Louis nightclub that he owned, and spent 18 months in prison.)

A few months after going to the White House in 1979 to play for President Jimmy Carter, Berry pled guilty to tax evasion charges.

And in 1990, he was sued by a number of women who found out that he had installed a videocamera in the women’s bathroom at a restaurant he owned.  Berry paid the plaintiffs an estimated $1.2 million to settle the case.  He also pled guilty to misdemeanor drug possession when police who were searching his house for his bathroom videotapes found 62 grams of marijuana.

Sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll, baby!

*     *     *     *     *

Today’s featured song is ranked number 7 on Rolling Stone magazine’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” – just behind “Good Vibrations” and just ahead of “Hey Jude.”  It’s the only song from the fifties in Rolling Stone’s top ten.

And it’s also the only rock ’n’ roll song included on the golden record that was placed in the Voyager spacecraft that was launched in 1977 and is currently travelling through interstellar space.

Chuck Berry wrote a lot of iconic songs, and “Johnny B. Goode” is probably the iconic-est of all of them.

If you read the lyrics to that song on the printed page, they aren’t anything special.  But they are perfect lyrics for a rock ’n’ roll song.

“Johnny B. Goode” peaked at #8 on the Billboard “Hot 100.”  (The songs that reached #1 while “Johnny B. Goode” was on the “Hot 100” included “Witch Doctor,” “Yakety Yak,” and “The Purple People Eater.”)

I always assumed that Johnny B. Goode was a white boy from the boonies, but Berry’s original lyrics were “where lived a colored boy named Johnny B. Goode.”  

Berry was born and reared in St. Louis – not the piney woods of Louisiana – but the song is based on his life.

Here’s “Johnny B. Goode”:

Click below to buy the song from Amazon:

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