Without Chuck Berry, these 10 famous rock songs would not exist
Since Chuck Berry, king of rock ‘n’ roll, died at age 90 on Saturday, tributes have poured in from the biggest names in music.
“Chuck Berry was rock’s greatest practitioner, guitarist, and the greatest pure rock ‘n’ roll writer who ever lived,” Bruce Springsteen wrote on Twitter. “RIP Chuck Berry, the genesis behind the great sound of rock n roll,” tweeted Alice Cooper. Mick Jagger wrote that “all of us in rock have now lost our father” and that his “music is engraved inside us forever.”
This is no understatement. Since the 1950s, when Berry first started producing his signature blend of music that combined a rhythm and blues beat with country twang, rockers have begged, borrowed and stolen from the legendary musician. Some have even been sued for allegedly doing so.
His songs have also been covered countless times. Berry’s hit “Johnny B. Goode” alone has been covered by dozens of artists. And a number of the most persistently popular rock songs carry his direct influence — be it through guitar licks, riffs, lyrics, storytelling or attitude. Here are 10 of them:
1. The Beach Boys: “Surfin’ U.S.A.”
What it sounds like: Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen”
According to Rolling Stone magazine, the Beach Boys often found ways to incorporate Berry’s sound into their earlier songs, but “Surfin’ U.S.A.” was a direct and overt tribute:
“Inspired by Berry’s rapid-fire references to various American cities, he recast the song as a paean to a fun-in-the-sun sport … Wilson said he intended the song as a tribute to the rock guitarist, but Berry’s lawyers used another term: plagiarism.”
The case was settled with the Beach Boys giving publishing rights to Berry’s publisher.
2. The Beach Boys: “Fun, Fun, Fun”
What it sounds like: Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”
In the book “Inside the Music of Brian Wilson,” Philip Lambert writes that Berry’s influence can be clearly found in the song’s intro:
“We’re alerted to a Chuck Berry influence before the lyric even begins, in a guitar introduction based closely on the beginning of ‘Johnny B. Goode’ (1958); thus we’re reminded of ‘Surfin U.S.A.’ and its debt to ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’ … But in ‘Fun, Fun, Fun’ the derivation is limited to the introduction, which has the same basic melody and 12-bar blues progression as the ‘Johnny B. Goode’ intro, but is then followed by other things.”
3. The Beatles: “I Saw Her Standing There”
What it sounds like: Berry’s “I’m Talking About You”
Paul McCartney once told an interviewer he’d stolen the riff in “I Saw Her Standing There” from Berry, as retold in the book “Paul McCartney: Playing the Great Beatles Basslines,” by Tony Bacon and Gareth Morgan:
“Here’s one example of a bit I pinched from someone. I used the bass riff from ‘Talkin’ About You’ by Chuck Berry in ‘I Saw Her Standing There.’ I played exactly the same notes as [his bass player] did and it fitted our number perfectly. Even now, when I tell people, I find few of them believe me; therefore, I maintain that a bass riff hasn’t got to be original.”
4. The Beatles: “Come Together”
What it sounds like: Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me”
According to The Beatles Bible, Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me” was an inspiration for the major hit “Come Together.” The similarities were so striking — and even include the same line “Here comes old flat-top” — that they led to a court case. But John Lennon later argued it was just an “obscure” inspiration, according to the Beatles Bible:
“Come Together is me, writing obscurely around an old Chuck Berry thing. I left the line in, ‘Here comes old flat-top’. It is nothing like the Chuck Berry song, but they took me to court because I admitted the influence once years ago. I could have changed it to ‘Here comes old iron face,’ but the song remains independent of Chuck Berry or anybody else on Earth.”
5. The Rolling Stones: “Brown Sugar”
What it sounds like: Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”
The Associated Press’s obit on Berry writes that the Berry inspiration in “Brown Sugar” can be heard near the end of the song:
“You could assemble a heavenly mix tape just of the hits built around [Berry’s] guitar work. You can hear it overtly in the Rolling Stones’ ‘Brown Sugar,’ which closes with a near-verbatim homage to ‘Johnny B. Goode.’”
6. Rod Stewart: “Hot Legs”
What it sounds like: Berry’s guitar work
In “Great Rock Drummers of the Sixties,” Bob Cianoi writes that “Hot Legs” had a “Chuck Berry-like sound and feel.” And in an Arizona Republic piece on Stewart hits, music reporter Ed Masley argues that “Hot Legs” “features some brilliant Chuck Berry-inspired guitar work that wouldn’t have sounded even slightly out of place on something by the New York Dolls.”
7. Creedence Clearwater Revival: “It Came Out of the Sky”
What it sounds like: Berry’s rhythms and storytelling
Berry was famous for his smooth storytelling, and “It Came Out of the Sky” tells the tale of how a farmer unwittingly becomes famous after he discovers a space object in his field. In “John Fogerty: An American Son,” Thomas M. Kitts wrote that “It Came Out of the Sky” “drew on Chuck Berry rhythms, guitar licks, and crisp storytelling.”
8. Johnny Rivers: “Memphis”
What it sounds like: Berry’s “Memphis Tennessee”
“Memphis Tennessee” is actually a Chuck Berry song; this is the rare case of where a cover of Berry eclipsed Berry’s original. According to SongFacts, Chuck Berry wrote and recorded the song in 1959 as “Memphis, Tennessee’” but it “languished as the B-side of his ‘Back In The U.S.A. single.’”
“[It] was revived when the white blues guitarist Lonnie Mack covered it in 1963,” and then hit its peak in 1964 when Johnny Rivers released a live album including “Memphis” — one word — as a single. “It became a huge hit for Rivers, going to No. 2 in America and launching a career that included nine Top 10 singles,” SongFacts writes.
9. Bob Dylan: “Subterranean Homesick Blues”
What it sounds like: Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business”
In a 2004 interview with LA Times critic Robert Hilburn, Dylan said his song “Subterranean Homesick Blues” was inspired directly by Berry and others. “[The song is] from Chuck Berry, a bit of ‘Too Much Monkey Business’ and some of the scat songs of the ’40s,” he said.
10. Bob Dylan: “Thunder on the Mountain”
What it sounds like: Berry’s “Let it Rock”
In “Bob Dylan: All the Songs – The Story Behind Every Track,” Philippe Margotin and Jean Michel-Guesdon argue that though “Thunder on the Mountain” came from Berry, influences often play on other influences.
Thunder on the Mountain” has a “touch of Chuck Berry’s style, particularly in the guitar licks and riffs reminiscent of ‘Let it Rock,’” they wrote. “But who in rock history wasn’t inspired by the creator of the ‘duck walk’? ‘Let it Rock’ is also reminiscent of Chuck Berry’s 1985 hit ‘Johnny B. Goode.’ Chuck Berry himself found inspiration for his legendary introductory riff in Louis Jordan [an earlier songwriter and bandleader].”