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Music

Six Definitive Songs: The ultimate beginner's guide to Chuck Berry

@SamWKemp

Where would we be without Chuck Berry? No Beatles, no Rolling Stones, no Led Zeppelin: the rock ‘n’ roll guitarist was an inspiration to so many important artists, catalysing an explosion of rock ‘n’ roll music in the late 1950s and ’60s.

Born into a middle-class family in St Louis, Berry started playing music at an early age, making his live debut at Sumner High School, the first high school for African-American students west of the Mississippi River in the United States. However, in 1880, it changed locations after parents complained that their children were walking past the gallows on their way to school.

By the time Berry arrived, Sumner High was one of the most prestigious schools in the state – an ill fit for a teenager with a taste for criminality. In 1944, he was convicted of armed robbery and sent to a reformatory, where he stayed until 1947. After his release, it seemed he would live a perfectly docile life. He settled into marriage and started a stable job at an automobile assembly plant. Then, in 1953, music came calling.

Inspired by the showmanship of T-Bone Walker, Berry joined the Jonnie Johnson trio and started performing as their guitarist. Over the next few years, he would hone his skills, taking lessons from his friend Ira Harris while waiting for that big break. It’s here that our story begins.

Chuck Berry’s six definitive songs:

‘Maybellene’ – Chuck Berry Is on Top (1955)

After relocating to Chicago in 1955, Chuck Berry was introduced to Muddy Waters. Aware that Berry was looking to get signed, he suggested that he contact Leonard Chess of Chess Records. Berry was convinced that Chess would be keen on his fresh blues sound, but they ended up being more impressed with his rendition of the ‘Ida Read’, which was popularised back in 1938 when Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys covered it.

Berry released an updated version of ‘Ida Read’ under the title ‘Maybellene’, featuring Jonnie Johnson on piano and Jerome Green (formerly of Bo Diddley) on the maracas, Ebby Hardy on Drums and Willie Dixon on bass. The single was a huge hit, selling over a million copies and landing the Number One Spot on Billboard’s R&B chart.

‘Roll Over Beethoven’ – Chuck Berry Is on Top (1956)

After the success of ‘Maybellene’, Chuck Berry was well on his way to establishing himself as a pop mainstay. But, first, he needed a follow-up hit. He found one in the form of ‘Roll Over Beethoven’.

Recorded at the tail end of June 1956, this classic slice of foot-tapping rock ‘n’ roll reached number 29 on the Billboard Top 100. Riding high on a two-streak win, Berry toured the US as one of the top acts of 1956, playing to packed auditoriums night after night.

‘Johnny B. Goode’ (1959)

It’s a testament to Chuck Berry’s genius that nearly every guitar beginners guitar book has some version of this 1959 track in its pages. It is just one of the many hits Berry scored between 1957 and 1959 but has proved to be the most enduring – not least because of the immortal scene in Back To The Future when Marty McFly plays it to a bunch of high school kids who’ve never even heard of rock ‘n’ roll.

The opening riff is by far one of the most famous in the genre’s history but was originally compared to the one used by Louis Jordan in his 1946 track ‘Ain’t That Just Like a Woman’. Berry later acknowledged the debt he owed to Jordan.

‘You Never Can Tell’ – St. Louis to Liverpool (1964)

By the end of the 1950s, Berry was one of the biggest pop acts in America. He used some of his newly-accumulated wealth to set up his own nightclub, but, in 1960, was arrested and imprisoned for having sex with a 14-year-old waitress called Janice Escalante.

When he was released in 1963, he found the American music scene dominated by British bands like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Who, many of whom had been inspired by Berry’s earlier work. Buoyed by this wave of free publicity, Berry embarked on a series of extensive tours, including one of the UK, during which he recorded St. Louis To Liverpool. Today, ‘You Never Can Tell’ is one of Berry’s most beloved hits.

‘Oh Louisiana’ – San Fransisco Dues (1971)

On the whole, though, the 1960s were not a great decade for Berry. His popularity was already waning by 1964, and by 1971, after the commercial failure of his Back Home album, he was reduced to releasing novelty songs like ‘My Ding-a-Ling’.

That same year, however, he released one of his greatest and most underappreciated albums, San Francisco Dues, which sees Berry revitalise his classic blues sound by embracing elements of West Coast psychedelia. Of all the shimmering recordings from that 1971 album, perhaps the most intoxicating is the sepia-toned ‘Oh Louisiana’.

‘Big Boys’ – Chuck (2017)

Following the release of his 1979 album Rockit, Berry stopped releasing music altogether. In the 1980s he became embroiled in further sexual assault inquiries, and it wasn’t until the final years of his life in the 2010s that he started working on new music.

Released after his death in 2017, Chuck sees Berry return to the classic rock ‘n’ roll sound that defined the dawn of his career. Featuring his children Charles Berry Jr. and Ingrid on guitar and harmonica, the album serves as a time capsule of Berry’s life and work and was dedicated to his wife of 68 years, Toddy. The album’s lead single ‘Big Boys’ paints a portrait of a young Chuck Berry taking his first tentative steps into clubland.