This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010, as well as, the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their lists, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. “RS: Song XXX” means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.
RS: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song #17: Johnny B. Goode by Chuck Berry.
“Johnny B. Goode” is one of the best known songs of all-time. It has been inducted into The Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame in the Song Category. It has, also, been placed into The U.S. Library of Congress as being a song that has made a significant cultural contribution to the nation. It has even been included in a disc of songs that were sent up into outer space to act as being representative of culture on Earth should these songs ever be found by an alien race somewhere in the Galaxy. “Johnny B. Goode” is also regarded as being the very first Rock n’ Roll song to ever hint at the “fame and fortune” side of Rock music. Finally, although Chuck Berry already had several hits under his belt by the time he released, “Johnny B. Goode”, it is generally accepted that it was this song that took his solid career and helped make him a crossover superstar. But, the story of the song is not exactly the easiest to tell. Unlike most stories, this one does not unfold in a linear fashion. Instead, it is more like a patchwork quilt; where each patch tells a chapter of Berry’s life story. For, in essence, that’s what “Johnny B. Goode” is…..it is Chuck Berry’s musical autobiography. So, what I am going to do, moving forward, it to visit the various patches on this quilt and tell each story, for they are all important in forming an overall picture of the man, himself. Here we go!
Race: Chuck Berry was performing in a time where racial segregation was legal and was enshrined in many laws across the land. So, despite his success as a singer, race was never far away from the reality of his existence. A simple example from the song is that, even though this song is his own life story and the fact is that he was a person of colour.….he was not allowed to say that in the song. So, every time you listen to the song and hear him sing something like, “My but, that little country boy could play”, Berry was forced to substitute “Country boy” for his original lyrics which said, “Coloured boy”.
Opening Riff: This is one of those songs that everybody knows from the very first notes of his guitar when he begins to play. The opening guitar riff to “Johnny B. Goode” is easily one of the most iconic guitar riffs of all-time. Yet, Chuck Berry did not come up with it. He copied the riff from another song called, “Ain’t That Just Like a Woman” by Louis Jordan. That song is a big band song but, the underlying groove from the horn section bears an uncanny resemblance to the guitar riff from “Johnny B. Goode”. *(You can listen to “Ain’t That Just Like a Woman” here).
Character Name: Even though the song is about Chuck Berry’s rise to stardom in the music business, he named his fictional character, Johnny B. Goode. So, where did that name come from? The answer is two-fold: First of all, the simple part of the story comes from the fact that Chuck Berry grew up in St. Louis on Goode Ave. So, that’s where “Goode” came from. “Johnny” came from the name of Berry’s piano player and songwriting partner, Johnnie Johnson. Johnson collaborated with Berry on many of his hits such as “Maybelline”, “Sweet Little Sixteen” and many more, including, “Johnny B. Goode”. How their arrangement worked was that Johnson would write the musical structure on the piano and hand it over to Berry, who would convert it into guitar chords and then, write the lyrics. The unfortunate thing is that because the songwriting credit went to Berry, Johnson never received his due from all of the sales of Chuck Berry’s songs. He even sued Chuck Berry, later in life in an attempt to recoup his lost income but his case was thrown out of court because the Statute of Limitations had run out. I find this ironic because, if you remember from our post about the song, “Maybelline” *(which you can read here), Chuck Berry was one of the main singers involved in the Payola Scandal of the 1950s, whereby record companies would give radio DJs a songwriting credit in return for getting airplay for their songs. Such arrangements cut into the rightful amount of money that a singer/songwriter should’ve earned and, in time, it was a practise that was outlawed. Well, “Maybelline” was one of the test songs in that court case so, Chuck Berry, was well aware of the importance of songwriting credit to those who actually created the songs. His unwillingness to allow Johnnie Johnson to have earned his rightful share is a dark mark on an, otherwise, sterling career.
Back To The Future: In the 1980s, sales of “Johnny B. Goode” were given a boost by the inclusion of the song in the movie, “Back To The Future”, starring Michael J. Fox. In a scene that has been described as one of the best musical scenes in movie history, Fox’s character, Marty McFly, joins a band of black musicians on stage at a high school dance and proceeds to electrify the audience by playing “Johnny B. Goode”. There are several things to note in this scene…..first of all, Michael J. Fox incorporates the moves of several legendary guitarists such as when he does the famous windmilling done by Pete Townsend of The Who, Eddie Van Halen’s fret walk, Jimi Hendrix and his behind-the-head style, as well as, Chuck Berry and his iconic duck walk. As well, when the audience warms up, the band leader, whose name was “Marvin Berry” calls up his cousin, “John”, on the phone and lets him listen in and tells him that this could be the type of music he had been looking for. *(You can watch that scene, here).
Overall, “Johnny B. Goode” tells the story of a young, black singer who rose from a simple life to one where his name could be in lights. It is a song that captures the allure of the Rock n’ Roll lifestyle and which fuels the dreams of many a singer and/or band who strum away in they bedrooms, basements, backyards and anywhere else they can think of to express themselves through song. It is one of the most classic of rock songs for a reason.
So, without further delay, here is one of the very best of them all, “Johnny B. Goode” by the great, Chuck Berry. Enjoy.
The link to the video for the song, “Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Chuck Berry, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Johnnie Johnson, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Louis Jordan, can be found here.
The link to the movie trailer for “Back To The Future”, can be found here.
Finally, the link to the official website for Rolling Stone Magazine, can be found here.