Hello there! Our song this week is Johnny B. Goode. It is one of the greatest, most iconic rock ‘n roll songs. We will review the original 1958 version by Chuck Berry, and we will discuss covers by The Beach Boys and by Jimi Hendrix. Finally, we throw in some “bonus video” of the song from the movie Back To The Future.
Chuck Berry, Johnny B. Goode:
Charles Anderson “Chuck” Berry has recently turned 90. His status as a rock ‘n roll pioneer is so important that John Lennon once said, “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’.”
We have covered Chuck Berry in previous blog posts. We reviewed his song Back in the USA (and the Beatles’ song Back In The USSR); also Chuck’s song Sweet Little Sixteen (and the Beach Boys Surfin’ USA, which is the same tune); and Chuck’s first hit Maybellene.
Chuck grew up in St. Louis and became interested in rhythm and blues, admiring both the guitar style and the flamboyant showmanship of blues guitarist T-Bone Walker. Berry began performing with a trio headed by pianist Johnnie Johnson.
Below is a photo of a young Chuck Berry with his electric guitar.
At the suggestion of blues great Muddy Waters, Chuck auditioned for Leonard Chess of Chess Records. At the time Berry was interested in rhythm and blues, so he tried out some blues songs for Chess. However, Chess Records had an incredible stable of blues musicians such as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, and so had little use for Chuck’s blues offerings.
In 1955 during a rehearsal with Chess Records, the producer heard Berry goofing off with fellow bandmates between takes. When asked what he was playing, he said it was a variation on a country song, Ida Red, that was performed by Bob Wills’ western swing band. When performing, the Johnnie Johnson Trio occasionally mixed country songs into their playlist of blues and ballads.
In one of those critical moments of serendipity, the producer urged Berry to try a rocking song in the spirit of Ida Red. Chuck sat down and wrote a new set of lyrics. This became his first hit record Maybellene, which made it to #1 on the Billboard Rhythm and Blues charts.
Maybellene established a formula for a string of Chuck Berry hits. They all featured Chuck’s rapid-fire lyrics that painted a vivid word-picture. This was combined with his signature rock guitar riffs, which were meticulously copied by generations of budding rock guitarists. The early Chess recordings also featured Johnnie Johnson on piano, and blues great Willie Dixon thumping away on his upright bass.
Another trademark of Chuck Berry performances was his showmanship. Chuck would move across the floor with nifty dance steps, swing and sway back and forth with his guitar.
Early on he added his signature move, the duck-walk, shown in the photo at left. For that move he would hunch over with his guitar stretched in front of him; he would hop on one leg while swinging the other leg forward.
Chuck Berry wrote Johnny B. Goode in 1955. The song describes a young lad from the Southern countryside, living in a log cabin, learning to play guitar, and listening to his mother’s dream that he would become famous.
Deep down in Louisiana close to New Orleans,
Way back up in the woods among the evergreens
There stood a log cabin made of earth and wood,
Where lived a country boy named Johnny B. Goode
Who never ever learned to read or write so well,
But he could play a guitar just like a ringing a bell.
Go go, go, Johnny, go, [4x]
Go, Johnny B. Goode
He used to carry his guitar in a gunny sack
Or sit beneath the tree by the railroad track.
Oh, the engineers would see him sitting in the shade,
Strumming with the rhythm that the drivers made.
The people passing by, they would stop and say,
“Oh, my, but that little country boy could play!”
The song was highly autobiographical. First off, Chuck was born at 2520 Goode Avenue in St. Louis. Second, the original lyrics referred to “that little colored boy,” but Berry changed the lyrics to “that little country boy” to appeal to both black and white audiences.
As with many Chuck Berry tunes, Johnny B. Goode is justly famous for its great guitar riffs. Many of his songs feature guitar licks invented by Chuck; however, in this case, the major “Johnny B. Goode” guitar riff was borrowed note-for-note from a solo by Carl Hogan, the guitarist for Louis Jordan.
