SONG: Johnny B. Goode
ARTIST: Chuck Berry
Listen to it here:
Johnny B. Goode was written by Chuck Berry in 1958 and was released as a single. Now, it’s considered one of the most recognizable songs in the history of popular music, and is the first rock and roll hit about rock and roll stardom. Berry has acknowledged that the song was partially autobiographical. According to him, the original lyrics referred to Johnny as a “coloured boy” but he changed it to “country boy” to ensure the song would get play on the radio.
The ubiquitous opening guitar riff was borrowed from the opening single-note solo on Louis Jordan’s “Ain’t That Just Like a Woman” from 1946: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vKivTlVQosk)
Johnny B. Goode is also one of the most covered songs of all time, from Marty McFly playing at his highschool dance in Back to the Future, to Jimi Hendrix, to all sorts of country stars. It has been named one of Rolling Stones’ 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
Charles Edward Anderson Berry was born in 1926 in St. Louis. He was into music from a young age and his first public performance was in high school. He had a rocky childhood, getting convicted of armed robbery while still in high school and getting sent to a reformatory for 3 years. While in reformatory school he sang in a quartet that became good enough to perform outside the facility. When he was released, Berry settled into married life and worked at an automobile assembly plant. He was really inspired by the guitar playing of T-Bone Walker and started playing with small groups to hone his guitar skills.
In 1955, Chuck Berry’s break came when he met Muddy Waters, and Waters got him in touch with Leonard Chess of Chess Records. This collaboration resulted in Berry’s huge hit “Maybellene”, which sold over a million copies.
Berry’s fame continued through the end of the 1950s, pausing for another three year prison term for transporting a 14-year-old girl across state lines for the purpose of sexual intercourse. When he was released, Berry continued making hits like “No Particular Place to Go” and “You Never Can Tell”.
The 1970s were less successful for Berry as he found himself more in demand as a nostalgia act than as a contemporary musician. His insistence on being paid in cash for performances led to another term in jail and community service for tax evasion.
On March 18, 2017, Berry died in his home in Wentzville, Missouri of a cardiac arrest.
- Johnny B. Goode is one of 27 songs meant to encapsulate human culture on the Voyager Spacecraft golden record that was launched into space in 1977.
This is a guitar classic! Hearing that opening guitar riff for the first time in 1959 must have blown some young minds. It was used a bunch of times by different artists and for good reason – it’s exciting and ear-catching! Anyway, to me Chuck Berry is one of those musicians that was so good/groundbreaking at one thing (guitar playing) that his deficiencies elsewhere (singing) don’t really matter that much. Like you listen to Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen for expertly crafted lyrics and story-telling, not virtuosic singing. He’s also one of those artists where you have to decide if he was awful enough in his personal life to keep you from enjoying his music. Besides the guitar playing, the piano is really going ham with the boogie woogie in this song – if you listen for it the pianist is hammering home those triplets in the right hand at every possible chance, and it works for me! I also think it’s a great example of storytelling in pop and rock music, telling the tale of a guitar virtuoso (mayhaps semi-autobiographical??) of humble beginnings who would someday make it big.
Another super iconic song that’s hard to listen to objectively, but here we go! Like many people, when I hear this opening lick I think of Back to the Future! I have to say it’s pretty easy to tell why this song was so popular. It’s a really successful fusion of blues with some blues guitar and chord progression, some fun piano interludes, and it has some of the louder splashier drums, and prominent guitar that would make rock popular. I love the guitar solo/piano solo just sort of fighting it out for supremacy in the middle, and finally a song that’s not a love story! Actually to be honest, I find Chuck Berry’s voice to be just fine, nothing particularly life shattering, but his guitar playing is really what makes this song more memorable. A fun listen still!
Average mark out of 10:
Other notable versions of this song:
Marty McFly’s version from Back to the Future:
Chuck Berry being backed by Bruce Springsteen and the E. Street Band for his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inception:
Elvis’ version from his sparkly jumpsuit period:
Listen with us!
Link to 1,001 Songs to Hear Before You Die spotify playlist:
Link to the Best of the Best 1,001 Songs to Hear Before You Die spotify playlist: