Covered In (Chuck) Berrys

We lost some pretty significant rock and rollers in 2017.  How can we lose Tom Petty so soon – what a tragedy (plus he was only a couple of years older than me – yikes)?!  Luckily I got to meet him backstage at Fiddler’s Green and talk a bit back in the day – a good guy.  Fats Domino was a gentleman I regret I never saw in concert and really deserves to get more respect as a father of rock and roll music.  Just go back and listen to his first hit “The Fat Man” and realize it was recorded in December 1949!!!  Oh, and I was sorry to see Pat DiNizio the lead singer of the Smithereens passed at only 62 years old.  Having seen that band at the Soiled Dove Underground back in June, it was a shock what bad shape Pat’s nerve damage had left him in though he still put on a fine show without being able to use his arms.  “Top Of The Pops” is an example of some of the great music that his band created – he will be missed.  We also lost one of the greatest early rock and rollers in Chuck Berry who actually came out with a credible posthumous album in 2017 (Chuck) at age 90 – showing age doesn’t mean you can’t still rock.

If it wasn’t for Chuck Berry I honestly don’t know what all us wannabe rockers of the ’60s and ’70s would have warmed up to.  His songs have become such standards that you forget they haven’t always existed – someone actually wrote them once.  My drumming buddy Dan Campbell and I would always start off jamming to some old Berry tune like “Johnny B Goode” which makes me wonder what today’s kids in bands warm up with (if they still even play guitars and drums – but that’s another topic).  Reading about his life unfortunately proves that you don’t have to be a good person to be a good music star – he was in jail three different times and barely escaped a fourth trip later in life for some rather unsavory allegations.  Admittedly this was an era, however, where being a black man mixing with whites was seen as reason enough to be put in jail.  He may well have had a reason to be angry at the world, but he seemed to be pretty hard to work with it you hear the stories told by musicians like Keith Richards who idolized him.  His recording career started late for your usual rocker as he was nearly 29 when he had his first hit in “Maybellene” back in 1955 but he made up for lost time quickly and became a rarity for early rock in writing his own hits while playing the classic guitar licks that made the music move.  His songs always had two things going for them – the riff and the story.  It always seemed that if his songs were about love, that love was usually a car and it was generally a Cadillac.

I was a kid who discovered rock and roll during the ’60s British Invasion which meant early American rock fed back to us from across the Atlantic, it seemed fitting to do tribute via a list of my favorite Chuck Berry covers.  Note that Dave Edmunds’ “Run Run Rudolph” would have come in at #1 if I included Berry songs he didn’t write but merely performed, but since it was written by Johnny Marks and Marvin Brodie I chose to omit it.

1.No Money Down – Dave Edmunds

I am shocked that this track doesn’t exist on youtube or else I would supply a link.  This was a live performance that ended side one of Dave’s second solo album Subtle as a Flying Mallet (1975).  He was backed here by the band Brinsley Schwarz who featured bass player Nick Lowe who would later partner with Edmunds on some of their best music under their own names and as Rockpile.  The song was originally released in 1956 and is classic Berry in that it tells a story about a dude who trades from a beat up Ford to a Cadillac with no money down.

2.Rock & Roll Music – The Beatles

Once again there is no link to the studio version due to the legal power of the Fabs so go out and buy the record if you don’t already have it.  John Lennon’s vocal is one of his best owing to his having performed this stompin’ rocker hundreds of times in sweaty clubs.  The song appears on my fave Fabs U.S. LP Beatles ’65.  Berry’s original went to #8 in 1957 and was an ode to how much he loved the music.

3. School Day (Ring! Ring! Goes the Bell) – Gary Glitter

For someone already 30, Chuck managed to sum up what the kids were feeling at the time – surviving the day in class so they could go out and rock and roll with their friends.  His version titled simply “School Day” hit #5 in 1957.  Americans mostly know Gary Glitter from the ‘HEY’ song that many football teams have played after scoring a touchdown (“Rock & Roll, Part 2”). His debut 1972 album (Glitter) that featured that song also had this great Berry cover.  Glitter’s legal problems with pedophilia gives this a bit of an unsavory aspect, but there is no denying that producer Mike Leander’s rockin’ music is the real deal.

4.Reelin’ & Rockin’ – The Dave Clark Five

It wasn’t the Beatles, but rather the DC5 that won me over to the joys of rock and roll music back in 1965.  The pounding drums, the booming bass, the wailing sax and Mike Smith (who had the greatest rock voice of all the Brit invaders) turned this into a stompin’ #23 US hit in ’65.  Berry’s original was recorded in December 1957 and was the b-side to “Sweet Little Sixteen”.  A live version became his last chart single at #27 in 1972 four months after his surprise #1 with “My Ding-A-Ling”.  The song was about the unabashed joy of hour after hour of rockin’.

