Chuck Berry is still around. It’s something that I, embarrassingly, take for granted much of the time. “Oh yeah,” I’ll remember. “Cool.” He’s just, you know, the original rock ‘n’ roller (arguable, I suppose, considering, well, Elvis, Little Richard, Bill Haley, Fats Domino and Jackie Brenston/Ike Turner also exist ... whatever). Berry is THE “guitar hero.” The guitarist who inspired countless other greats, most notably Keith Richards. A true living legend. Today, to celebrate his 90th birthday, here are my Pop10 favorite songs of his.
10. Rock And Roll Music
"Rock And Roll Music" is Chuck Berry toned down, and, despite what the title leads you to believe, this isn’t such a wild song. Listening to it is like riding a steady wave, as Berry’s lyrics systematically bring you into the rock ‘n’ roll fold.
"Nadine" is the last flash of Berry’s rock ‘n’ roll roots before he degenerated into singing about his ding-a-ling-a-ling. Though the song feels somewhat musically castrated (the horn section in the chorus overpowering the guitar), it contains some of Berry’s most vivid, zany lyrics (“I was pushin’ through the crowd to get to where she’s at, I was campaign shouting like a southern diplomat”).
8. Around And Around
I was first introduced to this song by The Rolling Stones, who opened with it as the closing act of the legendary TAMI Show concert. It’s easy to see why they were so attracted it. The song is a reminder of Berry’s blues roots, almost like a middle ground between that early work (songs like "Wee Wee Hours") and his more famous rock singles.
7. Brown Eyed Handsome Man
Even if the song was garbage, "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" would be something of a novelty in its objectification of a man as the prize to be sought after, fought for, and won. Fortunately, this is one of the most technically perfect of all Berry’s recordings. The guitar and piano are impeccable, not a hair out of place.
6. Too Much Monkey Business
The high-pitched, jingling riff that opens this track is as clear a signal as they come: you’re in for musical rambunction at level red. The rollicking chorus engages in a constant back-and-forth with Berry’s near-rapping verses (which are said to have influenced Bob Dylan) that builds and builds.
5. Memphis, Tennessee
"Memphis, Tennessee" tells the tale of a father trying desperately to get in contact with his daughter who is in the custody of his ex. The bouncing guitar, sounding like it’s being longingly, hopefully broadcast through a PA system, meshes well with the heartbreaking lyrics, making for one of Berry’s most eerie, mysterious tunes.
Berry’s first hit may or may not be the true first rock ‘n’ roll song, but it’s as good an example as any of what made the new sound so exciting. Rock lyrics don’t need to be poetry as long as they elicit excitement and/or paint something of a picture, but Berry’s storytelling here, of a high-speed chase after an unfaithful girlfriend, goes above and beyond the call of duty and feels exhilarating no matter how many times I hear it. The technical imperfections (the fuzzy static that overtakes the song after the guitar solo) even add something to the experience, almost like the sound equipment itself is struggling to keep up.
3. Johnny B. Goode
There is nothing I can tell you about "Johnny B. Goode" that you can’t pick up on and recognize for yourself by giving it a listen. It is one the base, simple pleasures of American pop music.
2. Roll Over Beethoven
Many of Berry’s most beloved songs, particularly “Rock and Roll Music” and “Roll Over Beethoven” amounted to celebrations of themselves. If the former was the fun party to loosen you up, the latter is a forceful, abrasive laying down of the law: rock ‘n’ roll is here to stay, whether you like it or not. Right off the bat, Berry unleashes something more raucous than usual. The opening riff foreshadows the iconic “Johnny B. Goode,” but, while that song bounces, this one thrashes.
1. Sweet Little Sixteen
At first listen, "Sweet Little Sixteen" might seem like an odd choice for the tip top of Berry’s treasure trove of great tracks, especially given its lack of a prominent guitar solo (honestly, pianist Lafayette Leake straight up steals the show about halfway through). But, funny enough, this is the quality that makes it stand out. Berry’s guitar doesn’t show off. It simply chugs along like a powerful, reliable machine. It’s almost prophetic in its bumping simplicity: turn it up, and is it really so different from punk rock? The lyrics capture the glee of seeing your favorite artists onstage, obsessively collecting photos and autographs of them, and feeling like you're part of something new and exciting. "Sweet Little Sixteen" ultimately turns music into something larger than life. It’s a song that makes you love songs even more.
Do you agree with this list, or do you love any other Chuck Berry songs? Leave a comment with your answer!
Happy Birthday, Chuck!