“If you had to give rock ‘n’ roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry.” — John Lennon
One of the most influential performers of his generation; if it wasn’t for the charismatic presence of Chuck Berry duckwalking across the airwaves, then, chances are, you would never have seen the pop explosion of the 1960s. Whether it was Lennon and his band The Beatles who drew inspiration from the rocker up and down their catalogue, The Beach Boys who also leant heavily on Berry’s sound, or The Rolling Stones who may never have gotten together had Keith Richards not spotted his old school pal Mick Jagger with a Berry record under his arm.
The truth is, without Chuck Berry, music wouldn’t be the same. Many of the singer’s tracks have gone on to be regarded as legendary. In fact, many of his songs ended up on the initial albums of the bands mentioned above. But if there was one track to remember the rocker by, it has to be his all-time classic ‘Johnny B. Goode’.
The song has transcended generations to become a ubiquitous let-loose anthem. The kind of song that gathers up the entire family at a function and plonks them all on the dancefloor, doing the twist or duckwalking or just throwing their booty around. It’s the kind of exaltation that has somewhat faded away from music in the 21st century but one that Berry held very dear to his craft. If he couldn’t make people dance to his music, then was there really any point in writing it?
Judging by the covers below, it’s not something we have to worry about. The common factor running through these covers (aside from Berry himself being a part of them) is that they always have the band jumping around the stage like buffoons. Even a band like The Beach Boys break out into dance — it’s a testament to the song’s unbridled energy.
The best covers of Chuck Berry’s ‘Johnny B. Goode’
Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Chuck Berry
Three icons of the guitar converged when Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Chuck Berry got on stage to perform Berry’s anthem. Filmed for Taylor Hackford’s 1987 film Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll, the music documentary records two concerts held at the Fox Theatre in St. Louis to celebrate the iconic Chuck Berry’s 60th birthday, giving audiences the chance to see Berry backed by some of the world’s most exclusive rock stars. It was a tantalising prospect.
Sourced and arranged by Keith Richards—a massive Berry fan despite being punched in the face by the rocker—the backing band saw artists such as the great Bobby Keys, Chuck Leavell, Robert Cray, Etta James, Linda Ronstadt, and of course Richards and Clapton, take to the stage to perform some of Berry’s most notorious hits, with the great man front and centre.
“Chuck is the granddaddy of us all,” Richards wrote in the rocker’s obituary. “Even if you’re a rock guitarist who wouldn’t name him as your main influence, your main influence is probably still influenced by Chuck Berry. He is rock and roll in its pure essence. The way he moved, especially in those early film clips; the exuberant ease when he laid down that rhythm was mystifying and something to behold.”
While Chuck Berry is undoubtedly the “granddaddy of us all”, his guitar acted merely as an influence for Jimi Hendrix and not a set of guidelines. Hendrix would take the charismatic energy of Berry’s performances and twisted them up into something brand new. With this backing of years of rock ‘n’ roll, Hendrix was able to become the guitar impresario he was.
It seems fitting, then, that the icon should have paid tribute to one of the forefathers of rock music with this spirited cover of ‘Johnny B. Goode’. As with every Hendrix performance, he gives himself over to the song at hand and lets his consciousness open up over the instrument and enact its will.
Featured on Hendrix’s Hendrix in the West, the track is a remarkable reminder of both Hendrix’s talent and the foundations Berry laid for him to build upon.
The Beach Boys
The Beach Boys performance came on a Christmas episode of ‘Shindig!’ which welcomed Brian Wilson and the band alongside other acts like Bobby Sherman, The Righteous Brothers and Marvin Gaye to the variety show. Gaye would close out the evening, but The Beach Boys would steal the show.
The group were on the TV show to act as the newly beating heart of the sixties among the more traditional acts. With the full group in tow, the band not only play Christmas hit ‘Little Saint Nick’ but also deliver a couple of sensational covers, ‘Monster Mash’ and ‘Santa Claus Is Coming To Town’ being particular family-friendly highlights. However, it was on their final cover that The Beach Boys would show their true identities.
During The Beach Boys performance of Chuck Berry’s rock classic ‘Johnny B. Goode,’ you can see them visibly enthralled by the song. They all jive and jump without choreography and are possessed by the rock and roll spirit of the legendary duck-walking guitarist.