Before it was recorded, Johnny B. Goode was one of the main songs on the playlist of the Johnnie Johnson Trio. However, when it was recorded at Chicago’s Chess Records Studios, the pianist was not Johnson but Lafayette Leake. This is evident from the fact that Johnnie Johnson’s piano playing was generally a straightforward rhythm backing, while Leake is a significantly more flamboyant musician.
Here is Chuck Berry “performing” his song Johnny B. Goode.
I put “performing” in air quotes, since Chuck is not actually giving a live performance; he is simply lip-synching to the record. However, it’s just wonderful to hear those iconic guitar riffs, and to see Chuck sporting his trademark Gibson ES 350T guitar.
Chuck does give us a couple of his patented dance moves. In one move, he squats down and then stands back up. Unfortunately, the camera is focused only on Berry’s upper body at this time. Chuck also shows off a move where he spreads his legs progressively wider apart, until he’s doing the split; then he straightens himself up while holding his guitar directly in front of him in a suggestively phallic manner.
Now, let’s show another clip, this one a truly live performance.
Here, Chuck plays Johnny B. Goode live in 1958. In a previous blog post, we showed Chuck Berry playing in Paris. I believe this may be another clip from the same concert. Males in the audience are generally dressed in coat and tie, and despite the fact that the beat is nearly irresistible, the audience remains stationary, hardly even clapping for most of the song.
In this song, we also see a common feature of Chuck Berry performances. In order to save money, Chuck frequently toured without a backing band. He would simply hire local musicians to accompany him.
When he was lucky, Chuck would get a group who were familiar with rock ‘n roll, and could play along with him. However, frequently he ended up with jazz combos, or 40s-style big bands. They might be talented musicians, but often didn’t know the first thing about rock ‘n roll.
And Chuck didn’t help, as he expected the musicians to simply follow his lead. In some cases, the band didn’t even know what key a song would be played in; so the results could be disastrous. But it’s great to see Chuck reprising his great guitar solos.
Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones commented that, after his initial hits, Chuck continued to release effectively the same song over and over again. It’s true that Chuck Berry’s biggest hits contain many re-cycled elements. But heck, Chuck invented this stuff – so why not stay true to a proven formula?
Johnny B. Goode has become one of the most famous rock ‘n roll songs. It has been covered a couple hundred times, by musicians such as Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, French rock star Johnny Hallyday, Elton John, and George Thorogood.
Over a ten-year period, Chuck Berry charted a number of hits that established him as one of the great pioneers in rock music. Chuck also had a keen understanding of the irony that, as a 30-year old black ex-con, he was writing songs and selling records primarily to an audience of middle-class white teen-agers.
But Chuck’s lyrics were really terrific, and songs like Sweet Little Sixteen or School Days effectively conveyed to his teen audiences the joys and frustrations of growing up in America.
Alas, in 1962 Chuck was convicted of violation of the Mann Act (transporting a minor across state lines for sexual purposes), and served 18 months in jail. The Mann Act had racist implications, as it was frequently enforced against black men involved with white women.
Chuck resumed his career once he got out of jail, but his records had less commercial success than before. And paradoxically, the British Invasion put a real dent in his record sales. Chuck was understandably bitter over the irony – groups like the Beatles and Rolling Stones, who adored Berry and covered many of his records, were threatening to put him out of business!
However, even though artists like Chuck Berry and Little Richard saw their record sales decline, they remained in great demand on tour. So they managed to stay afloat financially in those difficult times.
Over the years Chuck Berry has received virtually every honor in the field. He was a shoo-in for induction into the 1986 inaugural class at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. One of the comments in his Hall of Fame bio was that he
“laid the groundwork for not only a rock and roll sound but a rock and roll stance.”
How true! Chuck also is ranked fifth on the Rolling Stone list of 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.
The Beach Boys, Johnny B. Goode:
The Beach Boys were one of the greatest rock and roll groups in history. They were formed in 1961 in California, and initially were primarily a family band. The three Wilson brothers Brian, Dennis and Carl teamed up with cousin Mike Love and family friend David Marks. They were initially known as the Pendletones, named after the Pendleton wool shirts popular with California surfers.
