Chuck Berry, a dose of his disciples

By Tom MacIntosh

Chuck Berry was a pioneer of rock and roll that left a heavy fingerprint on everything he touched. He developed R&B into the elements that make rock rock, with lyrics aimed at the youth of the 50s, describing teen dances, high school life, fast cars and a consumer culture. Leonard Cohen once quipped, “All of us are footnotes to the words of Chuck Berry”. Bruce Springsteen said “he was rock’s greatest practitioner, guitarist and the greatest pure rock and roll writer who ever lived”. His body of work has been widely covered throughout history and today we’d like to review some of the stars who covered them.

He had a tremendous influence on The Beatles, who were equally stellar in status, and perhaps the greatest rock and roll band of all time.  In 1963 they covered Roll Over Beethoven with George Harrison on lead vocals, and John Lennon does Rock and Roll Music. Roll Over Beethoven was on With the Beatles originally but the label moved it to begin their second record, (U.S. only) Second Album 6 months later, while Rock And Roll Music was included in Beatles For Sale, their 4th album. Lennon famously said, “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’”.

The Rolling Stones were some of his biggest fans right from the start and they covered Come On in their debut single, and had a close but competitive relationship with Berry. They also did renditions of Carol, Little Queenie, and Get yer Ya Yas Out on their live album in September 1970.

Berry’s music was really catching on in the U.K.,and was covered by so many up-and-coming groups like The Animals, who did versions of Memphis, Tennessee, Sweet Little Sixteen, Too Much Monkey Business, and the most remembered Around and Around

Then the Yardbirds took a crack at Too Much Monkey Business on their fabulous album Five Live Yardbirds, in 1964. On it, a very fresh young Eric Clapton takes on two sizzling solos. Even Elton John shares his love for Berry on a mediocre album released in 1979 called Victim of Love where he does a strange cover of Johnnie B Goode. And it doesn’t end there, David Bowie remade Around and Around into Round and Round that appeared on the B side of the single Aladdin Sane in 1973, and The Kinks self-titled album in 1964 included a lovely version of Beautiful Delilah.

The immense influence he had on practically everyone makes him abundantly qualified for the title that Rolling Stone Magazine gave him, “The father of rock and roll”. The string of hits he amassed were starting points for legions of young guitarists the world over. Who better to blast through School Days than Australian titans AC/DC?

Motörhead leans into a Berry classic Let It Rock back in 1991 on the David Letterman Show that will bring you out of your seat. Lemmy Kilmister also cut a studio version with his ‘other’ group Head Cat on a 2011 release of Walk the Walk...Talk the Talk.

Judas Priest came up with a twist on Johnnie B Goode that was originally used in the film of the same name. Guitarist Richie Faulkner paid homage to Berry when he passed in March 2017, calling him, “a true rock and roll master...a writer of the rule book from which we all follow”. 

The list of versions and remakes of his music is a mountain too high to climb for our piece today, but you get the idea of how admired he was and still is. In 1977 NASA sent the Voyager mission into space  with a golden disc of the best Earthly recordings in it, chosen by Carl Sagan, so that if extraterrestrial life came across it, they’d learn something about us; greetings in 55 languages, the sound of a mother kissing her child, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and Chuck Berry’s Johnnie B Goode.  Steve Martin joked once that NASA had got back a message that said, ”Send more Chuck Berry”. 

Finally how can we leave you without showing this clip from Back To The Future, “Chuck Chuck! It’s Marvin! Your cousin, Marvin Berry! You know that new sound you were looking for? Well, Listen to this!

His birthday is October 18th. He would have been 91. 

Gone but never forgotten.