The passing of Chuck Berry on March 18 brought with it a huge collection of tribute pieces, many of which asked an important question: did Chuck Berry create rock and roll?
Rock criticism has been trying to narrow down rock and roll to its creator for a half-century, and though it’s proven impossible to actually do that, I would say that, if Chuck Berry isn’t where the music starts, he’s at least where it peaks. No songwriter in the history of rock music has been as incredible as Berry, and from 1955 to 1964, you could make the case for him as the genre’s greatest recording artist as well.
Here are ten flawless songs to help state my case.
If Berry is the true founder of rock and roll, then “Maybellene,” his first single, is its starting point, and there is immediately something new and fresh to the song. It’s not Berry’s guitar, which is pure blues, or the words, which can be traced back to country and R&B that came before. No, it’s the rhythm section, which gives it an edge that most later rock records can be traced to. If “Rocket 88” gave listeners the feeling of cruising around in an Oldsmobile, then “Maybellene,” with its pounding drums and swinging bass, puts them right in the middle of a high-speed pursuit.
“Brown Eyed Handsome Man” (1956)
One of his greatest melodies and every brilliant line he can think of (“Marlo Venus was a beautiful lass/She had the world in the palm of her hand/She lost both her arms in a wrestling match/To meet a brown-eyed handsome man”), all to get across an important point early: Black is beautiful.
And this was a b-side.
“Roll Over Beethoven” (1956)
Chuck’s first take on the “Johnny B. Goode” lick is also a warning: get out of the way, everybody, it’s our turn.
“Rock and Roll Music” (1957)
Like “School Days” before it, “Rock and Roll Music” is a pretty straightforward tribute to and celebration of the music that Berry had a significant hand in creating. Unlike “School Days”, it’s all about the music, with no books, class, or teachers getting in the way.
“Sweet Little Sixteen” (1958)
Despite being most famous for giving Brian Wilson lawsuit-resulting inspiration for “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” “Sweet Little Sixteen” was Berry’s biggest hit on the Hot 100 until it was beaten by (sigh) “My Ding-a-Ling” in 1972. It’s not hard to see why. Unlike The Beach Boys, Berry finds a sort of dark nuance in the jovial melody, and seems somewhat perplexed by the topic at hand: why would somebody be this obsessed with this music?
Berry doesn’t find an answer, but his band does.
“Johnny B. Goode” (1958)
The big one, the song that immediately comes to mind when people hear “Chuck Berry.” I’ve never gotten that. It wasn’t his biggest hit, even at the time of its release. It wasn’t his first song to use the infamous opening guitar-line. It doesn’t rock particularly harder than any of the other records on this list.
But one thing does set it apart, and may be what places it so firmly into the rock and roll canon: the mythological elements of Berry’s storytelling. (See also: “Bye Bye Johnny,” in which he continues the Johnny B. Goode mythos.)
“Almost Grown” (1959)
In which background singers (including Etta James and a young Marvin Gaye) prove Berry’s sound is not that far from doo wop.
“Back in the U.S.A.” (1959)
The definitive take on the “Johnny B. Goode” lick, added background vocal, and maybe music’s best lyrical performance about patriotism are only partly why this is my favorite Berry tune. Really, “Back in the U.S.A.” excels because of how it revels in the contradictory horror of being Black in America. This country was Berry’s home, after all, but, as Dave Marsh puts it:
“The most delirious moment comes when Chuck sings ‘lookin’ hard for a drive-in, searchin’ for a corner cafe /Where hamburgers sizzle on an open grill night and day.’ He stresses ‘hard’ because it was so tough to find one that would serve a black man.”
“Promised Land” (1964)
His first album after being released from prison on a Mann Act charge, 1964’s St. Louis to Liverpool spawned four singles, three of them seminal parts of his discography. The weakest of those three, “No Particular Place to Go” (a less distinctive take on the “School Day” melody, and the safest single from his first decade as a recording artist), was the only one to crack the top 10.
“Promised Land” barely missed the top 40, and yet it’s widely considered one of his greatest songs. Of the 1964 songs, it’s the most sophisticated, and maybe the closest he came to creating a legitimate folk song. It sounds wonderful, too, with a shuffle beat that makes you feel like you’re sitting on the greyhound right next to him, on your way to the promised land.
“You Never Can Tell” (1964)
Marital bliss, replicated with a horn section.