In an earlier blog post, we discussed the Beach Boys’ song Surfin’ USA, which used the same tune as Chuck Berry’s Sweet Little Sixteen, but which replaced the list of cities in Chuck’s tune with a catalog of surfing hot spots.
At first the Beach Boys were just a singing group, with the instrumental work provided by studio musicians. However, the brothers gradually became proficient on various instruments – Carl on electric guitar, Brian on bass and Dennis on drums. David Marks left fairly early and was replaced by Al Jardine. Jardine, together with Mike Love and the three Wilson brothers, made up the best-known Beach Boys lineup of the 60s.
The Beach Boys soon replaced their wool Pendleton shirts with a classic combination of striped shirts and white pants, as shown in the photo below. L to R: Carl Wilson, Brian Wilson, Al Jardine, Dennis Wilson, Mike Love.
Early on, the Beach Boys were managed by Murry Wilson, the father of the Wilson brothers. However, it became clear that Brian Wilson was the brains of the outfit. Brian wrote the songs, oversaw the productions, and began taking control of all major decisions. In sharp contrast to Brian’s brilliance, Murry showed truly awful instincts regarding the group’s musical directions and financial decisions. Once Murry was ousted as the group’s agent, Brian took charge.
In late 1964, after suffering a panic attack on an airplane flight, Brian stopped touring with the Beach Boys. Thereafter, he did all his work in the studio. So videos like the Shindig! clip, showing Brian Wilson performing live with the Beach Boys, are relatively rare, and almost non-existent after 1964.
Here are the Beach Boys in a live performance of Johnny B. Goode. This was filmed on Dec. 23, 1964 for the ABC series Shindig! Mike Love and Brian Wilson share the lead vocals, with Carl on lead guitar, Al Jardine on rhythm guitar and Dennis playing the drums.
What do you think? My reaction is that the Beach Boys are simply adequate on this Chuck Berry cover. Although Brian Wilson loved the early rockers like Chuck Berry and Little Richard, this isn’t really their trademark style. Furthermore, it seems to me that the boys are still trying to master their instruments. But it’s great to see the band in a rare live performance including Brian.
Let me interject a few words about Shindig! It aired on ABC for two years from 1964-66. Initially, it was brought in as a replacement for Hootenanny, when the folk music craze crashed at the start of the British Invasion.
Shindig! was impressive in a number of ways. First, they always insisted on live music – none of that lip-synching you got from Dick Clark! The show featured a dance troupe (their most famous dancer became actress Teri Garr), and also a house band called the Shin-Diggers.
Many of the best West Coast session musicians, who would later become known as the Wrecking Crew, appeared with the Shin-Diggers. The group included Billy Preston, Glen Campbell, James Burton and Leon Russell. In the early days when Brian Wilson was unable to travel with the Beach Boys, Glen Campbell would often fill in for him on tour.
Once the Beach Boys mastered their instruments, they became the kings of surf rock. Their vocal style, stimulated by groups like the Four Freshmen and by harmonies borrowed from barbershop quartets, is impressive and very creative.
Carl Wilson’s guitar licks were a close copy of the surf guitar stylings of musicians like Dick Dale. No one could touch the Beach Boys when it came to surf pop. Even their major competitors like Jan and Dean, or Ronnie and the Daytonas, would often score hits with tunes written by Brian Wilson.
Brian Wilson was a musical genius. His writing was incredibly creative; and he pioneered a number of innovative studio techniques. Brian worked closely with the Wrecking Crew studio musicians, and his work became progressively more complex and novel. All of this culminated in the Beach Boys’ seminal 1966 album Pet Sounds.
That album is now considered one of the greatest pop albums of all times. In addition to extremely sophisticated vocal harmonies, recording techniques and instrumental arrangements, the album also incorporated a number of unique sounds – sleigh bells, bicycle horns, barking dogs.
On the Pet Sounds album, Brian shared deeply personal experiences and thoughts. The other Beach Boys simply showed up to record their vocals, did not play instruments on the album, and had essentially no input into the project.
