By Warren Kurtz
Chuck Berry 1926 - 2017
On Saturday, March 18, we lost rock 'n' roll’s founding electric guitarist and storyteller, Chuck Berry. His influence on The Beach Boys, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and others was huge. He had 25 singles in the Top 100 from 1955 through 1972, all on the Chess label. We look back at the music of this legendary Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award winner with five flip sides from his debut decade, the ‘50s.
“Drifting Heart” (Chess 1626) 1956:
After Chuck Berry’s breakthrough Top 10 single “Maybelline” in 1955, he was back in the Top 40 the following year with “Roll Over Beethoven.” This song was notably covered early in The Beatles’ career and given a lengthy 8:05 minute treatment in 1973 by The Electric Light Orchestra. Chuck Berry’s flip side, “Drifting Heart,” featured a piano as its prominent instrument, with a Polynesian rhythm throughout. His vocal opened softly and poetically with the couplet, “Who set my heart ever-drifting? You, from the start, never lifting.” By the end of the song came a plea to “renew our romance.”
“Reelin’ and Rocking” (Chess 1683) 1958: After two Top 10 hits in 1957 with “Rock & Roll Music” and “School Day,” which The Beach Boys covered in 1976 and 1980, respectively, Chuck Berry continued his Top 10 success in 1958, with another Beach Boys related hit, “Sweet Little Sixteen.” In 1963, the first Top 10 single from The Beach Boys, “Surfin’ U.S.A.” was so heavily inspired by “Sweet Little Sixteen,” that Chuck Berry, who Brian Wilson called his hero, was ultimately given songwriting credit. The original studio version of “Reelin’ and Rocking” served as the 1958 flip side. Chuck Berry “looked at my watch” nine times during this song while at a dance. After the number one success in 1972 of “My Ding-a-Ling,” from the album “The London Chuck Berry Sessions,” a live version of “Reelin’ & Rocking” was released as the album’s second single and his final time in the Top 40.
“Around & Around” (Chess 1691) 1958:
Chuck Berry’s second Top 10 single in 1958 was “Johnny B. Goode,” a live guitar favorite, covered by the oddly named quartet Johnny Winter And on their 1971 “Live” recording with twin guitars from Johnny Winter and Rick Derringer, and on the posthumous 1972 Jimi Hendrix album “In the West.” In “Around & Around,” Chuck Berry claimed “the joint was rockin’,” using a start and stop rhythm on this dance number, a pattern repeated in Foreigner’s 1982 hit single “Juke Box Hero.”
“Little Queenie” (Chess 1722) 1959:
The soulful “Almost Grown” appeared to draw a bit of inspiration from Ray Charles and later seemed to be reflected in Lee Dorsey’s 1961 hit “Ya Ya.” Both “Almost Grown” and “Ya Ya” were included on side two of the 1973 “American Graffiti” soundtrack. While “Almost Grown” spent most of the spring of 1959 in the Top 40, it peaked at No. 32, prompting many disc-jockeys to flip over the record and play “Little Queenie” as their preference, which ended up charting separately with a peak position of 80. This is one of two Chuck Berry songs, along with the 1958 Top 40 hit “Carol,” that The Rolling Stones included in their live album “Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out” in 1970. The following year, at the end of T. Rex’s single “Bang a Gong (Get it On)” Marc Bolan is heard in tribute to “Little Queenie” singing its repeated key line, “Meanwhile I’m still thinking.”
“Memphis, Tennessee” (Chess 1729) 1959:
Chuck Berry’s final Top 40 single of the ‘50s was “Back in the U.S.A.” In 1978, it was not only covered by Linda Ronstadt, but also served as the title of her hit filled album. The 1959 flip side, originally known as “Memphis, Tennessee,” told a tale of his “sweet Marie” who, the last time he had seen her, had “hurry home drops on her cheek that trickled from her eye,” It isn’t until the very end of the song that we learn this is a father missing his daughter in the revealing line, “Marie is only six years old.” Covers of “Memphis” reached the Top 10 twice in the early ‘60s, first as a guitar instrumental by Lonnie Mack, and then as the first hit single by Johnny Rivers. The group Faces also received a bit of FM radio airplay in 1972 with their cover of it on their “A Nod is as Good as a Wink…To a Blind Horse,” which also contained their hit single “Stay With Me.”