5.Carol – The Rolling Stones

Keith Richard is an unabashed Berry-phile even going so far as to organize a 60th birthday all-star concert in 1986 that was the centerpiece of the excellent ’87 movie Hail! Hail! Rock & Roll.  The first Rolling Stones album was known as England’s Newest Hit Makers and it finds a Stones group very different from the confident Glimmer Twins led outfit of just a few years later.  This band played mostly straight oldies and R&B covers.  I always say handclaps can make a good song great and the proof is here.  Berry’s single version went to #18 in 1958 and had a guy begging a girl named Carol to give him a chance to prove he could learn to dance.  Strong stuff, kids.

6.You Can’t Catch Me – Love Sculpture

Dave Edmunds first came to prominence in England with this trio playing a mix of blues, oldies and electrified classical music.  This crazed cover comes from their second album Forms & Feelings (1970) leading off side two.  While Chuck’s original single didn’t chart in 1956, it was recorded at the same session as “Maybellene” and “Wee Wee Hours” which are both name-checked in the lyrics.  The songs content is about cruising out on the New Jersey Turnpike and was used in the 1956 movie Rock, Rock, Rock with Berry lip-syncing to it.  It was John Lennon referencing the line “here come a flat-top, he was groovin’ up with me” in “Come Together” that got him into legal hot-water which is a pity as he was simply paying tribute to the man who wrote so many songs he loved.

7.Johnny B Goode – The Beach Boys

The Beach Boys first #1 album came in 1964 and was recorded live at the Memorial Auditorium in Sacramento, California.  The final song on that album was a ripping version of what may be the quintessential Chuck Berry song (and shows those So-Cal guys could really play).  Chuck’s single hit #8 on the charts in 1958 and may be one of the most ubiquitous songs every young band tried to play back in the day.  Berry pretty much took the intro from an old R&B song by Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five – “Aint That Just Like A Woman”.  The lyrics are about a young man from Louisiana who plays a mean guitar and dreams of seeing his name in lights as a star.  Johnny Winter did a pretty hot version as well on his 1970 live album.

8.Maybellene – Foghat

After the great Savoy Brown album Looking In, three of the members went off and formed Foghat which became a big success known primarily for their boogie stylings.  This version of Chuck Berry’s first hit rocks like a mother and comes from the ‘hat’s debut in 1972 (produced by Dave Edmunds).  The original was a #5 hit in 1955 and helped establish rock and roll as the music of the  youth of the era.  Berry adapted an old Western swing tune “Ida Red” and made it into a song about romance and cars – universal themes for the kids.  Recorded May 21, 1955 for Chess records in Chicago, the lineup was Chuck Berry – vocals, guitar, Johnnie Johnson – piano, Willie Dixon – bass, Jerome Green – maracas and Ebby Hardy – drums.

9.Sweet Little Sixteen – Ten Years After

Following their star turn in the movie about the Woodstock Festival, Ten Years After (and especially guitarist Alvin Lee) took the leap from cult status to stardom.  Their 1970 album Watt was an okay studio affair, but it was the final track recorded live at the Isle Of Wight Festival that leapt out of the speakers.  Lee tears through an amped up version of an oldie that really tore the place up.  The song was Berry’s a second biggest chart record climbing to #2 in 1958 and tells the story of a teenager obsessed with collecting autographs of her fave stars.

10.Come On – The Rolling Stones

Released June 7, 1963 in the UK, this was the first single by a new Decca Records band who were named after a Muddy Waters song.  The Stones’ version made it to #21 in the UK but never hit in the US.  The original recording by Berry in 1961 about how everything has gone to heck after losing his girl never charted in the US either as frankly music had changed from rock and roll to the greasy Frankies and Bobbys.

11.Dear Dad – Dave Edmunds

From my fave Edmunds LP D.E. 7  (1982) comes this spiffy rocker about a young man who wants to trade in his barely adequate Ford automobile and needs permission from daddy (who happens to be a Ford by birth).  Berry had a short resurgence after getting out of jail for the second time and this single came out at the tail end of that period – 1965.  The nearly 40-year-old Berry barely scraped the charts at #95 in the face of the British Invasion and folk-rock so kudos to Dave for digging up this lesser known gem.

12.Roll Over Beethoven – The Electric Light Orchestra

Jeff Lynne is no slouch when it comes to rock and roll with his group ELO’s music known by everybody of a certain age with over half of their 50 singles charting in the US (in the ’70s and ’80s mainly).  Roy Wood of the Move had the original idea to create a band akin to the “I Am The Walrus” Beatles with cellos alongside guitars.  When he brought Jeff Lynne on board they put out the first ELO album before Wood left to form Wizzard.  Edited from a lengthy rockin’ workout, this was their first chart single in the US (# 42 in 1973).  When Berry released the single in 1956 it went to # 29.  It is said that he wrote the lyrics as a swipe at his sister Lucy’s training classical music.