Unfortunately, Brian Wilson found himself under terrific strain. A combination of drug-related and mental health issues made Brian withdraw more and more. Brian was able to oversee one more record – the stunning, extraordinarily complex 1966 single Good Vibrations. However, that project took an exceptionally long time to complete, for what was at the time an unprecedented cost.
Eventually Brian became unable to function normally; as a result, he was unable to complete his next album concept, Smile. That project eventually became the most controversial and anticipated ‘unfinished album’ of all time.
Another piece of bad news was that Pet Sounds did not sell as well as the Beach Boys’ earlier albums. The more esoteric and challenging songs from Pet Sounds did not attract the widespread youth support that the group experienced with their earlier surfer songs. Pet Sounds was a critical success but a commercial disappointment.
Brian Wilson’s drug and mental health issues led to a subsequent mental breakdown. Eventually Brian became a patient of a highly controversial psychotherapist, Eugene Landy.
Did Landy’s unconventional treatment methods get Brian off illegal drugs and get his weight under control? Or was Landy a dangerous control freak whose treatment methods may have actually exacerbated Wilson’s condition, and who was unprofessionally enriching himself at Brian Wilson’s expense?
Given the vehement criticism of Landy and his methods, Brian Wilson himself has been surprisingly positive about his former therapist. “I still feel that there was benefit. I try to overlook the bad stuff and be grateful for what he taught me.”
Jimi Hendrix, Johnny B. Goode:
Jimi Hendrix is generally considered the greatest rock guitarist of all time. He was born in Seattle, and was a shy, introverted youth who spent considerable time in foster care as his parents were both alcoholics who became violent when they were intoxicated.
As a youth, one of Jimi Hendrix’s prize possessions was a ukulele with just one string. Jimi taught himself to play a few songs, and in 1958 got his first guitar and practiced learning the guitar parts to famous rock ‘n roll songs.
Below is a photo of Jimi Hendrix performing at Royal Albert Hall, in Feb. 1969.
After being discharged from the Army, Jimi moved to Nashville, where he performed at a number of black venues on what was known as the Chitlin’ Circuit. He also worked as a session musician for artists such as Wilson Pickett, Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke.
In 1964, Hendrix moved to New York and began frequenting clubs in Harlem. He was hired as a guitarist with the Isley Brothers backup band, and later worked with Little Richard’s backup band, The Upsetters.
Hendrix had trouble in both bands, as he persisted in showing off his flashy guitar techniques when he was supposed to be working in the background for the star vocalists. So he assembled his own band and began performing in Greenwich Village.
There, Hendrix caught the eye of Chas Chandler. Chandler had been the bass player for the British Invasion group The Animals. Upon leaving The Animals, Chandler was looking for groups to produce.
Chandler brought Hendrix to London, and hooked him up with guitarist Noel Redding, who agreed to play bass with the group, and drummer Mitch Mitchell. They formed the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
The group rehearsed for a couple of weeks in fall, 1966, and were ready to go. Their first performances must have been phenomenal, because in November 1966, when the Jimi Hendrix Experience appeared at London’s Bag O’Nails Club, the audience included
Eric Clapton, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Jeff Beck, Pete Townshend, Brian Jones, Mick Jagger.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience had three hit singles in the U.K. – Hey Joe, Purple Haze, and The Wind Cries Mary – before they ever released an album. Their first album, Are You Experienced, was released in the U.K. in May, 1967. The cover of that album is shown at left.
While I was a graduate student at Oxford in the mid-60s, a friend of mine named Royal Hutchinson had amazingly good taste in rock music. Through Royal, I was introduced to Cream, The Doors, Jeff Beck – the latest in hard-rock music. I became aware of several new groups very shortly after the release of their first albums.
I remember vividly hearing the first Hendrix album Are You Experienced in the middle of 1967. Shortly afterwards, Royal told me that some friends of his were going to London to see Jimi. Did I want to come along?
“Well,” I told him; “I am now married, and working on my PhD thesis research. I just would not have the time for it.” However, the truth was – Jimi Hendrix was just too weird for me.
At that time, I was simply not prepared for the jarring elements of this guitar band. Although the music was astounding – how could all this sound emanate from just a trio? – I found the feedback, distortion and unfamiliar technical effects disconcerting.
