Hello there! Our song this week is Roll Over Beethoven, a terrific ‘roots’ rock ‘n roll song by the great Chuck Berry, who died just two days ago. We will review the original version, and we will also discuss cover versions by The Beatles and by Electric Light Orchestra.
Chuck Berry, Roll Over Beethoven:
The great Charles Anderson “Chuck” Berry died on March 18, 2017. He was 90 years old, and was the ‘grand old man’ of rock ‘n roll. There is no way we can do justice to Chuck’s life, career and influence in a short blog post. So we will simply dedicate this post to him and his amazing contributions to rock music.
Chuck grew up in a middle-class black neighborhood in St. Louis. He became interested in rhythm and blues, and both Chuck’s guitar-playing style and his flamboyant showmanship were inspired by blues guitarist T-Bone Walker.
Chuck began performing with a trio headed by pianist Johnnie Johnson. However, after a few years Chuck became the primary singer-songwriter and leader of this band. Below is a photo of a young Chuck Berry sporting a beret.
At the suggestion of blues great Muddy Waters, Chuck auditioned for Leonard Chess of Chess Records. At the time Berry was primarily interested in rhythm and blues.
The Chess Records studios had signed the greatest blues singers of the era, so were uninterested in Chuck Berry as a bluesman. However, they urged him to write a “country-rock” song, when they learned that the Johnnie Johnson Trio would use covers of country songs in their own playlist. So Chuck sat down and wrote the song Maybellene, which shot up to #1 on the Billboard Rhythm and Blues charts.
Over a ten-year period, Chuck Berry charted a number of hits that established him as one of the great pioneers in rock music. Even though Chuck was a 30-year old black ex-con, his songs brilliantly conveyed to his primarily white, middle-class teen audience the joys and frustrations of growing up in America.
Roll Over Beethoven was written by Chuck Berry and released by Chess Records in 1956. The notion is that Beethoven would roll over in his grave, had he been alive to see the advent of rhythm & blues.
The tune travels squarely in the groove of Chuck Berry’s hit-making formula. It combines an iconic guitar riff (one that closely resembles the guitar solo in Johnny B. Goode) with a series of rapid-fire lyrics. The singer asserts a desire to alert his disc jockey about a particularly fine R&B song.
I’m gonna write a little letter,
Gonna mail it to my local DJ
It’s a rockin’ rhythm record
I want my jockey to play
Roll over Beethoven, I gotta hear it again today.
You know, my temperature’s risin’
And the jukebox blows a fuse
My heart’s beatin’ rhythm
And my soul keeps on singin’ the blues
Roll over Beethoven, and tell Tchaikovsky the news
Roll Over Beethoven contains allusions to several popular songs.
“Early in the Mornin'” is the title of a Louis Jordan song; “Blue Suede Shoes” refers to the Carl Perkins song; and “hey diddle diddle”, from the nursery rhyme “The Cat and the Fiddle”, is an indirect reference to the Chess recording artist Bo Diddley, who was an accomplished violin player.
Roll Over Beethoven achieved only modest success following its release. It made it to #7 on the Billboard R&B playlist, but only to 29 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. However, it has subsequently become an R&B anthem, one of the classic rock ‘n roll songs. Rolling Stone magazine rated it as #97 on their list of The 500 Greatest Rock and Roll Songs of All Time.
The song has been extremely popular with other rock groups. At present there are at least 100 covers of Roll Over Beethoven, by artists ranging from Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Rivers to The Byrds, Ten Years After and Cliff Richard.
Here is live video of Chuck Berry performing Roll Over Beethoven.
As we have mentioned in earlier posts, Chuck frequently went out on tour by himself, in order to save money. He then contracted with local authorities to provide him with a backup combo. His practice was to simply show up at a concert, begin playing, and expect the musicians to follow his lead.
When he was fortunate, Chuck would get musicians who knew his songs and could play rock ‘n roll. However, at other times he would end up with classical or jazz performers, who may have been accomplished musicians, but who often knew nothing whatsoever about rock music.
Here, you can see that Chuck’s piano player seems familiar with rock ‘n roll, and provides a frenetic backdrop to Chuck’s music. Chuck throws in a few of his patented moves during this tune. We also see a few seconds of fans bouncing and jiving as Chuck plays.
