What We Can Learn From Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry left us a week ago at the age of 90. He didn’t begin his music career intending to be a rock ‘n’ roll…star? Icon? Immortal? No. Berry wanted to be a blues singer initially, and that genre would sneak onto his albums here and there (including, I understand, Chuck, an album of new material to be released in June). Rock ‘n’ roll, however, was what paid the bills, and that’s what he did, arguably better than anyone else before or since.

Berry’s lyrics were amazing. He could put years and years of story into a three minute song, with three verses, chorus, and guitar solo. Badda bing bang boom. Go to Spotify (or better yet, your own music collection) and listen to what might be his most widely heard song (if not his most famous one), “You Never Can Tell,” which was prominently featured in the film Pulp Fiction. It’s about a teenage girl and boy who get married — probably too early — but with some hard work acquire an apartment with a “coolerator” full of tv dinners and ginger ale (described in a throwaway line that might be the best single pop song lyric ever written), a stereo with all sorts of 45s, and a flash car. They make a go of it against all odds, and Berry tells you everything you need to know about the whole shootin’ match in two minutes and forty-five seconds through a tune driven by Johnnie Johnson’s piano in the background. A somewhat tragic side note to the song is that Berry wrote the song while in prison. Berry also wrote and recorded his autobiography in three songs that you can listen to in just over seven minutes: “Johnny B. Goode,” the lesser known and bittersweet “Bye Bye Johnny” (which tells the story of his acquired stardom and fledgling motion picture career through the eyes of his mother, who drew out all her money from the bank to buy her son a guitar and put him on that Greyhound bus), and “Promised Land,” the mortar between the bricks of the two other songs. I don’t hang around bus stations (…) but I challenge you to go to one in any city and not hear “Promised Land” playing in your head.

What we can learn from this? Keep in mind that Berry’s art had baked-in limitations. For one, songs had to be relatively short if the artist and record label expected to get them played on the radio. For another, the lyrics had to rhyme. A third was that the clock was ticking. You had to keep putting product out back then to keep your place in radio rotation because some young, hungry upstart was breathing down your neck, hoping to take your place. Berry just painted a picture and kept it simple, particularly in songs like “Carol,” where the singer begs the object of his affection not to go off with someone else, and assures her that he’ll learn to dance if he has to practice all night and day. Berry communicates need and desire in two lines. You and I can do this too. If you have an idea for a story or novel, try to write it from beginning to end in one page (single spaced, 12 font size), from beginning to end. Don’t include every character, car crash, or explosion that you conceptualize. Describe each of your main characters in a medium length sentence, set forth what they are chasing, or after, or trying to achieve — the MacGuffin of the work — and what they are going to do to reach their goal. When you wrap up, provide the ending in terms of emotion or result: happy, sad, death, life, win, lose, or draw. There’s your first step, your blueprint, your demo, what they refer to in Nashville as a “guitar/vocal.” You’re not going to be showing this to anyone so if you feel the need to drift off a bit go ahead and have at it but you’ll at least have something down. Think of Chuck Berry while you do it, and remember that all of those great tunes he recorded were the end result of hours and hours or writing, rehearsal and recording, some of it very frustrating. I’m hoping that at some point a boxed set of alternate takes of Berry’s best known songs is released so that we can get a look at some of the entire process. You’re starting in reverse of what Berry did — you’re going to take something short and make it longer — but the principle of keeping it simple is the same for both.

My questions for you: if you have a favorite Chuck Berry song, what is it? Mine is the live version of “Johnny B. Goode” found on The London Chuck Berry Sessions. Berry starts off playing a ferocious version of “Bye Bye Johnny,” savagely spitting the first verse out, but the crowd, either because of their unfamiliarity with the song or confused by its similarity to “Johnny B. Goode,” starts singing the chorus to “Johnny B. Goode” in unison, startling Berry (“Look at ‘em! Look at ‘em! Sing! Sing, children!”) and causing him to switch to the lyrics of “Johnny B. Goode” for the second verse. Listen all the way to the end, when the M.C. pleads with the crowd to vacate the hall because they’re over time and — Oh, The Humanity! — Pink Floyd fans are waiting outside. Meanwhile, the crowd chants “WE WANT CHUCK! WE WANT CHUCK!”

If you don’t have a favorite Chuck Berry song, what is your favorite song otherwise?


38 thoughts on “What We Can Learn From Chuck Berry

  1. I’m not sure I’m familiar with Chuck Berry’s work other than Johnny B. Goode–though perhaps I’d recognize them if I heard them.

    What is cool to me is that in my mind, his Johnny B. Goode is inextricably linked to “Back to the Future”. Every time I think of Back to the Future, I instantly think of that song while they’re playing it at the school dance, and how Marty eventually goes berzerk on his guitar, getting a little too “into it” for the crowd. Great movie moment.

