Chuck Berry, who passed away at the weekend, has been widely celebrated for his contribution to popular music.
His extraordinary guitar playing and the duck walk got plenty of mentions.
But hardly a word has been written in his obituaries about Chuck Berry’s lyric writing skills, despite the fact that he was at least as good a lyricist as he was a guitar player.
Back in the 1950s, rock and roll emerged from a range of influences and antecedents. Blues, jazz, country, gospel and folk all merged into one and became rock and roll.
Chuck Berry’s phenomenal guitar playing was undoubtedly based on the blues. Players like Sister Rosetta Tharpe went before him, showing Chuck Berry just what was possible on the guitar.
But if Chuck Berry’s guitar playing drew heavily on the blues, his lyrics seemed to draw more heavily on an entirely different, and perhaps surprising place.
Not many people can write a set of storytelling lyrics like Chuck Berry. But all the ones that can, write them for country singers. That’s the corner of the music industry where songs that tell stories are still alive and well.
Let’s take a quick look at some of his well-known songs…
This is possibly my favourite Chuck Berry lyric:
Long distance information, give me Memphis Tennessee
Help me find the party trying to get in touch with me
She could not leave her number, but I know who placed the call
’Cause my uncle took the message and he wrote it on the wall
Nobody calls “long distance information” anymore. People under the age of about 40 have probably never heard the term, except in the guise of this Chuck Berry song. But before Google it was the only way to find out how to contact someone.
Of course, this is all pre-mobile phones. Nowadays you’d probably just FaceTime them or send a WhatsApp message. But back in 1959, it was all payphones in the vestibule, shared by all the building’s inhabitants, and messages scrawled on the wall.
As “Memphis Tennessee” unfolds, we learn the singer is trying to get hold of “his Marie”, which we presume at first is a current or former girlfriend.
But at the end to we discover Marie is only six years old. And that the singer doesn’t see Marie anymore because “her mum did not agree” with him, so she “tore apart our happy home in Memphis Tennessee”.
There’s heartbreak, separation, emotions, a slice of Americana and a surprisingly cute twist at the end, all wrapped up in a song that tells a story.
Johnny B Goode
Another classic storytelling set of lyrics, this time from 1958.
It’s often thought of as one of the first songs about the phenomenon of rock and roll itself. And on the surface it is. But the basic story arc from country boy to superstar owes more to the country music tradition than to rock and roll.
Deep down in Louisiana, close to New Orleans
Way back in the woods among the evergreens
There stood a log cabin made of earth and wood
Where lived a country boy named Johnny B Goode
Who never ever learned to read and write so well
But he could play a guitar like ringing a bell
Chuck Berry’s tale of gunny sacks, railroad tracks, and good old all-American aspiration. Country metaphors if ever I heard them.
His mother told him — Someday you will be a man
And you will be the leader of a big old band
Many people coming from miles around
To hear you play your music when the sun goes down
Maybe some day your name will be in lights
Saying ‘Johnny B Goode tonight’
The story of a dirt-poor country boy in the backwoods becoming a big star is straight out the country music playbook.
Roll Over Beethoven
If my favourite set of lyrics is “Memphis Tennessee”, my favourite Chuck Berry song is “Roll Over Beethoven”.
I’m sorry to Chuck Berry fans for saying this, but I prefer the ELO version of “Roll Over Beethoven” to his.
But in songwriting terms, that just shows what a good song it is.
My working definition of a great song is one that can be performed in a variety of different ways by a range of different artists, and still sound good.
And whilst there has been the odd cover of other Chuck Berry songs by some pretty famous artists, mostly they just do the song like he does, out of respect for a rock and roll hero.
It’s when an artist does something slightly different that it stops being a cover and starts being a new piece of art in its own right.
Although the ELO version isn’t all that different from the original, it’s different enough not to be “just a cover”. It even includes a section lifted directly from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which Jeff Lynn seamlessly weaves into into the fabric of a classic rock and roll song. That’s a trick you don’t see every day of the week (not done successfully, anyway…).
Jeff Lynn’s trademark creamy-smooth production helps make this a different song too…very sophisticated and a million miles away from Chuck Berry’s rawer version which anyone with a beat-up 14th-hand guitar could make a reasonable attempt to copy all by themselves.
Again, Chuck Berry’s skill as a lyricist is front and centre. For a rock and roll song in 1956, the mention of two famous classical composers must have raised some eyebrows, both amongst “kids” and their parents:
You know my temperature’s risin’
And the jukebox blows a fuse
My heart’s beatin’ rhythm
And my soul keeps on singin’ the blues
Roll over Beethoven and tell Tchaikovsky the news
It was 1956. The kids were taking over. Time for the composers of yesteryear to move on, Chuck Berry told us.
There were arguably earlier rock and roll songs, but I’d suggest that Chuck Berry was one of the first to bring the rock and roll attitude to his songwriting and performing.
He tore up the rule book. He composed some great tunes. His guitar playing inspired the generations that followed. He learned quickly and had very little time for fools, hangers-on, record company executives and promoters. He ran his own show. He made rock an roll what it is.
Rock and roll is Chuck Berry’s legacy.
And if you need a reminder, here’s ELO showcasing some great Chuck Berry lyrics…alongside some clever musical framing of their own… (The YouTube link is very quiet at the beginning. Bear with it…by the time you get to about 0:30, they’re motoring along nicely.)
The video is below or, if you prefer, you can enjoy the song on Spotify here… https://open.spotify.com/track/4n4S7mnIsfjOjuLMTL5UDG
PS — just before we get to the video, if you enjoyed this article, please give it a “clap”…or even more than one if you’re feeling kind. You can also follow me on Medium (here) or Twitter (here) to get new articles as soon as they’re published.