One has conflicting emotions regarding Chuck Berry and his career. Certainly he was one of the great seminal artists who created rock ‘n roll as it now exists. His contributions as a singer-songwriter and artist are quite extraordinary.
It is also the case that Chuck had to overcome a number of barriers on his way to success. Throughout his life, he remained bitter about the small amount of money he received for his early records. In the early days of rock ‘n roll, the music industry routinely short-changed performers. So Chuck was not happy to see artists like The Beatles, who got their start playing covers of his own songs, become wealthy beyond his wildest dreams.
However, Chuck also gained a reputation for being difficult to work with. He also refused to play benefits or charities.
Chuck was in trouble with the law on several occasions. In high school, he was sentenced to a youth reformatory for armed robbery. In 1962, he was convicted of violation of the Mann Act (transporting a minor across state lines for the purposes of sex) and served a year in jail.
Then in 1979, Chuck served five months in prison for tax evasion. And in 1990, Berry settled lawsuits over a number of complaints that he had installed video cameras in the women’s restroom of a restaurant that he owned.
Because of his importance in the history of rock music, Chuck Berry 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 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.
Chuck Berry left an amazing body of work. His iconic guitar riffs are diligently practiced by every rock guitarist. His songs influenced an entire generation of rock musicians. In particular, British Invasion artists loved Chuck, covered his songs, and incorporated many of his mannerisms into their own work. Chuck — hail, hail, Mr. Rock and Roll!
The Beatles, Roll Over Beethoven:
The Beatles are the greatest pop group of all time. They were formed in 1957 as the Quarrymen, consisting of high school guitarist John Lennon, a group of Lennon’s schoolmates from Quarry Bank School, and Lennon’s friend Paul McCartney.
The group were inspired by the British skiffle band fronted by Lonnie Donegan. A few months later, they added the 14-year-old guitarist George Harrison. Shortly afterwards, Lennon’s school chums dropped out, and for a short period The Quarrymen became a 3-person guitar band.
In early 1959, the group added Stu Sutcliffe on bass guitar. Later that year they changed their name to The Beatles, a shout-out to one of their idols, Buddy Holly and the Crickets.
The Beatles made the transition from garage band to a tight, professional band during a series of residencies playing at clubs in Hamburg, Germany’s tough, gritty Reeperbahn district.
In the U.K., the Beatles’ breakout year was 1963, the year in which the group blazed out of Liverpool to become a national phenomenon, and when “Beatlemania” officially erupted in Britain.
Although the Beatles had released a couple of singles in the U.S. in 1963, they did not sell well, and in addition there were royalty issues with the company, Vee-Jay, that had sub-contracted to sell the Beatles records in America.
However, by December 1963, the phenomenon of Beatlemania began to spread to the U.S. The record I Want To Hold Your Hand became a runaway best-seller in the U.S. and hit #1 in January, 1964. A triumphant tour of the U.S. began in February, 1964, established the Beatles as the dominant new group in rock music, and officially set off the British Invasion.
Below is a publicity photo of the Beatles in Paris in 1964. They are joined by a female model, and are wearing “Gallic” hats.
The song Roll Over Beethoven was one of the favorite cover songs performed by the Beatles. Early in their career, before Lennon and McCartney took over writing all of the Beatles’ songs, The Beatles playlist was loaded with covers of songs by other artists.
The Beatles picked out songs that highlighted their vocal and instrumental strengths. Roll Over Beethoven served as a spotlight for George Harrison on lead vocals and lead guitar. The Beatles continued using Roll Over Beethoven in concert, even after nearly all their playlist consisted of Lennon-McCartney songs.
Here are the Beatles in a live performance of Roll Over Beethoven. This took place in a concert at Washington Coliseum on Feb. 11, 1964.
You can see why Roll Over Beethoven would be a favorite for The Beatles. The beat is infectious, and Chuck Berry’s rapid-fire lyrics propel the song along. This is an historic occasion, as it was the Beatles’ first concert in the U.S.
The group had arrived in New York and took a train to Washington D.C. The train was met by 10,000 fans when it arrived in D.C. The Beatles performed a set of 12 songs, 8 of which were Lennon-McCartney tunes. Roll Over Beethoven was the first song on their playlist for this concert.
