Johnny B. Goode

Chuck Berry

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Written by: Berry
Produced by: Leonard and Phil Chess
Released: April '58 on Chess
Charts: 15 weeks
Top spot: No. 8

"Johnny B. Goode" was the first rock & roll hit about rock & roll stardom. It is still the greatest rock & roll song about the democracy of fame in pop music. And "Johnny B. Goode" is based in fact. The title character is Chuck Berry -- "more or less," as he told ROLLING STONE in 1972. "The original words [were], of course, 'That little colored boy could play. I changed it to 'country boy' -- or else it wouldn't get on the radio." Berry took other narrative liberties. Johnny came from "deep down in Louisiana, close to New Orleans," rather than Berry's St. Louis. And Johnny "never ever learned to read or write so well," while Berry graduated from beauty school with a degree in hairdressing and cosmetology.

But the essence of Berry's tale -- a guitar player with nothing to his name but chops goes to the big city and gets his name in lights -- is autobiographical. In 1955, Berry was working as a beautician and fronting combos in St. Louis when he met Chess Records' biggest star, Muddy Waters, who sent him to the label's co-founder Leonard Chess. By 1958, Berry was rock & roll's most consistent hitmaker after Elvis Presley. Unlike Presley, Berry wrote his own classics. "I just wish I could express my feelings the way Chuck Berry does," Presley once confessed.

"Johnny B. Goode" is the supreme example of Berry's poetry in motion. Pianist Lafayette Leake, bassist Willie Dixon and drummer Fred Below roll with the freight-train momentum of overnight stardom, while Berry's stabbing, single-note lick in the chorus sounds, as he put it, "like a-ringin' a bell" -- a perfect description of how rock & roll guitar can make you feel on top of the world.

Appears on: The Anthology (Chess)

Next: Hey Jude

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Posted Dec 09, 2004 12:00 AM

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