While a graduate student, I saw a fascinating and mind-boggling number of live concerts; however, I am haunted by artists whom I failed to see. There is probably no one I regret missing more than Jimi Hendrix, right at the beginning of his amazing and tragic run.
Here is Jimi Hendrix live at the Berkeley Community Center, from a concert on May 30, 1970. This was part of the U.S. leg of Jimi’s City of Love tour, where Jimi appeared in a trio featuring Billy Cox on bass and Mitch Mitchell on drums.
OK, neither the audio nor video are of high quality. However, you can catch Jimi’s genius at work. You can see Jimi playing his Fender Stratocaster in his usual style – he turned the guitar upside down, allowing him to play left-handed.
You can see the mind-boggling chords, and his astonishing finger-work. If you watch carefully, you can see his right thumb wrapping around the neck of the guitar to play some of the notes.
Jimi does not so much ‘cover’ Chuck Berry’s iconic tune, but he transforms it. You can see several of Jimi’s trademark innovations: the creative use of extreme feedback; and playing the guitar with his teeth. Jimi finishes up with a blistering, searing virtuoso run on the guitar. I just have to say – wow!
The Jimi Hendrix Experience lasted for three mind-blowing albums. His other two albums were Axis: Bold As Love (the album cover, showing Jimi and his bandmates as various incarnations of Vishnu, is shown at left), and Electric Ladyland. After that, the trio broke up at the end of June 1969, due to personal differences.
It must have been difficult to deal with Jimi’s personal habits. On the one hand, he was a perfectionist; insisting on numerous re-takes, constantly working on technical effects and trying out new innovations.
At the same time, recording sessions were apparently a complete shambles. Jimi would invite his friends around, and what was supposed to be dedicated studio work would frequently resemble a giant party.
By the time of the Woodstock Festival in August 1969, Jimi Hendrix was the highest-paid rock musician in the world. However, having split with his “Experience” band-mates just two months ago, Hendrix arrived with a motley crew of musicians whom he called ‘The Band of Gypsys.’ They had only performed together for a couple of weeks.
As a result, Jimi’s performance at Woodstock involved mainly long, rambling solos by Jimi, with little input from his fellow musicians. But one of those solos was Jimi’s iconic performance of the Star-Spangled Banner.
Jimi appeared on stage wearing a white leather jacket covered with blue beads and sporting a fringe, with a red scarf around his head, as shown at left. His Star-Spangled Banner featured
copious amounts of amplifier feedback, distortion, and sustain to replicate the sounds made by rockets and bombs.
Hendrix’s performance of the national anthem was a sensation, and would become one of the most remembered elements of the blockbuster documentary film Woodstock. Pop critic Al Aronowitz of The New York Post wrote:
“It was the most electrifying moment of Woodstock, and it was probably the single greatest moment of the sixties.”
The Band of Gypsys produced a single double album and then disbanded. Hendrix then assembled a new trio, with bassist Noel Redding from the original Jimi Hendrix Experience replaced with Billy Cox. In mid-1970 the group commenced the City of Love tour, from which we saw the video clip of his Berkeley performance.
In September the City of Love tour had reached Europe. Hendrix spent the night of Sept. 17 with girlfriend Monika Dannemann. Dannemann testified that they had a bottle of wine, visited some friends, and returned to her apartment.
The following morning, Dannemann found Hendrix unconscious and unresponsive. He was taken to a hospital, but pronounced dead early that afternoon. A post-mortem autopsy revealed that Hendrix had died of asphyxia while intoxicated with barbiturates. It was later determined that Jimi had taken 9 of Dannemann’s prescription sleeping pills; this was 18 times the recommended dosage.
What a tragic, untimely loss! Although Jimi Hendrix only performed as a solo artist for about five years, his contributions were simply mind-blowing.
Hendrix was constantly discovering creative ways to harness technology with his guitar. In order to maximize the feedback and distortion, he would turn up every knob on his Marshall amplifiers to the highest level; this became known as the “Hendrix setting.”