    • BK, thanks so much for the reminder…I forgot about that “Back to the Future” vignette. It’s a great moment.

  2. Ah, the father of rock and roll. He certainly left a legacy. Two of my favorite CB songs are Roll Over Beethoven (although I was more familiar with the Beatles’ version) and Memphis (I had a fascination with that town when I was a child.)

    Several years ago my brother told me a joke he had heard: NASA sent a time capsule into space. They included artifacts that would depict life in twentieth century America and hoped that some distant civilization would find and in fact, received a response. The distant civilization had one request. “Send more Chuck Berry.”

    • Thanks, Joan. Without Chuck Berry there wouldn’t have been any Beatles, any Rolling Stones, Kinks, Sonics, Kingsmen…and thank you for sharing that NASA story. NASA did send “Johnny B. Goode” into space; who knows, what’s described in the story might happen one day, if it hasn’t happened already.

  3. Joe, you never cease to amaze me with the areas of your knowledge. I never knew some of these things about Chuck Berry, much less how they can apply to a writer. Thanks for this one.

    • Thank you, Richard. That’s high praise indeed, coming from someone of your knowledge and expertise. We appreciate you stopping by once again.

  4. Gotta say there are two covers of his songs that hold up almost as well as the original:

    Johnny Winter’s live Johnny B. Goode
    The Grateful Dead’s live Promised Land (more cowbell 🙂 )

    They say songwriting is the art of writing a 3-minute novel, and CB seemed able to do it in just over two.

    Hail Hail Rock-n-Roll~!

    • George, thanks for the reminder about those two great, great covers. Can you imagine what the tribute to Chuck Berry is going to be like in a couple of weeks at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame 2017 induction ceremonies? And…they’ll probably do one for Prince as well. I might have to watch it this year!

        • Yea Cleveland indeed, Eric. I misspent many of my formative years there, bouncing back and forth between the Smiling Dog Saloon (where, on one visit, I found myself standing at a urinal next to Leonard Cohen) and Leo’s Casino. Re: Les Roberts…I genuflect at the mention of his name. If I may…two other authors of crime fiction set in Cleveland are Lisa Black, who has written a number of excellent forensic mysteries, and the Dan Chaon, whose newly published ILL WILL is one of my favorite books of this year thus far. Enjoy!

  5. I have so many Chuck Berry favorites. I got my first album for my thirteen birthday. There are too many favorites to name. My mood today leads to several: Don’t You Lie To Me, Do You Love Me, and Childhood Sweetheart for the one I let get away.

  6. Those are deep tracks in the Berry repertoire, Anon. They illustrate that he had a lot of soul and, yeah, the blues as well. I hope that yours don’t linger long. Thanks for contributing today.

  7. Joe, wonderful tribute. Whenever I think of Chuck Berry, I always see him doing his famous duck walk. What an original, dynamic, crowd-pleasing innovation, all while playing the guitar!

    And then I think of that SNL skit way back, with Steve Martin. This was shortly after NASA sent out Voyager with items from Earth, hoping to make contact somehow. All sorts of things, but it included music, Bach, Beethoven, Mozart … and Johnny B. Goode. So in the skit they’ve finally heard back from outer space! The message is coming through! They’re going to interpret it!

    And the message is: “Send more Chuck Berry.”

    • James, thank you so much for the kind words. Again, high praise from someone of your superior skill set. Somehow, I KNEW that you had to be a Berry fan. Thanks also for the reminder of that SNL skit from way back when.

      Re: the duckwalk and split, I got to see him at a point where he was still able to do that. It was amazing. It still is.

  8. I’m thinking I’m younger than some of the people here (not that young, but younger). The first Chuck Berry song I ever heard, I think, was My Ding-a-Ling, thanks to K-Tel Records (a Canadian company that put out compilations of hit songs and novelty songs on vinyl).

    But the song that grabs me the most is Johnny B. Goode.

    There was a television show in the 1980s, with stars that included a very young Courtney Cox and Dean Martin’s son, Paul Dean Martin, called the Misfits of Science. In it, a scientist (played by Martin) gathered together a team of scientific ‘superheroes’, people who had weird abilities of some sort. Maybe I was just the right age and the right sort of nerd, but that short-lived series really grabbed my mind and twisted. In the 2-hour pilot, one character – a rock star named Johnny B. – wound up being able to channel electricity after a nasty accident involving rain and electronic equipment. He often used rock songs to help him focus his ability. In part of the climax, he’s fighting off the American army using the electricity from a nearby dynamo, singing and shouting the song he’d taken his stage name from, Johnny B. Goode…

    Needless to say, I loved it. And I’ve loved that song ever since. Rest in peace, Mr. Berry. You were amazing.

    • And that should be Dean Paul Martin, not Paul Dean Martin. Sorry. I was heartbroken when Martin was killed a couple of years after the series ended, when the fighter plane he was test pilotting (yes, he was a test pilot more than an actor) crashed into a mountain.