Performing on the David Letterman show in 1991, when Motörhead come to town, you know you’re in for a real show. No matter if they were performing a guest spot on a late-night show or for thousands of screaming fans on tour, Lemmy and his band always delivered a gut punch performance capable of folding anyone in half. Even their covers held more grit than could be imagined.
The same can certainly be said for this cover of Chuck Berry’s hit ‘Johnny B. Goode’. While the connection between Motörhead and Berry may feel a little more stretched than the others on this list, Lemmy was a child of the sixties and clearly recognised the importance of Berry’s influence.
This performance shows that the band were huge fans of both the song and Berry as an inspirational figure.
John Lennon and Chuck Berry
Giving Yoko Ono and John Lennon free-reign over your TV show is a dangerous thing to do. Luckily, all Lennon brought in 1972 was a guest appearance from Chuck Berry. Lennon, like many musicians his age, was a huge fan of Berry often citing him as one of his main musical influences.
In fact, for much of The Beatles early songwriting career, he and Paul McCartney would trade their lyrics and songs and they’d both be undoubtedly influenced by one man, Chuck Berry. “To us, he was a magician making music that was exotic, yet normal, at the same time,” Paul McCartney wrote on his website following Berry’s death. “We learnt so many things from him which led us into a dream world of rock & roll music.”
Back to the show and Lennon was equally as complementary to the star as he said: “He was writing good lyrics and intelligent lyrics in the 1950s when people were singing ‘Oh baby I love you so, it was people like him that influenced our generation to try and make sense out of the songs rather than just sing ‘do wah diddy’.”
The moment came at a good time for Berry, with nostalgia for the fifties growing in 1972 the stage was set for a small comeback. Berry even released some new music during the time. He did flirt with major success but his return to the top of the bill was short-lived.
Bruce Springsteen and Chuck Berry
A lifelong fan, Bruce Springsteen has enjoyed a tempestuous relationship with Chuck Berry. The ageing rocker has made a fool of The Boss on a few occasions, usually by changing song halfway through a set or just generally playing tricks. A similar moment came at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995 when Berry delivered a sensational performance of his anthem ‘Johnny B. Goode’ with the help of Springsteen & The E Street Band. But a few hours later, Berry would be up to his old tricks and changes things mid-song and causing chaos as he did.
“Somehow, a minute or two [in], he shifts the song in gears and a key without talking to us,” E Street Band guitarist Nils Lofgren told Ultimate Classic Rock. “We are making these horrible sounds, collectively, in front of a stadium, sold out…At the height of it, when no one has any idea how to fix this, Chuck looks at us all and starts duckwalking off the stage, away from us. He leaves the stage, leaves us all out there playing in six different keys with no band leader, gets in the car and drives away. I don’t think we have ever participated in something that godawful musically since we were probably 13 or 14.”
Berry was maybe having some fun with the group or maybe he was just messing around with new kids on the rock and roll block. However you look at it, the image of Berry duckwalking to the car and then hightailing it out of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is one we will cherish forever.
The Grateful Dead
The archetypal jam band, there was always likely to be an inclusion from Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir and the rest of The Grateful Dead. But as well as Berry being a standard almost every band in the country would have known at the time, the Dead were huge fans, covering many of his tracks including the ‘Johnny B. Goode’ B-side ‘Around and Around’.
That said, their cover of ‘Johnny B. Goode’ reigns supreme as their best Berry effort. A combination of their unique evolutionary sound and the classic chords of the song, make this a pure triumph. Featuring on their self-titled 1971 effort, the song is confirmed as one of the most anthemic around, especially after the Dead jumped on board.
Julian Lennon, Keith Richards and Chuck Berry
Just like his father, Julian Lennon shared an affinity with Chuck Berry and in the footage below he managed to not only share the stage but quite possibly outshine him. The clip, taken from Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll, a 1987 documentary film directed by Taylor Hackford, chronicles a couple of 1986 concerts celebrating Berry’s 60th birthday.
A soundtrack album was released in October 1987 on the MCA label. While Richards is undoubtedly happy to be in the band and play his way through the song with a smile, truly it is Julian Lennon’s chance to shine.
Sharing the vocal with Berry just as his father had done before him, the singer delivers a charming rendition of the track that we’re sure the Beatle would have been very proud of. Sparkling and incandescent, Berry and Lennon provide a stonking reminder that the purity of rock ‘n’ roll runs through generations.