Chuck Berry 1926-2017
Essential Chuck The classic anthems, hits and oddities that deﬁned the sound of rock & roll guitar and inﬂuenced generations of songwriters Maybellene 1955
Rock & roll guitar starts here. Berry’s ﬁrst single perfected his pileup of hillbilly country, urban blues and hot jazz, ﬂipping the groove from “Ida Red,” a 1938 recording by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, into two manic minutes of carculture vernacular, made-up hipster lingo and overdriven double-string leads. A motorvatin’ masterpiece.
Wee Wee Hours 1955 It took Berry about an hour to write “Wee Wee Hours,” the bluesy B side to “Maybellene.” He was inspired by Big Joe Turner’s smooth “Wee Baby Blues” and a woman named Margie, with whom he fell in love when he was a teenager playing USO dances.
Thirty Days 1955
Any Old Way You Choose It
Berry’s upbeat call for a lover to come home displays both his dexterous soloing and his sense of humor; he promises to take it all the way to the U.N. if she won’t return. “It shows that I have found no happiness in any association that has been linked with regulations and custom,” he wrote of the song in his autobiography.
Roll Over Beethoven 1956 Berry wrote this anthem as an affectionate dig at his sister Lucy, who spent so much time playing classical music on the family piano that he couldn’t get a turn. But “Roll Over Beethoven” became the ultimate rock & roll call to arms, heralding a new age.
Too Much Monkey Business 1956 Tell Merriam-Webster the news: Berry invents another word, “botheration,” a catchall for modern hassles
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like work, shopping, dating, school and war. He later said he could’ve written a hundred verses without running out of things that bug people.
Brown Eyed Handsome Man 1956 Berry was inspired to write this song while touring through heavily black and Latino areas of California. “I didn’t see too many blue eyes,” he later said. He did see a good-looking Chicano man nabbed for loitering. In response, he penned one of the slyest racial allegories in rock history.
Havana Moon 1956 This story of a Cuban man missing an American woman had roots in Nat King Cole’s “Calypso Blues,” which Berry played while he was still slugging it out at St. Louis’ Cosmopolitan Club. He tried writing his own Latin song, a novelty that turned out to be one of his most haunting records.
Rock & Roll Music 1957 “Rock & roll accepted me and paid me,” Berry said. “I went that way because I wanted a home of my own.” He celebrated the music
he loved with a passionate declaration of rock’s transformative power – from its backbeat to its wailing saxes to the fact that it isn’t mambo or tango. No wonder the tune was covered by everyone from the Beatles to REO Speedwagon.
School Days 1957 Berry was 30 years old when he wrote “School Days,” but his evocation of the high school experience helped establish rock & roll as a chronicle of teen America. The lyrical details come from Berry’s own memory of growing up, and the quick rhythmic
and changes I found in classes in high school compared to the one room and one teacher I had in elementary school.”
Sweet Little Sixteen 1958 “Sweet Little Sixteen” celebrated kids, America and the power of rock & roll – an ode to an underage rock fan that included a roll call of U.S. cities. The Beach Boys ﬁtted the song with new words and called it “Surﬁn’ U.S.A.”; Berry threatened to sue and won a writing credit. When Berry died, the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson
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FROM TOP: JEAN-MARIE PÉRIER/PHOTO12/POLARIS; ERIC WHITE
(1) Motorvatin’ in his Ford Thunderbird, 1964. (2) The original covers of three classic Berry singles – 1956’s “Roll Over Beethoven,” 1958’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” and 1964’s “No Particular Place to Go.” (3) The Chess 45 of “Sweet Little Sixteen.”