Roll over Beethoven
Ask any teenager today who wrote “Sweet Little Sixteen” and they’ll probably say Justin Bieber. Ask the same question to any random teenager during the late 1950’s and ‘60s, and the answer would have no doubt been considerably different.
Chuck Berry was to the 1950’s what Bob Dylan was throughout much of the ‘60’s, in that both were inspired storytellers and poets in their own right. In Berry’s case, whose tales of fast cars, dancehalls, and unfaithful women, served as a soundtrack to a generation of youth who were simply bursting with hormones and yet had no particular place to go.
Tunes such as “Carol,” “Come On,” and “Around And Around” were staples in The Rolling Stones’ repertoire for many years, while The Beatles, The Beach Boys, even The Grateful Dead, were all enthusiastic followers of this self confessed “brown eyed handsome man.” And for one good reason – the man was clever.
Take a song like “Maybellene,” with its chugging train-rollin’-down-the-tracks rhythm, and lyrics that are as humorous as they are descriptive: “The motor cooled, the heat went down/And that’s when I heard that highway sound/The Cadillac a-sittin’ like a ton of lead/A hundred and ten half a mile ahead/The Cadillac lookin’ like it’s sittin’ still/And I caught Maybellene at the top of the hill.”
“Maybellene” was his debut single, and entered both the R&B (black) and Pop (white) Top 10 in 1955, the same year that Elvis Presley was just embarking on a career of his own.
Berry’s blend of blues, rhythm ‘n’ blues, along with elements of country and western certainly contributed to the birth a new kind of music at the time, otherwise known as rock ‘n’ roll, and it is this unique synthesis of styles and genres which makes his music so special.
Songs such as “Too Much Monkey Business,” “School Day,” and “Downtown Train” are simple in composition but brilliant in affect. These are not anthems to doomed youth but rather a celebration of being young and wanting to “learn to dance if it takes me all night and day.”
The classic “Roll Over Beethoven” would prove highly influential on various youngsters during the nascent rock scene in London, where Berry’s confident, spidery riffs made a serious impression upon certain English youth, and none more so than on Keith Richards, who instantly fell in love with the organic intricacies of what he heard.
Yet it is perhaps “Johnny B. Goode” for which Berry is best known for, a composition that rocks and swings in equal measure, and proved that one didn’t have to be loud in order to be heard. The lyrics themselves are some of the finest ever written in the annals of rock: “He used to carry his guitar in a gunny sack/Go sit beneath the tree by the railroad track/Oh, the engineers would see him sitting in the shade/Strumming with the rhythm that the drivers made/People passing by they would stop and say/Oh my that little country boy could play.”
It’s little wonder then that Jimi Hendrix would occasionally perform it live in 1970, since the story might well have been his own, or arguably any other black guitar player from the era. Such was the universal appeal of Berry’s music, in that it could encapsulate both black and white alike, just as Little Richards and Fats Domino did, at a time when segregation was in full force.
Chuck Berry His Best Volume 1 is hardly the most authoritative collection of his work on the Chess label, but as an introduction, it is absolutely priceless.