This is the 64th post in a weekly series. Read about it here and see the list of previous songs here. A new post about a different song is posted each Monday. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.
When Chuck Berry met legendary blues musician Muddy Waters in 1955, Berry was working as a beautician in his hometown of St. Louis. Through Waters, Berry met Leonard Chess, co-founder of Chess Records. Soon, Berry recorded “Maybellene,” which spent nine weeks at Number 1 on the R&B chart.
“Johnny B. Goode” told the story of a young man who grew up in the South, and though he was illiterate, he was a virtuoso on the guitar, destined to become a famous band leader:
Deep down in Louisiana close to New Orleans,
Way back up in the woods among the evergreens
There stood a log cabin made of earth and wood,
Where lived a country boy named Johnny B. Goode
Who never ever learned to read or write so well,
But he could play a guitar just like a ringing a bell
It’s not clear who inspired “Johnny B. Goode.” In 1972, Berry told Rolling Stone that he had “more or less” based the song on himself. “The original words [were], of course, ‘That little colored boy could play,'” he said. “I changed it to ‘country boy’ — or else it wouldn’t get on the radio.”
But when Berry’s longtime pianist Johnnie Johnson died in 2005, many obituaries reported that Berry wrote the song as “a tribute” to Johnson. The two had had a long but complicated relationship: Johnson had sued Berry in 2000 over the royalties of several songs he and his lawyers claimed he had co-authored. Timothy J. McFarlin, a St. Louis attorney and professor familiar with the lawsuit, told St. Louis Magazine that Berry had told a few different stories about the inspiration behind “Johnny B. Goode”:
Chuck denies it’s about Johnnie, but in Chuck’s autobiography it says it was partly inspired by Johnnie but ultimately became a song about Chuck himself. Johnnie also recalls Chuck once telling him he wrote it for him.
Regardless of who it was actually about, “Johnny B. Goode” resonated with fans and critics. Rolling Stone listed it at Number 7 on its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, saying:
“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…
…[The song] is the supreme example of Berry’s poetry in motion. The rhythm section rolls with freight-train momentum, 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.
In “Play It Loud: An Epic History of the Style, Sound & Revolution of the Electric Guitar,” authors Brad Tolinski and Alan di Perna lauded the song that “created the ultimate rock-and-roll folk hero in just a few snappy verses.” Tolinski and di Perna elaborated:
“Johnny B. Goode” is a brilliant, uniquely American rags-to-riches story, but with a modern twist. Where Horatio Alger’s nineteenth-century heroes rose from humble backgrounds to lives of middle-class security through hard work and virtue, Goode excelled on his own terms; he was uneducated, solitary. He was a bad boy, a story line all the more compelling to a generation of teenagers just beginning to identify with outsider icons such as James Dean and Elvis Presley. It was a song that thrilled and exhilarated audiences both black and white.
In the nearly 60 years since “Johnny B. Goode” was first released, more than 100 versions of the song have been recorded, including by some of the biggest names in music.
In early 1964, The Beatles performed the song for the BBC. It was later included — much later — on the album, “Live at the BBC.” What’s interesting about this version is not what The Beatles did with the song, but that it’s The Beatles performing it. The Beatles is considered by many to be the most influential band in rock and roll, and because of the pedestal the band gets placed on, it’s easy to forget the band’s members were music fanboys who could geek out on other artists. And when it came to Berry, The Beatles were fanboys. John Lennon once famously said, “If you had to give rock’n’roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry.”
The Beach Boys’ 1964 live album, “Beach Boys Concert,” ended with a cover of “Johnny B. Goode.” Similar to the version by The Beatles, The Beach Boys’ “Johnny B. Goode” sounds like an enthusiastic tribute. But it had some distinct Beach Boys flourishes in there, especially the harmonies and the surfy guitars.
Sir Henry & His Butlers recorded a mashup of sorts, combining “Johnny B. Goode” with “Bye Bye Johnny,” another song Berry had written about the character of Johnny B. Goode. The two songs flowed into each other nicely, but then again, that was kind of the point.
Jerry Lee Lewis recorded “Johnny B. Goode” for his 1965 album, “The Return of Rock.” Though the guitar riff was still there, it was Lewis’ piano playing that was the centerpiece of this version. But he didn’t jettison the guitar, because, well, the song is still about a guitarist.
Elvis Presley once said, “I just wish I could express my feelings the way Chuck Berry does.” The two singers were among the biggest hitmakers in the late 1950s, but Presley sang other people’s songs and Berry could write his own. Not surprisingly, Presley recorded a handful of Berry’s songs. In 1969, Presley released a version of “Johnny B. Goode” on his live double album, “From Memphis to Vegas / From Vegas to Memphis.”
The Grateful Dead released a version of “Johnny B. Goode” on its 1971 album (the album that’s usually referred to as “Skull and Roses.”) If you’ve previously dismissed The Grateful Dead, you’re not alone. But the band’s cover songs offer a good entry point and can challenge previous biases. Cover songs by The Grateful Dead (and other Jerry Garcia projects) show how in tune Garcia was with the influences of soul and R&B upon rock and roll.
A live version of The Grateful Dead’s “Johnny B. Goode” appears on the live album, “Fillmore: The Last Days,” a compilation of some of the final performances at the Fillmore West in San Francisco in the summer of 1971.
Tom Jones used to perform a “Rock ‘n’ Roll Medley” that comprised “Johnny B. Goode,” “Bony Moronie,” and “Long Tall Sally.” Each snippet of the medley was faithful to the original versions, but even then, the performance dripped with Jones-isms: the voice, the delivery, the twitchy dancing. And to be fair, those are s big reason we click on Tom Jones videos, right?