The other covers were the Meredith Willson tune, Til There Was You, a sweet ballad sung by Paul, and the final two hard-rocking covers, the Isley Brothers Twist and Shout with Paul on lead, and Long Tall Sally, featuring Paul’s best imitation of Little Richard.
As you can see, this is just the beginning of Beatlemania in the U.S., with the 8,000 fans screaming as their Beatles perform.
Here is another live video clip from the Beatles, of considerable historical interest. This was the Beatles performance of Roll Over Beethoven at a concert in Amsterdam on June 5, 1964.
Look carefully at the drummer in this video. He is visible for only a couple of seconds at the very beginning and end of the clip. It is not obviously not Ringo Starr; it is Jimmie Nicol. And here is the back-story.
In June, 1964, the Beatles were scheduled to play a few European dates before setting out on an Australasian tour. Just before they were about to depart, Ringo developed tonsillitis and was hospitalized. When it turned out that Ringo would not be able to join the group, they had to decide on the spot whether or not to cancel their tour.
Eventually they decided to continue the tour. Beatles producer George Martin suggested Jimmie Nicol, as Martin had employed him as a session musician. Nicol had also played drums on an album of Beatles covers, so he was familiar with their playlist. Jimmie Nicol was brought in at the last minute as the Beatles replacement drummer, and played with them throughout the tour.
This marked an amazing transformation for Nicol. Overnight, he went from being an anonymous drummer to one of The Beatles. He began receiving sacks of fan mail, was besieged by groupies after concerts, and joined John Lennon for post-concert all-night pub crawls and brothel tours.
As a result of the tremendous publicity he received for sitting in with the Beatles, Nicol assumed that his career would take off afterwards. Instead, at the end of the tour, he simply vanished back into the British music scene.
Unfortunately, Jimmie Nicol’s brief brush with fame turned out to be the worst thing that happened to him. First, it was jarring to be toiling anonymously, then suddenly thrust into the limelight, only to be bounced back into obscurity.
Furthermore, after Nicol went from being paid union scale to being compensated as a star, he had considerable difficulty returning to working-class status. A few years after the Beatles’ tour, Nicol declared bankruptcy.
As a bit of trivia, in 1996 Tom Hanks wrote the script for a movie called That Thing You Do. The film follows a garage band called The One-Ders as they try to break into the music business. Eventually, the group scores a major hit with their song That Thing You Do. The poster for the movie is shown at left.
Unfortunately, the group disintegrates immediately after their song becomes a big hit, and most of the group members then return to their normal lives. Apparently Hanks was inspired by the experience of Jimmie Nicol in writing the script for this film.
After 1964, the Beatles released a number of path-breaking albums. They took rock music on an incredibly creative journey, inspiring and opening the doors for all the groups that followed them.
Burnt out from their non-stop travels, the Beatles stopped touring in 1967 and spent the remainder of their time in the studio. Eventually, creative tensions and philosophical differences split the group apart. The Beatles completed recording of their final album, Abbey Road, in fall 1969, and the group subsequently disbanded.
But what an amazing journey the Beatles took us on! Their early work featured great upbeat pop music from a talented and incredibly tight quartet.
However, their later albums such as Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper, and the White Album revolutionized rock music and stretched the boundaries of this field.
John Lennon was tragically assassinated in 1980, and George Harrison died from lung cancer in 2001. Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr continue to perform today. The Beatles were, simply, the best ever.
Electric Light Orchestra, Roll Over Beethoven:
Electric Light Orchestra was an extremely successful group for about a 15-year period. The group was the brainchild of Birmingham musicians Roy Wood, Jeff Lynne and Bev Bevan.
Wood initially envisioned a band that would produce a fusion of rock and classical elements. He pictured a band that would include
violins, cellos, string basses, horns and woodwinds to give their music a classical sound, taking rock music in the direction to “pick up where the Beatles left off”.
Wood was a guitar player, vocalist and songwriter for the band the Move. To found his new group, Wood brought in multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Jeff Lynne from another Birmingham band and drummer Bev Bevan from the Move. Below is a photo of the founding members of Electric Light Orchestra from April 1972. From L: Jeff Lynne; Bev Bevan; Roy Wood.
The group decided on the clever name Electric Light Orchestra. One meaning of their name is that the group combined electric music with a “light orchestra.” A second meaning would be the association with an “electric light” bulb.
