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RIP Chuck Berry: The Chicago Sound of “Johnny B. Goode”

Berry brought a cosmopolitan big-band sound to Chicago from St. Louis, paired it with Chicago noise and backbeat at Chess, and became a star.

Chuck Berry got his guitar licks from St. Louis and Texas, but perfected his sound in Chicago.   Photo: Wikimedia Commons

I’m probably not the only person whose life was changed by the opening riff to “Johnny B. Goode." Even though it was recorded 23 years before I was born, ’80s kids got to experience it by proxy through Back to the Future. Greil Marcus, in his book Lipstick Traces, calls it “the most deliciously explosive opening in rock ‘n’ roll” and identifies it as an antecedent to punk. In another essay he calls it “the most inspired single passage in postwar pop music,” and it’s the sole piece of postwar American music floating around in space on NASA’s Voyager spacecraft, along with Bach, Beethoven, and Louis Armstrong.

Where did the explosion come from? It came in large part from Chicago, and a couple frustrated big-band musicians.

Chuck Berry, who died Saturday at the age of 90, was from St. Louis, and his roots start there, with the influences of “hillbilly music"—part of what the Chess brothers saw in Berry was the crossover potential of a black musician playing “white” music, much the reverse of Elvis—and Texas swing.

But what Berry really wanted to do was be a bandleader. In the book Secrets From the Masters, Berry said that he “wanted to comp chords behind a big band and play swing tunes,” but that “I was in need of a house, and a wife, and looking forward to raising a family, and even my friend Ira Harris [a local guitarist influenced by Benny Goodman’s guitarist, Charlie Christian], who could really play, he couldn’t find a job playing jazz, if you see what I mean.”

Berry was 29 when he came to Chicago, not a young man in the terms of the genre he birthed. Despite doing a three-year stint for robbery from age 18 to 21, Berry was a trained cosmetologist who owned his own home; when he showed up at Chess Records on the advice of his hero, Muddy Waters, he was a grownup with a business plan to get famous, which helped sell Leonard Chess on this unknown guitarist who showed up at his office.

Chess put him to work with two pros: the great bluesman and jack-of-all-trades Willie Dixon, who played acoustic bass on “Johnny B. Goode,” and Fred Below, possibly the most important blues drummer of all time. 

Below, like Berry, had set out to be a jazz drummer; unlike Berry, he was highly trained in it. He played in a jazz band at DuSable High School, and then went to school for drumming—at the Roy C. Knapp School of Percussion at Jackson and Wabash, alma mater of Gene Krupa, led by the drummer from the city’s famous National Barn Dance program. And like Berry, he couldn’t find consistent work in the declining (and increasingly white) genre of big-band jazz, so he adapted to the popular music of the era: early R&B (Below played drums on The Moonglows’ "Sincerely") and Chicago blues.

“What made blues fascinating with me was because it was a type of music that I wasn’t familiar with—and they didn’t teach it in school! And I don’t think they do it now. So, it’s an altogether different style. So, I had to play it in a way that it would make sense to me,” Below told Scott K. Fish in 1981.

Those big-band sounds explicitly show up in “Johnny B. Goode.” Its riff is arguably taken from “Ain’t That Just Like a Woman,” a 1946 song by Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five.

But it sounds even more like the riff at 1:14 in T-Bone Walker’s “Strollin’ With Bones” from 1950 (via).

Walker was a Texan, but was important to the Chicago music scene as a regular at the short-lived but popular Rhumboogie Cafe, and recorded for its label. Walker influenced B.B. King and Buddy Guy; and, as the guitarist Duke Robillard put it to NPR, “Chuck Berry just took T-Bone’s style and put it to a different beat.” Walker is one of the influences Berry cites in Secrets From the Masters; alongside Walker he places Illinois Jacquet, whose loud, rough solo in his 1942 version of “Flying Home” is considered an important foundation for R&B. (Like Walker, Jacquet was also a Texan.)

Berry loved Muddy Waters, whose guitar sound has echoes in Jacquet’s noise, but his major influences were at the border of blues and jazz. And the man that laid down Berry’s beat, Fred Below, was a highly trained jazz drummer turned self-taught blues drummer.

Together they actually played some jazz for Chess, like the Count Basie cover “One O’Clock Jump"…

They also did a weird, rockabilly-ish cover of “How High the Moon"…

…and a dated-sounding cover of Frankie Lane’s "That’s My Desire” that owes to another of Berry’s debts, the loungey diction of Nat King Cole.

All those bits and pieces are floating around when Berry and his Chess session players put together “Johnny B. Goode.” Here’s how legendary drummer Steve Smith puts the pieces together:

[I]f you listen to the early recordings of jazz, rhythm and blues, country, gospel, blues or rock ‘n roll, it’s all swing…. It’s a later development where things started to get a little more straight eighth note oriented, which comes out of the boogie woogie piano influence. And that’s a long transition. You can hear records where Little Richard is playing more even eighth notes on piano while Earl Palmer is still playing with a shuffle swing feel underneath. But eventually the drummers started to play more and more with the piano players and then the guitar players also began to imitate the piano sound with a more straight eighth feel. Listen to Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.” Fred Below is the drummer on that and he’s playing swing with a backbeat against the straight eighth guitar.

Or Below himself, talking with Scott K. Fish:

[W]hen I got in, being a musician that went to school, I had to listen and learn to play what they [blues musicians] was playing. And then stretch it out for my own self.

Then, by me doing that, I developed a beat. And they call it the backbeat — which is instrumental right today. The guys play it now and don’t even know what they playing. They call it rock and roll or that syncopated rhythm. Well, I had been playing that since about 1949 or ’50. And this is what I knew then — what the guys are playing right here in 1980…. See, I had gone in and started playing jazz, but I had to play it in a way that the blues musicians were able to feel it.

You can hear Below’s drums a bit better in this alternate take of “Johnny B. Goode,” which doesn’t have the guitar overdubs.

The music journalist Francis Davis makes a connection from Below to rock in describing his contribution to Muddy Waters’s “I’m Ready”: “What rocks the song—what links it to Berry and the British Invasion—is Below’s proto-backbeat: those jazzlike fills and bass drum syncopations which are somehow both heavy and light, and in marked contrast to the emphatic but metronomic timekeeping on Muddy’s first few records with drummers…. Thanks to Muddy, it had that gravel that the Beatles and Rolling Stones later wanted in their own music, and in their own lives. Thanks to Below, it also had that thump.”

Waters’s story is closer to the usual story of Chicago music: a Delta blues singer who came north to Chicago to make money, and who plugged in and made history. Chuck Berry’s story is a bit different: he was a middle-class city kid (his father was a contractor and his mother a school principal) who brought sounds from farther north on the Mississippi, as well as his own deep grounding in popular music, to the city. And he created a different sound from that mix, layering his jazz influences over Waters’s sound. But in its own way, it’s still Chicago music.

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