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Rock and roll icon Chuck Berry dies, 90

Music

Story Behind The Song: Chuck Berry's rock 'n' roll classic 'Johnny B. Goode'

@SamWKemp

If alien lifeforms were to happen across the ‘golden record’ currently floating around space laden with sounds designed to capture the diversity of life on earth, they would find Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto, Stravinsky’s The Rites of Spring, samples of Senegalese percussion, the night chants of the Najavo tribe, and wedding songs from Peru. Amongst this smorgasbord of human musical expression, they would only find only one pop song: the 1958 classic, ‘Johnny B. Goode’ by Chuck Berry.

Trying to capture the essence of pop music with one track must have been a difficult task, but Berry was a good choice. Pop was both the soundtrack to and a product of a moment of unparalleled social mobility in the West, and Berry’s hit single is a celebration of that moment – one in which even working-class folk could make a name for themselves on musical talent alone.

While the success of ‘Johnny B. Goode’ was, in part, down to the track’s autobiographical slant, Chuck Berry was a little better off than the fictional Johnny. Unlike the song’s protagonist, Berry could “read and write” very well. When Berry explained the meaning behind the track to Rolling Stone, he was quick to associate himself with the “country boy” who grew up in a backwater town in the Deep South. In fact, Berry grew up on Goode street in St. Louis, a flourishing Mid-Western city with a distinctly cosmopolitan air. He may not have been the sharpest academic, but Berry was also far from unschooled; he had a degree in hairdressing for god’s sake.

If these altered details were an attempt at self-mythologisation, they were also a reflection of the times. ‘Johnny B. Goode’ was written during the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower, a man who seemed determined to let white Americans turn their country into an expanded version of the Augusta National Golf Club – that bastion of white male privilege where Eisenhower liked to unwind. His tenure was one in which racially-motivated lynchings were commonplace, so it’s no surprise that Berry, keen to have his song played on the radio, felt obliged to change the lyric “that little coloured boy can play” to “that little country boy could play”. The enduring popularity of ‘Johnny B. Good’ among white listeners is a stark reminder that, to make the big time, Berry was forced to either hide his race entirely or conform to an idealised image of Blackness cultivated by white people.

After lifting guitar parts from Louis Jordan’s ‘Ain’t That Just Like A Woman,’ and T-Bone Walker’s ‘Strollin’ With Bones’ and adding a dash of rock ‘n’ roll euphoria, ‘Berry recorded ‘Johnny B. Goode in 1958, using a band comprised of, amongst others, Willie Dixon. Berry’s employment of the legendary bassist saw him break the habit of a lifetime and perform with a band that had actually had the time to rehearse the track before playing it for the first time. Usually, he would show up for gigs with a local outfit he’d picked up the night before and hired for a pittance. A Young Bruce Springsteen headed one such band and recalled being frustrated by Berry’s tendency to change keys halfway through a song. When Keith Richards went backstage to meet the rock ‘n’ roller decades later, he found he hadn’t softened in his autumn years. After plucking a few strings on Berry’s guitar after a show in New York, Chuck came in and gave the Rolling Stones guitarist a black eye. “I love his work,” Richards later said, “but I couldn’t warm to him even if I was cremated next to him.”

‘Johnny B. Goode was produced by Leonard and Phil Chess of Chess Records, who Berry was introduced to by Muddy Waters, who was only too happy to help Berry secure a record deal after his relocation to Chicago. On release, the track spent just under three months on the American Billboard Chart, rising to Number Eight before dropping off after 15 weeks. The modest reception of Johnny B. Goode’ seems utterly counterintuitive when one considers the impact the recording had on the landscape of pop music – sparking the likes of Mick Jagger, John Lennon, Eric Clapton and more to pursue a life in rock ‘n’ roll.

Today, the idea of a person from a humble background being able to sing about how much money they’re going to make in music is unimaginable. As Noel Gallagher recently told the Daily Mirror “There’s lots of singer-songwriters, loads of middle-class bands… wearing guitars as opposed to playing them. But four or five guys from a council estate can’t afford guitars”. When held up against today’s plutocracy, ‘Johnny B. Goode’ feels like some glistening artefact from a period of astonishingly rapid social change. In this way, it’s no wonder the track continues to hold such sway over us. Because, at the end of the day, it is as much an encapsulation of what we’ve gained as what we’ve lost.