A version of the medley appeared on Jones’ 1971 album, “Live at Caesar’s Palace.” Additionally, Jones performed “Johnny B. Goode” in full on his TV show, “This Is Tom Jones.”
For a week in 1972, John Lennon and Yoko Ono took over “The Mike Douglas Show.” Berry appeared on the show, giving Lennon the chance to perform with one of his heroes.As we established earlier, Lennon was a huge fan. In addition to his famous quote in which he said Berry was synonymous with rock and roll, Lennon also spoke fondly of the guitar legend in a 1971 interview with Rolling Stone:
He is one of the all-time great poets, a rock poet you could call him… He was well advanced of his time lyric-wise. We all owe a lot to him, including Dylan. I’ve loved everything he’s done, ever. He was in a different class from the other performers.
In this performance of “Johnny B. Goode,” it’s easy to see how much fun Lennon is having. Which is neat to see, given that by that time, Lennon was already a legend in his own right.
Jimi Hendrix called his own cover of “Johnny B. Goode” a “loose jam kind of thing,” which is another way of saying he added his own guitar interludes throughout the song.
A live version of Hendrix’s version appeared on his 1972 album, “Hendrix in the West.”
Teen idol Leif Garrett recorded “Johnny B. Goode” for his self-titled debut studio album, which he released when he was just 15. And his age shows from the way he bounds through the song with a youthful energy.
The Sex Pistols’ rough cover of “Johnny B. Goode” appeared the soundtrack for the band’s movie, “The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle.” And by rough, I mean that Johnny Rotten didn’t know most of the lyrics and didn’t even attempt to cover it up. Toward the end, he asked if they should cover “Roadrunner.” As I wrote in the post about that song, though, Rotten and the rest of the band didn’t do much better with that track.
“Johnny B. Goode” got a weird makeover on Elton John’s 1979 album, “Victim of Love.” It was overproduced, with disco flourishes obscuring the iconic riff. And then there was the horn interlude.
Elton John’s weird cover aside, it is possible to remake the song in a different genre. On the 1983 album, “Mama Africa,” Peter Tosh recast “Johnny B. Goode” as a reggae song in which Berry’s influence was barely recognizable. Previous artists had left the riff and arrangement more or less as it had been. Those covering it had only made superficial changes. Even Elton John’s disco-driven changes were cosmetic. But what stuck out about Tosh’s version was that he didn’t treat the song as sacred: he dared change what others before him would only modify. Not only did Tosh change Johnny B. Goode’s birth place, but he upended the whole arrangement.
In a climactic scene in “Back To The Future,” Marty McFly (played by Michael J. Fox) joined fictional band Marvin Berry and The Starlighters onstage to play “Johnny B. Goode” at the Enchantment Under The Sea dance. McFly told the crowd he’s going to play an oldie, but then corrected himself, as he came from 1985 but was playing in 1955, three years before “Johnny B. Goode” was released. In a scene that’s been parodied and celebrated, Marvin Berry then left the stage to call his cousin Chuck to hip him to this new sound.
In 1986, Berry’s 60th birthday was celebrated with two concerts at The Fox Theatre in St. Louis. Besides Berry, the concerts included a who’s who of music legends, including Linda Ronstadt, Keith Richards, and Eric Clapton. Berry performed “Johnny B. Goode” with John Lennon’s son, Julian Lennon. As much of a fan Lennon was of Berry’s, Berry was just as in awe of Lennon. Watching the younger Lennon perform with Berry, it’s hard to tell who was having more fun. The performance later appeared in “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Taylor Hackford’s documentary chronicling the two concerts.
In 1988, Judas Priest recast “Johnny B. Goode” as a harder metal song for its album, “Ram It Down.” It peaked at Number 64 on the UK Singles Chart. The original riff was barely there, buried in a wall of drums, guitars, and Rob Halford’s wails. This wouldn’t have translated as an instrumental cover, as the lyrics were the main cue that it was “Johnny B. Goode.”
When The Rock And Roll Hall of Fame launched in 1986, Berry was the first artist inducted. Nine years later, the museum opened with a huge concert at Cleveland Municipal Stadium. Joining him onstage that night was Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band. Again, it was fun to watch for the same reasons it was fun to watch John Lennon perform with Berry: these two icons, obviously fond of each other, were overjoyed to perform together.
These versions, of course, only scratch the surface. But these covers give a glimpse of how influential he was, considering that many of the people who covered the song were iconic artists themselves. Seeing footage of heavyweights like John Lennon and Jimi Hendrix geeking out on Berry’s work shows how instrumental he was in forging rock and roll music.
It’s worth noting that the iconic riff from “Johnny B. Goode” did not originate in that song. You can hear an almost-identical riff from Louis Jordan’s “Ain’t That Just Like a Woman (They’ll Do it Every Time),” from 1946.
But it was Berry who introduced that riff to the masses. With an electric guitar and a cocksure swagger, he made that riff his own, whether he had originally developed it or not. And despite the numerous covers of “Johnny B. Goode,” no one has been able to take that riff from him, though the scene from “Back To The Future” has become iconic.If any performance of “Johnny B. Goode” should rival Berry’s, it would be that one.
But for as beloved as Marty McFly’s rendition is, it’s probably Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” that will live on as the definitive version. And there’s a practical reason for that.
In 1977, “Johnny B. Goode” was one of 27 songs included on the “Golden Record,” a collection of music, sound recordings, and other media attached to the Voyager 1 spacecraft. Thirty-five years later, the Voyager 1 became the first human-made object to reach interstellar space. So now the story of “Johnny B. Goode” is out there floating beyond our known solar system.
Definitely gives new meaning to “Go, Johnny, go.”