TCS Daily


Hail, Hail Rock 'n' Roll!

By Robert McHenry - October 18, 2006 12:00 AM

Name a song that has been recorded by all the following: the Beach Boys; Conway Twitty; the Sex Pistols; Tom Jones; Bill Haley; AC/DC; John Denver; Jerry Lee Lewis; Elton John. No, it wasn't "White Christmas." Or "Stardust."

Also Chubby Checker and Elvis and Jimi Hendrix and the Dead.

Give up? "Johnny B. Goode." The presumed model for the title character, the pianist Johnnie Johnson, died last year at the age of 80. And now the composer of the song has hit that mark. Charles Edward Anderson "Chuck" Berry is 80 today.

This is put into strange perspective for me when I consider that on the day I was born (in the same city as he, by the way), Berry was 19 and in jail for auto theft. When I first became aware of his music it never occurred to me that he was nearly as old as my father. That would have been an impossible thought, almost as impossible as the thought of my father duck-walking across the living room.

The official Chuck Berry website offers lists of artists who have covered the Master's songs, and for "Johnny B. Goode" there are no fewer than 21. According to the site, even Count Basie did a Berry cover.

What was it about a Chuck Berry song? Was it teenage rebellion? Not really; it was the movies, from the relatively high-end "Rebel Without a Cause" or "Blackboard Jungle" to such (now lovable) trash as "Hot Rod Girl" and "The Delinquents" that played that angle so strongly that some of us weren't allowed to go see them. No, a Berry song was more subtle than that. It was often about youthful frustration:

"Workin' your fingers right down to the bone,
And the guy behind you won't leave you alone"

"Can you imagine the way I felt?
I couldn't unfasten her safety belt!"

And it was about the weight of the past and its expectations of us:

"Deliver me from the days of old"

"Roll Over Beethoven and tell Tchaikovsky the news"

And it was about that perennial theme of adolescence, unrequited or unrequitable love:

"Maybellene, why can't you be true?"

"All the cats wanna dance with
Sweet Little Sixteen"

(I know I did, but I couldn't dance. I "tuned in Bandstand every day/To watch the kids dancin' 'cross the USA," as Bobby Darin sang in a near-ripoff of Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen" [which was even the epithet of the subject in Darin's song, called "Queen of the Hop"]. It was of no avail. I was a flop with chicks. Oops, sorry; that was The Clovers, "Love Potion #9.")

Or it might just touch on, hint at, lust:

"You know she wiggles like a glow worm,
Dance like a spinnin' top"

"Tight dresses and lipstick
She's sportin' high-heel shoes"

(Fifty years on we can only sigh over the changes in what constitutes provocative dress, which has become a competitive sport among young women and is no longer truly provocative but merely exhibitionist.)

And yet it could be about hope and dreams:

"Maybe someday your name will be in lights"

Above all it was high spirits and energy, right from the opening riff that seemed to rip open whatever had held it and burst on the listener like a lightning bolt. Robert Zemeckis got it just about right in the scene in "Back to the Future" when Marty McFly, having traveled 30 years back in time to 1955, goes to the high school dance, insinuates himself into the band, and opens up on "Johnny B. Goode." The dancing teens out on the gym floor are momentarily stunned.

Chuck Berry still tours a bit, and he plays a monthly gig at Blueberry Hill, a club in St. Louis. Happy Birthday, Chuck, Mr. Berry, sir. You helped me past some rough patches in life, and beyond that you made me jump for joy and still do; and so I thank you on this, your 80th birthday. As a very wise man once wrote:

"Hail, hail rock 'n' roll!"

The author is a TCS Daily Contributing Editor and former Editor in Chief of the Encyclopædia Britannica

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