      • BJ, to circle back to music,Dean Paul Martin also had a hit or two in the mid-1960s as part of the trio Dino, Desi, and Billy, through the auspices of Reprise Records, which was founded and (at the time) partially owned by a guy named Frank Sinatra. I wonder if he had anything to do with getting them signed?

        • Couldn’t be. I mean, how would any of them know Mr. Sinatra? 🙂 I’m sorry I missed that trio – that would have been very cool. But I was kind of busy being born in the mid-60s, so may have missed them…

    • BJ, there are whole generations who are familiar with Chuck Berry only through “My Ding-A-Ling,” which — hold onto your hat — was his only Number One single. It’s on The London Chuck Berry Sessions album which I mentioned earlier. Others know him second-hand, from having heard his music covered by others, not knowing that this or that song was a Chuck Berry song. Thanks for sharing your memories of Misfits of Science. I was (am) a comic book geek at the time and loved it.

  9. Did you ever see Chuck Berry as a guest on the Mike Douglas show when John Lennon and Yoko Ono hosted it? Chuck Berry and John Lennon started in on Johnny B. Goode together, and Yoko decided to grab a microphone and join in with freestyle turkey gobbling in the background. Some wise sound technician backstage cut her mike. You can watch it on YouTube. (Another great moment is when Chuck Berry has to take part in a macrobiotic meal John and Yoko arranged on the show. From the look on Chuck’s face, it’s ten-to-one he never ate macrobiotic again.)

    And now I’ll be singing all day, “C’est la vie, said the old folks, which goes to show you never can tell.” Thank you, Joe, for a great post!

    • “…and Yoko decided to grab a microphone and join in with freestyle turkey gobbling in the background. Some wise sound technician backstage cut her mike.”

      I like this very much.

    • You’re welcome, Angela, and thank you for your kind words and the Mike Douglas memories. He also had a hit record, a spoken word thing titled “The Men in My Little Girl’s Life,” in the mid-1960s. While Douglas was what was then called a “square,” he had some interesting guests for sure. I saw that John & Yoko and Chuck show, which was a hysterical train wreck. If you want to see another in a similar vein, Douglas had the very young Rolling Stones on his show — when it originated in Cleveland — during their first extended North American tour. It’s a real cultural watermark.

  10. Good morning, Joe.

    Great post. And I would echo Doc Mabry above; I am always amazed at the depth of your knowledge when it comes to books, music, the entertainment industry, and the legal profession as it pertains to those things.

    I don’t have anything to add. But your post reminds me that we should be able to crystallize our idea for a story into something succinct, like the lyrics to a song or (as the poets would argue) a short poem.

    Thanks for all the information on Chuck Berry.

    • Good afternoon, Steve! And many thanks for the high praise, particularly from someone like yourself who has forgotten more useful information than I will ever learn. Hope you’re well.

  11. As a St. Louisan, I am especially proud of Chuck Berry. He played at Blueberry Hill, a local restaurant, until the end of his life. His backup band included his son, Butch. Chuck’s grandson has inherited his musical talent. Johnny B. Good is his classic and deserves to be.

    • Elaine, I hope you got to see him frequently there. Thanks for sharing. Ummm…you didn’t happen to record any of the sets, did you?

      • Also, Elaine, there is a St. Louis band that plays infrequently around there called The Melroys. I love those guys. If you ever happen to run into them I don’t know if they’ll remember me but please tell them I said “hey.” They’re worth hearing.

  12. It was his style more than the music itself that I loved, that style that other musicians picked up and made their own. I love Oromised Land because it references places I knew as a child (including the advice to skip Rock Hill SC lol). Great post, Joe!

    • Thank you, Kathryn. Somehow I knew (like I knew with Jim) that you HAD to be a Chuck Berry fan of one sort or another. You’re spot on about his style…almost every album that came out of the so-called British invasion of the 1960s had at least one or two covers of a Chuck Berry tune (ka-ching!).

  13. My favorite Chuck Berry song has to be BACK IN THE USA, followed closely by his plaintive, Latin-tinged version of MEMPHIS, TENNESSEE and the little-known CHILDHOOD SWEETHEART.

    • That’s a great list, Don. “Childhood Sweetheart” hits that sweet spot where Doowop, the Blues, and Rock ‘n’ Roll meet. I love how Berry appropriates that Elmore James guitar riff for the solo, which is perfect for the song. Thanks for sharing.

    • I love “Nadine” as well, Patricia. Berry hadn’t had a hit for awhile, but John Lennon mentioned him as an influence and BAM! Chess released “Nadine” and it was all over the radio. It still sounds terrific over fifty years later. Thanks for bringing back that memory.

  14. Pingback: Writing Links 3/27/17 – Where Genres Collide

Comments are closed.