Today is Rock ‘N’ Roll pioneer Chuck Berry’s 81st birthday. Quite possibly the most important musical figure the state of Missouri ever produced, the man’s longevity is astounding, as he continues to perform concerts to this day in his hometown of St. Louis. Chuck can be a very prickly person to deal with, as Rolling Stone Keith Richards found out first-hand during the making of the film Hail! Hail! Rock ‘N’ Roll which chronicled Chuck’s 60th birthday concert from the Fox Theater in St. Lou in 1986, and CB definitely has a chip on his shoulder about things that derailed his career. Some of that is very understandable, like his trumped-up arrest in 1959 for a Mann Act (transporting an underage girl across state lines), as well as the racism he encountered throughout his life and career, but then again, some of his problems were self-inflicted, like tax evasion in the '70s and being charged with having a hidden camera in the ladies’ room at the nightclub he once owned.
All that aside, there is no denying the impact this man has had on popular music, as well as virtually writing the book on Rock ‘N’ Roll electric guitar playing. Chuck was one of the first Rock performers to not only write his own songs, but write them brilliantly! His often-humorous songs about school and cars and girls and "cruisin’ and playin’ the radio" were light years ahead of most of his ‘50s contemporaries, and his vocabulary was far more advanced than most. Hell, Berry even created his own little lexicon with terms like "motorvatin’", "botheration" and "coolerator"! And how many guitar players out there haven’t tried to emulate his style in one way or another? Chuck Berry is certainly one of the most-covered artists of all-time, as Bob Seger once testified, "All of Chuck’s children are out there, playin’ his licks…"
My All-Time Chuck Berry Top 15:
15) "Rock And Roll Music" (1957) Oft-covered Berry classic. The Beatles’ version is far and away the best, Chuck’s ain’t too shabby, REO Speedwagon’s is mediocre (Nine Lives album) and the Beach Boys’ version is just plain lifeless!
14) "It’s My Own Business" (1965) Berry’s 2nd-best song with "Business" in the title. Dave Edmunds did a manic version of this little anthem about independence on his excellent Tracks On Wax 4 LP in 1978.
13) "Little Queenie" (1959) Song that for some reason just can’t make up its mind: "Meanwhile, I was still thinkin’…" Speedwagon fared a little better covering this one.
12) "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" (1956) Chuck paints quite a picture in describing the lengths women would go to nab this character, like "She lost both of her arms in a wrestling match...she fought and won herself a Brown Eyed Handsome Man…"
11) "My Ding-A-Ling" (Live-1972) Recorded in concert before a rabid audience of Brits during a tour of England, many "informed music critics" (ding-a-lings?) bemoan the fact that Berry scored his only #1 Billboard hit with this double-entendre novelty song. So fucking what? This song is hilarious! Ol’ Chuck is the only singer I know of who’s ever successfully worked the word "vestibule" into a song, too. You’re damn right we MUST play our alma mater…
10) "Go Go Go" (1966) Truth be told, I’ve never actually heard Chuck’s original recording of this one, only George Thorogood’s killer 1985 remake, but I think I can safely assume that Berry’s version is every bit as good.
9) "Too Much Monkey Business" (1956) I love songs with rapid-fire lyrics, especially funny ones, and this one scores high on both counts.
8) "No Particular Place To Go" (1964) Damn seat belts! This song probably set automobile safety back by decades. Mr. Thorogood and his Delaware Destroyers often open their shows with a rompin’ stompin’ rendition of it, sometimes replacing "Particular" with "motherfucking" in the lyrics.
7) "It Wasn’t Me" (1965) Another song that Lonesome George and the boys borrowed from Chuck and juiced up just a skosh. Best line in the song is, "I met a German girl in England who was goin’ to school in France/Said we danced in Mississippi at an Alpha Kappa dance…" Confused yet? You won’t be after the next episode of "Soap"!
6) "You Never Can Tell" (1964) The film Pulp Fiction helped revive this almost-forgotten Chuck classic, which features his long-time piano player, the late Johnnie Johnson.
5) "School Day" (1957) Hail! Hail! Rock ‘N’ Roll, indeed!
4) "Almost Grown" (1959) Chuck and crew take a shot a doo-wop, and a mighty accurate one too!
3) "Johnny B. Goode" (1958) Pretty hard to ignore this song, which was a mammoth step forward in the evolution of Rock ‘N’ Roll.
2) "Dear Dad" (1965) I first came to know this one via Dave Edmunds’ outstanding 1982 version, and it’s one of the funniest songs Chuck ever wrote, all about a poor high school kid writing a letter begging his pappy to buy him a "Cadillac of ’62 or ‘63" because his car is a piece of shit—"cars are whippin’ by me, Dad, [it] looks like I’m backin’ up!" The punch line is the best part of all, as he signs the letter "Sincerely, your beloved son—Henry Jr. Ford."
1) "Reelin’ & Rockin’" (Live-1972) I prefer this extended concert version over the 1958 original, as Chuck rocked the house in England (same show as "My Ding-A-Ling") and altered the song’s lyrics just a touch. Example: "Looked at my watch and it was a quarter to eight—you know she made a little move that made me stretch out straight…" Chuck even added a little poetry at the end: "We boogied in the kitchen, we boogied in the hall, I got somethin’ on my finger and I wiped it on the wall…"