13.Bye Bye Johnny – Status Quo

Forever relegated to essentially one hit wonder status in the US (1968 – “Pictures Of Matchstick Men”), in the UK they have had more hits than any other rock band (something like 69).  Their style is no-nonsense boogie rock and roll and this cover of Berry’s non-charting 1960 single is classic Quo.  It comes as the last track on their eighth album On The Level (1975).  The lyrics update the saga of Johnny B Goode with him leaving Louisiana to head out west to stardom while making his mom sad.

14.Nadine – Juicy Lucy

This was an album track from the band’s self-titled 1969 debut which had more success in the UK than over here.  When Chuck came out of jail in 1963 his first release was “Nadine (Is That You)” in February of the following year.  Surprisingly it managed to chart at #23 in the face of maelstrom that was the initial frenzy of the British Invasion sweeping the US.  The lyrics are pretty clever in covering the saga of a man trying to catch his girl on foot and in a taxi.

15.30 Days – Shakin’ Stevens & The Sunsets

Talk about a huge star in the UK that nobody much knows in the US, Shaky tried for elusive stardom till he was 32 when his career suddenly skyrocketed tallying 33 top 40 singles over there in the process.  This cover of Chuck Berry’s “30 Days  (To Come Back Home)” via Ronnie Hawkins’ rework as “40 Days” was from his first album (the wishfully titled A Legend).  That this was produced by Mr. Dave Edmunds is no coincidence as it was straight out classic rock and roll – a style that Edmunds excels at.  Back in 1970, however, it was ten years before it’s time and the LP flopped.  Frankly the same could be said for Berry’s original single as inexplicably it too failed to chart coming as his followup single not long after the success of “Maybellene” which it sounds a lot like.  The lyrics talk about getting his woman back home in thirty days.

16.Memphis – Lonnie Mack

Johnny Rivers would take his vocal version to #2 the following year, but I prefer this instrumental attack on what was a fairly low-key Berry original.  Guitarist Lonnie McIntosh was born in Indiana to sharecroppers and dropped out of school at age thirteen.  He became a working musician scrambling for what he could get before landing as a session guitarist for Fraternity records.  His amped up instro went to #5 in 1963.  Berry’s song was released in 1959 as “Memphis, Tennessee” with no chart action (it did hit in 1963 in the UK at #6) and told the tale of a man trying to talk to his little girl Marie who he is no longer able to see due to a split with her mom.  Pretty adult stuff for the era.

17.Sweet Little Rock ‘N’ Roller – Rod Stewart

Berry tells the story of how rock and roll music has overtaken the little nine-year old daughter of a well-respected man becoming the only thing in life she cares about.  The single only managed a peak of #47 in late 1958.  It was the only real bright spot on Stewart’s 1974 album Smiler – his last for Mercury records.  It was straight ahead three chord rock and roll which Rod excelled at before he decided he was sexy, etc.

18.Tulane – Joan Jett & The Blackhearts

Straight ahead three chord rock and roll sounded mighty attractive coming out of this pint-sized leather demon (who was just as nice as could be to my friend G Brown and I backstage at Red Rocks years ago).  This was an album track from her sixth studio album after leaving the Runaways – Up Your Alley (1988).  The original non-charting 45 came from the Berry LP Back Home that referred to the fact that he was back on Chess records in 1970 after years on Mercury.  The subject matter was definitely a sign of the times as it seems to refer to Tulane and Johnny getting busted at their novelty shop for selling narcotics.

19.Talkin’ About You – The Redcaps

A totally unknown rarity in the US, this was a flat out stomper of a song and probably too raw for the British Invasion.  Singer Dave Walker later found success with the Street Corner Talkin’ era Savoy Brown while the guitarist on the track managed to do pretty well for himself too – Jimmy Page.  Berry was in some pretty tough legal straits when he released  “I’m Talking About You” as the b-side to his early 1961 single “Little Star” which didn’t even tickle the US charts.  The song is all about a girl he thinks is fine.

20.Promised Land – Elvis Presley

Quite a driving rock and roll song for the latter day Elvis, this single hit #14 late in 1974 and was for me the highlight of his ’70s career.  “Burning Love” from ’72 was good, but this track recalled classic rockin’ Elvis.  Chuck’s single in 1964 charted at #41 coming after his stint in jail for violating the Mann Act.  It was pretty much a rewrite of the old country classic “Wabash Cannonball” by Roy Acuff.  In his 1987 autobiography, Berry relates how he borrowed an atlas while in jail to write the lyrics about a young man traveling from Norfolk, VA to the promised land of Los Angeles.