Bye, Bye Johnny B. Goode
Intro by Jason Gross; articles by Sam Leighty, Adrian R. Charter, Jake Chapman, Thomas Collins
The great American philosopher George Carlin once said that at a certain age, you get applause just for still being alive. Maybe that was the case with Chuck Berry, but because he didn't register in pop culture anymore, maybe we also took for granted that he was still among us. Fellow inventors like Edison, Gutenberg and da Vinci got honors that he never did and because he didn't get roped into any reality shows, TV specials or viral videos, even most of us rock fans (myself included) casually forgot that he was still among us until his death on March 18, 2017.
The fact is that he was among us in many ways that we didn't realize. You can get into all kinds of fights about whether or not he birthed rock and roll but you can close your trap if you want to argue that someone else invented rock and roll guitar. No less than an authority than Hendrix could tell you that.
That along with his expert teen chronicling in his own songs, his wild attitude and his stage presence (the immortal and hilarious duck walk) built a template for several generations of rockers and many more to come. The fact is also that because of all of these things, he'll still be among us for a long time. As such, even if you're a millennial who doesn't know Chuck Berry from Chuck Norris, you still know his music through thousands of others.
If nothing else, aliens may learn of our civilization thanks to the Voyager Space Craft which among its possessions, holds its "Golden Record," which includes a recording of "Johnny B. Goode." For that alone, they may spare our species, or so we hope.
You could even make the argument that among the great '50's rockers, Berry might be the first pop star, as his July '55 "Maybellene" debut (and top 10 hit) beat Elvis to the national charts ("Heartbreak Hotel" came out in Jan '56, though he hit the country charts before then) as well as Carl Perkins ("Blue Suede Shoes" also came out in Jan '56 though he had regional success before that), Buddy Holly (first songs out in '56), Jerry Lee Lewis (ditto), Gene Vincent (ditto) and Little Richard (who started recording in '51 but didn't hit until late '55 with "Tutti Frutti"). Maybe only Fats Domino whose records started coming out in '49 and whose first nationwide hit was in Aug '55 ("Ain't That A Shame") and Bo Diddley (whose self-titled single was a #1 R&B hit in March '55) have a strong competing claim chronology-wise (awaiting hate mail on this).
Though Berry's own greatest hits include standards like "Goode" (great cover from Peter Tosh too) "Roll Over Beethoven" (which lovingly stomps on old school classical as Spike Jones did, plus a great ELO cover), "Rock and Roll Music" (with its biting critique of jazz plus a great Beatles cover of it) and many others, my own personal faves are some of his 'lesser known' tunes.
- "Too Much Monkey Business" (1956) where he raps the verses acapella (listen to it again if you don't believe it)
- "Almost Grown" (1959) with its Coasters-like backing vocals from Etta James and the Moonglows ("g-duck, g-duck, g-duck!")
- "Little Queenie" (1959) where he shares his sly, strategic thoughts to himself about getting that girl in a low voice
If nothing else, Berry's death will hopefully make us cherish the other '50's rockers who still walk among us, including Jerry Lee (81), Fats (89) and Mr. Richard Penniman (84). Let's just hope that we don't see any of their obits any time soon.
See these PSF articles honoring Berry:
Remembering a fellow Midwesterner, The Brown Eyed Handsome Man
by Sam Leighty (April 2017)
Analyzing Chuck Berry's Recorded Legacy
by Adrian R. Carter (August 2015)
Poet of the Practical Life
by Jake Chapman (August 2015)
Not So Much a Poet as a Storyteller
by Thomas Collins (August 2015)
Special thanks to Ed Ward for his help with this
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