To highlight this, the group initially adopted a logo where the acronym for their band, ELO, is written out in a script that has considerable similarity to the General Electric logo. This is shown below left.
In addition to Wood, Lynne and Bevan, the group added keyboards, bass, cellos, and violin. They released a critically-successful album and embarked on a tour.
However, friction developed between the band members, and Roy Wood and other band members departed while the second ELO album was being recorded. Several of the musicians had problems with the band’s manager. In addition, during their first tour the group had significant technical difficulties balancing the sound of the electric and acoustic instruments.
Following this split, many people anticipated that ELO would fold without founding member Roy Wood. However, at that point Jeff Lynne took over the songwriting and arranging duties. Furthermore, the string instruments adopted new pickups; this solved the technical difficulty of allowing the strings to be heard over the guitars.
At this point, ELO became a pop powerhouse. They issued a number of top-selling albums, and developed a lush signature sound that included strings, synthesizers, and significant overdubbing.
Roll Over Beethoven was a natural choice for a ‘rock chamber orchestra.’ This became ELO’s signature song, and the band employed Roll Over Beethoven as their closing number in live concerts.
ELO recorded an 8-minute version of Roll Over Beethoven that appeared on their second album ELO2. The song was released as a single in Britain and became a top-10 hit. ELO released a shorter version of Roll Over Beethoven in the U.S.
Here is ELO performing Roll Over Beethoven live. This took place on the show Midnight Special, on Aug. 17, 1973. The group is introduced by Richard Pryor.
This is quite a clever version of Roll Over Beethoven. The song begins by incorporating snippets of music from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Immediately afterwards, the tune is kicked off with a classic Chuck Berry guitar lick.
Sporting a luxuriant Afro, Jeff Lynne is featured on lead vocals and guitar. However, the star of the piece is Wilf Gibson, who is clad in a cape and who produces some amazing riffs on electric violin.
This is a very energetic rendering of Roll Over Beethoven. Among other aspects of the performance, it is apparent that cellos were not meant to be treated in this manner.
ELO continued through the 70s and early 80s as a hit-producing machine. They sold over 50 million records worldwide. ELO placed 15 songs in the top 20 in the Billboard Hot 100 charts.
For their 1978 Out Of The Blue tour, the stage was shaped like a huge flying saucer. Below is a photo of ELO on that tour.
In 1980, Jeff Lynne co-wrote the music to the musical film Xanadu. his had a fascinating history. The movie, starring Olivia Newton-John, was a gigantic bomb; however, the film soundtrack was a smash hit.
Through the years, the membership of ELO changed significantly; however, Jeff Lynne, Bev Bevan and keyboard player Richard Tandy continued as founding members of the group. But in 1986, Lynne essentially left the group and they disbanded.
Lynne subsequently teamed up with George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan and Tom Petty to form The Traveling Wilburys. At that time, Bev Bevan formed ELO II. Bevan and his associates released a couple of albums and toured until 1999, when ELO disbanded.
Up to this point, the name “ELO” was jointly owned by Bev Bevan and Jeff Lynne. However, in 2000 Bevan sold his share of the naming rights to Lynne, who began issuing ELO albums, particularly retrospectives, re-masters and box sets of previous ELO hits.
Then in 2014, Lynne formed a group that he called “Jeff Lynne’s ELO.” The name was chosen to differentiate this ensemble from Bev Bevan’s group, and also various other ELO spin-offs and tribute bands.
Jeff Lynne’s ELO included keyboardist Richard Tandy and violinist Chereene Allen; it also utilized members of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. They performed a concert at London’s Hyde Park for 50,000 people. I saw the DVD of this concert and have to say it was pretty amazing.
Along their musical journey, ELO accrued a devoted group of fans and sold a ton of records. But the response of critics was somewhat mixed. Some were impressed by the fusion of strings and rock band elements. Others felt that the group depended very heavily on special effects from the recording studio.
However, there seems little doubt that Jeff Lynne turned out to be an extremely creative songwriter and arranger, and that ELO prospered under his leadership. Four members of ELO (Roy Wood, Jeff Lynne, Bev Bevan and Richard Tandy) will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2017; the band was elected in the first year that they were nominated for the Hall of Fame.