Chuck Berry Jams Out “Johnny B. Goode” with Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, John Lennon & Bruce Springsteen

The King of Rock and Roll is dead, and, no, I don’t mean Elvis, but Chuck Berry, who pro­claimed him­self at every oppor­tu­ni­ty the right­ful sov­er­eign. Next to Berry (accord­ing to Berry) every oth­er hip-swivel­ing, duck-walk­ing, pom­padour-comb­ing jack­e­lope was noth­ing but a low­down pre­tender, even those who only bore the faintest resem­blance to the above. See, for exam­ple, his take on punk rock—so clear­ly deriv­a­tive of his work that he can’t help tak­ing cred­it for most of it. To peo­ple raised on The Ramones instead of the Stones his atti­tude seemed ridicu­lous. But for those who came of age at a time when rock and roll was a near syn­onym for Chuck Berry, he was right all along. We failed to appre­ci­ate the enor­mi­ty of his tal­ent, the unique­ness of his style, the genius of his licks.

I’ve wres­tled with both the dis­missal of Berry and the hagiog­ra­phy. My gen­er­a­tion’s “clas­sic rock” involved a Richards or a Clap­ton. Berry’s music may as well have been buried in Pleis­tocene stra­ta, though he lived until the iras­ci­ble age of 90, per­form­ing until just a few years ago. We knew the pio­neers, the Bop­pers, the Check­ers, the Hollys.

They could seem like car­toon char­ac­ters from our par­ents’ infan­tilized 50s child­hoods: whole­some, corny, down­right creepy. Bleh to all that. But, it’s true, out of his gen­er­a­tion of play­ers, Berry has always been spe­cial. He was the first rock and roll gui­tar hero. And if he some­times seemed salty about it, imag­ine how you’d feel to have your biggest hit—with the “12th great­est solo of all time”—stolen from you by the Beach Boys and Mar­ty McFly.

Even the most pedes­tri­an gui­tar play­ers should rec­og­nize how many licks Berry built into rock and roll’s archi­tec­tur­al vocab­u­lary from the fret­board of his Gib­son 335. Con­sid­er then the recog­ni­tion from those greats who learned to play as kids by lis­ten­ing to him on the radio. Chuck Berry may have felt under­ap­pre­ci­at­ed, or under­com­pen­sat­ed, but read an inter­view from almost any decade with Richards or Clap­ton or Har­ri­son or Page, etc. and you’ll be sur­prised if his name doesn’t come up. He was such an august Amer­i­can patri­arch at his death that the Nation­al Review called him “the found­ing father of rock,” his influ­ence “almost impos­si­ble to over­state”—sen­ti­ments echoed by near­ly every liv­ing gui­tar god to have worn the title. NRO’s Berry eulo­gy also includes a roundup of cov­ers of “John­ny B Goode,” from Jimi Hen­drix to AC/DC, the Grate­ful Dead, Prince, Judas Priest, the Sex Pis­tols…. Not all respect­ful cov­ers, but name a band, they’ve prob­a­bly done it.

But it was the lucky few gui­tar gods who got to play with Berry him­self, gaz­ing at him in awe, out of their minds with fif­teen-year-old glee. Kei­th Richards and Eric Clap­ton once trad­ed solos on an extend­ed “John­ny B. Goode” (top—the video and sound go out of sync, mak­ing for a slight­ly sur­re­al view­ing expe­ri­ence.) Berry seemed to soak it up as much as they did. Fur­ther up, see a boy­ish­ly hap­py John Lennon play “John­ny B. Goode” with Berry on The Mike Dou­glas Show in 1972. Lennon under­stood why Berry was so influ­en­tial not only as a gui­tarist but as a song­writer. He wrote “good lyrics and intel­li­gent lyrics in the 1950s when peo­ple were singing ‘Oh baby, I love you so.’ It was peo­ple like him that influ­enced our gen­er­a­tion to try and make sense out of the songs rather than just sing ‘do wa did­dy.’” Though Lennon did his share of that.

Final­ly, Bruce Spring­steen plays side­man to Berry dur­ing “John­ny B. Goode” at the con­cert for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995. Spring­steen paid homage to Berry fre­quent­ly, and also played in his band in the 70s, “an expe­ri­ence,” writes Ulti­mate Clas­sic Rock, “that chal­lenged the young musician’s abil­i­ty to think on his feet.” You may notice Spring­steen and Berry’s “John­ny B. Goode” per­for­mance seems a “a lit­tle wob­bly.” This is because Berry decid­ed to shift the song “in gears and a key with­out talk­ing to us,” remem­bers gui­tarist Nils Lof­gren. The setlist said “Rock and Roll Music,” Berry decid­ed he’d rather play “John­ny B. Goode.” So they played “John­ny B. Goode.” (See Spring­steen repli­cate the expe­ri­ence by play­ing Berry’s “You Nev­er Can Tell” live with his band, total­ly unre­hearsed.)

All of Berry’s pro­tégés and musi­cian-admir­ers quick­ly learned what to expect when they met their idol: when they got togeth­er to jam with him, they were “going to do some Chuck Berry songs,” as Spring­steen remem­bers him say­ing dur­ing their old days togeth­er. To Berry and to much of the gen­er­a­tion that fol­lowed, the phrase was pret­ty much syn­ony­mous with rock and roll.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Chuck Berry (RIP) Reviews Punk Songs by The Ramones, Sex Pis­tols, The Clash, Talk­ing Heads & More (1980)      

Chuck Berry Takes Kei­th Richards to School, Shows Him How to Rock (1987)

Bruce Spring­steen and the E Street Band Impro­vis­es and Plays, Com­plete­ly Unre­hearsed, Chuck Berry’s “You Nev­er Can Tell,” Live Onstage (2013)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (3) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (3)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.