Chuck Berry: Looking back at his 20 best songs
In his 90 years, Chuck Berry — who died Saturday in Missouri — recorded hundreds of songs, including 13 top 10 R&B hits and seven pop smashes. But these 20 cuts capture the heart of his talent and vision best.
It all started here. In July 1955, “Maybellene” became Berry’s first smash, as well as one of the first true rock ‘n’ roll records. Like all such compositions, it’s the bastard child of country and R&B, this one with a melody adapted from “Ida Red,” a 1938 Western swing song from Bob Will and His Texas Playboys. Berry greatly overhauled it with his unique twists on rhythm and blues. In two minutes and 13 seconds, he managed to birth a riot of rock ‘n’ roll touchstones, including the honking guitar cadenza at the start, the vamping vocal cadence in the verses, and a final wild solo every axman in Berry’s wake has nicked.
“Wee Wee Hours” (1955)
Flip “Maybellene” over and you’ll find this lowdown blues grinder. A top 10 hit in its own right, “Hours” showcased the nuances in Berry’s vocals, capturing equal parts longing and eroticism. The recording also gave a wide berth to pianist Johnnie Johnson, who used it to take a virtuoso turn.
“Roll Over Beethoven” (1956)
Emboldened by the success of “Maybellene,” Berry fired off one of the most hilarious — and ballsy — salvos in pop history: “Roll over Beethoven / Tell Tchaikovsky the news.” The message was that old notions of “classical music” have now been replaced by a new sound. Berry still called it “rhythm and blues” in the lyrics, but any listener can tell he’s playing stone cold rock ‘n’ roll — his volcanic guitar solo at the start has revolution in its soul. It’s manic, skilled, and fated to be iconic. In the track’s attitude, Berry didn’t just advance rock ‘n’ roll: He kinda created punk.
“Brown Eyed Handsome Man” (1956)
The star did something complex and subversive with this 1956 B-side to “Too Much Monkey Business.” In one lyric, he mentions the “whole lot of trouble” caused by a brown-eyed handsome man — i.e. a beautiful black man like Berry who appealed to women of every race. It’s the fear of miscegenation Berry tapped into here, treating the subject with subtlety, wit, and determination.
“You Can’t Catch Me” (1956)
Here, “Maybellene” gets another shout-out from the eagerly self-referential Berry. But there’s more going on than mere brand extension: Berry turned the scenario in the earlier hit on its head. This time, he’s the who can’t be caught in a speedy car. The galloping music captures his triumph. It’s almost all vamp, elaborated by a burst of fast licks, as well as some of pianist Johnson’s most animated runs. Extra points go to listeners who can pick out the lines later lifted by the Beatles in “Come Together.”
“Rock and Roll Music” (1957)
In this salute to the style he helped pioneer, Berry makes special mention of the genre’s “backbeat,” the steady rhythm that never lets him (or the listener) down. There’s a great example of it here, emphasized by Berry’s even-toned vocal (in contrast to John Lennon’s full-on shout in the Beatles’ take). Johnson’s piano eventually takes the lead, slipping and sliding until it encircles every other sound.
“Sweet Little Sixteen” (1958)
In this transgressive classic, Berry offers his ode to a school girl who gets dolled up in high heels and lipstick, setting off waves of lust from “Philadelphia PA” to “the Frisco Bay.” The stop-start rhythm gives the song tension, while the madcap keyboards, manned here by Lafayette Leake, match the lyrics in outrageousness. The song became the second biggest hit of Berry’s career, shooting to No. 2 on the pop charts, a feat sadly beaten only by the silliest record of his career, 1972’s “My Ding-A-Ling.”
“Johnny B. Goode” (1958)
Berry got autobiographical in one of his most iconic songs, but changed one lyric from a “colored boy” to a “country boy” to avoid controversy. The guitar break remains one of the most quoted figures in rock, as does the single-note refrain. Together, they helped shoot the single to No. 8 on the pop chart, setting off a string of sequels from “Bye Bye Johnny” to “Go Go Go.”
Originally the B-side to “Johnny B. Goode,” this ditty worked off the same teasing riff, though the guitarist added an extended solo that showcased some of his most subtle twists. The way he bends the strings captures a wry leer as he pursues the elusive Carol.
“Run Run Rudolph” (1958)
Okay, so Chuck didn’t write this one — Johnny Marks and Martin Brodie did. But Berry owned the song by turning his “Johnny B. Goode” riff into a holiday perennial.
“Almost Grown” (1959)
The doo-wop backup vocals shared the spotlight with Berry’s lead in this track. And no wonder: They were provided by Etta James and Harvey and the New Moonglows, a group that featured a young Marvin Gaye. The 1959 song got a new life in ’73 when it turned up on the hit soundtrack to American Graffiti.
“Little Queenie” (1959)
Yes, it’s the same melody and riff as “Rudolph,” but what gives this record its own stamp is the “meanwhile, I’m still thinking” section, a spoken wink to the listener that’s both sexy and camp.
“Back in the U.S.A.” (1959)
Berry’s salute to his country didn’t focus on the politics but on American culture, as well as on the sheer physicality of its land. In this track, he called out the skyscrapers, hamburgers, and jukeboxes of the nation, all backed by a rollicking rhythm.
“Memphis Tennessee” (1959)
Also known as “Memphis,” this 1959 classic offered a smart lyrical plot twist: At first, the listener thinks the narrator is trying to reach a lover named Marie. But, it’s later revealed, that’s the name of his daughter, who’s been snatched away by her mother. The music itself also has its own twists, from the questioning guitar line to the loping bass figure.
“Let It Rock” (1960)
Here’s another cut that plays off Berry’s patented “Johnny B. Goode” riff. The wrinkle comes in the sharp guitar licks, meant to echo the whistle of the train.
“Come On” (1961)
It didn’t even make the lowest rung of the top 100, but “Come On” featured some of Chuck’s most insistent singing. It benefitted, too, from Martha Berry’s backup vocals, which lent the song a bit of soul.
“I Got to Find My Baby” (1960)
A blues stomp penned by Peter Clayton, “Baby” failed to chart but it offered a fine showcase for Berry’s vocal growl.
“No Particular Place to Go” (1964)
A dense plot informs this Berry chestnut from 1964. Set — where else? — in a car, the scenario finds its narrator kissing the object of his affection in various settings, hoping to go further. In the end, their sexual release gets messed up by, of all things, a malfunctioning seat belt. It’s the one song where Berry’s car fetish undoes him.
“Promised Land” (1964)
The American landscape always inspired Berry, but seldom did he create as detailed a travelogue as the one in “Promised Land.” To match it, the beat chugs like a train, while the star unleashes some of the fastest licks of his career.
“Reelin’ and Rockin’” (1957)
Berry first cut this ditty back in 1957, but the live version from ’72 gets more explicit about the sex, aided by a rhythm that kicks.