He pioneered the use of pedals to create special effects, such as the wah-wah, Fuzz Face and Octavia pedals. Jimi also employed a Uni Vibe phase shifter, in order to simulate the modulating effects of a rotating Leslie speaker.
Jimi Hendrix was elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992. Rolling Stone magazine voted Hendrix #1 on their list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time, and also Guitar World ranks him as the top guitarist of all time.
One strange note – in Aug. 2016, Jimi Hendrix was inducted into the R&B Hall of Fame. WTF – what took them so long??
“Michael J. Fox,” Johnny B. Goode:
Just for fun, here is “bonus video” from the movie Back To The Future. I consider this 1985 sci-fi comedy film to be incredibly creative and enjoyable. At left is a poster advertising the first Back To The Future movie.
Michael J Fox, who plays the lead character Marty McFly, travels back in time with his friend, the eccentric scientist Doc Brown, played by Christopher Lloyd. The 17-year-old McFly returns to 1955, a time when his mother was also 17.
Below is a photo of Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd, appearing in a subsequent TV series Spin City.
A crucial plot element in Back To The Future is that in 1955, Marty needs to re-unite his mother and father, so as to avoid disrupting the space-time continuum, and to allow Marty to be born.
As part of the action, in this video clip Marty “plays guitar” with a fictitious band, Marvin Berry and the Starlighters, at Marty’s mother’s Nov. 1955 high school prom.
I put “plays guitar” in air quotes, as Fox is not actually playing guitar or singing. He is simply lip-synching to vocals by Mark Campbell, and miming the guitar-playing of Tim May.
However, the video clip contains many of the tongue-in-cheek conceits from the wonderful script by Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis. First, Fox introduces the song as “an oldie.” Of course, since Johnny B. Goode was released in 1958, none of the audience would ever have heard it.
Second, during Fox’s performance, Marvin Berry is seen phoning his cousin “Chuck,” and apparently providing Chuck Berry the inspiration for “his new sound.” Finally, after initially playing a straight cover version of the great Chuck Berry tune, Fox then segues into a thrash guitar solo straight from the 80s.
McFly shows off some extreme feedback, the finger-tapping guitar work popularized by Eddie Van Halen, and other heavy-metal effects. Eventually, Fox realizes that the entire audience have stopped dancing and are staring in bewilderment. He tells them “Well, maybe you guys aren’t ready for this … but your kids are gonna love it.”
A couple of trivia notes here. First, the idea for the script originated with Bob Gale, who found his father’s high school yearbook and realized that his dad was president of his graduating class. Gale recounted to Zemeckis “If I returned back in time to my father’s high school class, we probably would have nothing in common.” From this premise, Zemeckis and Gale constructed a story about a youth traveling back in time to his mother’s high school days.
The movie Back To The Future is one of the classic movies of the 20th century. Thus, it is fascinating that the film script was rejected by nearly every major studio. The original studio, Columbia, felt that the film was “cute and warm,” but not sufficiently sexy.
All other major studios rejected the film. Finally, Zemeckis and Gale approached Disney.
“They told us that a mother falling in love with her son was not appropriate for a family film under the Disney banner,” Gale said.
After Zemeckis’ film Romancing The Stone became a box-office smash, he had sufficient clout to re-negotiate filming of Back To The Future. Eventually, Columbia Pictures made a deal with Universal Studios. Columbia needed approval from Universal to launch a comedic re-make of the classic 40s film Double Indemnity. So, in return for Universal giving them the rights to Double Indemnity, Columbia traded Back To The Future to Universal.
Back To The Future was such a mega-hit that it is nearly impossible to imagine it without its two major stars, Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd. Thus is it striking that the movie might not have included either Fox or Lloyd.
John Lithgow was initially envisioned for the role of Doc Brown, but Lloyd was substituted when Lithgow was not available. Although Michael J Fox was the obvious choice for Marty McFly, actor Eric Stoltz was substituted when the producer of the TV series Family Ties refused to allow their star Fox time off to make the movie.
Eventually, it was realized that Stoltz was not the appropriate actor to play McFly, and Michael J Fox was given permission to make the film. And the rest is history.