By Brian Ives
The last time I saw a Chuck Berry song performed live in concert, it was this past summer. Coldplay invited Michael J. Fox onstage to play — of course — “Johnny B. Goode.” Chris Martin’s son had requested — via Instagram — that dad’s band play a song “from the greatest movie of all time,” Back to the Future.
I thought, “Great!” Any artist of Coldplay’s level of popularity, playing a Chuck Berry song to a racially and generationally diverse stadium crowd is a great thing. Indeed, Back to the Future introduced that song to a younger generation in the ’80s.
“Johnny B. Goode” is one of the greatest songs of all time, a point hammered home by the many lists documenting the history of popular music that have been presented by magazines, websites and TV shows. Rolling Stone ranked it seventh on its list of the Greatest Songs of All Time, and number one on its list of the Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame lists it as one of the Songs That Shaped Rock. Guitar World ranked the guitar solo as the 12th best ever. As the decades roll on, the context of a song’s “importance” matters less than the bottom line: is it a good song? Of course it is, as are many of Chuck Berry’s other songs — “Maybellene,” “Too Much Monkey Business,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Around and Around” and the list goes on.
But context matters and the context of Chuck Berry’s songs — not only “Johnny B. Goode” — is worth looking back at, in the interest of not reducing him to one song, one riff, or one moment you’ve seen in a film. For decades, he’s been considered an “oldies” artist, and it’s true that his music is “old.” His classics were mostly recorded between 1955 and 1964. But that term — “oldies” — can dull the fact that Berry’s music was very dangerous indeed in the mid-50s.
His mixture of country music with R&B was integrating audiences when doing so was a potentially dangerous thing to do. And he played with fire, with thinly veiled songs about racism, notably “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man.” Taken at face value, “Two-three count with nobody on/He hit a high fly into the stand/Rounding third he was headed for home/It was a brown eyed handsome man,” seems like an innocent teen anthem about baseball. Change “brown-eyed” guy to one who is brown-skinned, and it takes a bit of a different meaning. The song was released in 1956. Back then, a brown-skinned man would court trouble by renting a hotel room with a white woman; but he most likely couldn’t get a room in a hotel where white people stayed. Berry’s songs appealed to both white and black teens, but often they couldn’t go to the same schools.
In a recent interview, Bob Dylan was discussing the impact of the early rock and rollers, including Berry, as well as Buddy Holly and Little Richard, among others: “They played this type of music that was black and white. Extremely incendiary. Your clothes could catch fire. When I first heard Chuck Berry, I didn’t consider that he was black. I thought he was a hillbilly. Little did I know, he was a great poet, too. And there must have been some elitist power that had to get rid of all these guys, to strike down rock ’n’ roll for what it was and what it represented — not least of all being a black-and-white thing.” If Dylan was right, those “elitist powers” didn’t strike it down fast enough: the cats were out of the bag.
Berry was a major influence on the Beatles: they covered “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Rock and Roll Music.” John Lennon famously said that “If you had to give Rock ‘n’ Roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry,” as the official Lennon account tweeted today.
The Rolling Stones’ first single, “Come On,” is a Berry cover; their repertoire has also included, over the years, “Around and Around,” “Carol,” “Little Queenie” and “Let It Rock.” And today, Mick Jagger — not a guy known for being overly sentimental or nostalgic — tweeted “I am so sad to hear of Chuck Berry’s passing. I want to thank him for all the inspirational music he gave to us. He lit up our teenage years, and blew life into our dreams of being musicians and performers. His lyrics shone above others & threw a strange light on the American dream. Chuck you were amazing&your music is engraved inside us forever.”