American Culture

Chuck Berry and the Beatles: standing on the shoulders of a giant and all that…

According to one source, the Beatles covered at least 15 Chuck Berry songs.

“If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’.” – John Lennon

Chuck Berry (image courtesy Rolling Stone)

I had planned to write an essay this week about George Harrison’s brilliant synthesis of rock and Indian music, “Within You, Without You.” That plan changed suddenly with the sad news of Chuck Berry’s death.

Check that.

What made me change my mind was the Chuck Berry obituary/tribute posted at Rolling Stone. In an essay of several hundred words, the Rolling Stone writer gave a long list of bands who covered Berry songs and who were influenced by him. While the Rolling Stones and Beach Boys got plenty of mention (and rightfully so), the Beatles weren’t mentioned at all. That is an oversight, to paraphrase (possibly) Churchill, up with which I cannot put.

See the above John Lennon quote. We can go from there.

According to one source, the Beatles covered at least 15 Chuck Berry songs. That’s a pretty large number, so I’ll focus on the two Berry covers that appear on early Beatles albums. These are the songs that the Fabs loved enough (and thought well enough of their versions) to take into the studio.

The first is “Roll Over Beethoven.” It appears on both the British release With the Beatles and the American release The Beatles Second Album. The studio version puts the spotlight on George who both sings the lead vocal and plays lead guitar. Here they are performing the tune live at the BBC:

Chuck’s song, a paean to listening to rock and roll on the radio, is a brilliant take on the the experience of a listener being thrilled by hearing a new song:

Roll Over Beethoven

I’m gonna write a little letter
Gonna mail it to my local DJ
It’s a rocking little record
I want my jockey to play
Roll over Beethoven
I gotta hear it again today

You know my temperature’s rising
And the jukebox’s blown a fuse
My heart’s beating rhythm
And my soul keeps a-singing the blues
Roll over Beethoven
And tell Tchaikovsky the news

I got a rocking pneumonia
I need a shot of rhythm and blues
I think I got it off the writer
Sittin’ down by the rhythm review
Roll over Beethoven
We’re rockin’ in two by two

Well if you feel you like it
Well get your lover and reel and rock it
Roll it over and move on up
Just a trifle further
And reel and rock it
Roll it over
Roll over Beethoven
A rocking in two by two

Well early in the morning
I’m a giving you the warning
Don’t you step on my blue suede shoes
Hey diddle diddle
Gonna play my fiddle
Ain’t got nothing to lose
Roll over Beethoven
And tell Tchaikovsky the news

You know she winks like a glow worm
Dance like a spinning top
She got a crazy partner
Oughta see them reel and rock
Long as she’s got a dime
The music will never stop

Roll over Beethoven
Roll over Beethoven
Roll over Beethoven
Roll over Beethoven
Roll over Beethoven
And dig to these rhythm and blues

The other studio cover of a Berry song is John’s rollicking rendition of “Rock and Roll Music” that appears on the British release Beatles for Sale and that I first heard on the American release Beatles ’65. Here it is in a decent quality version from Spotify:

Like “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Rock and Roll Music” is a paean to the power of rock and roll. Probably one of the reasons John liked the song so much was that Chuck Berry uses the lyrics to take a jab at jazz, a musical genre Lennon detested:

Rock and Roll Music

Just let me hear some of that rock and roll music
Any old way you choose it
It’s got a back beat, you can’t lose it
Any old time you use it
It’s gotta be rock roll music
If you wanna dance with me
If you wanna dance with me

I’ve got no kick against modern jazz
Unless they try to play it too darn fast
And lose the beauty of the melody
Until they sound just like a symphony

That’s why I go for that rock and roll music
Any old way you choose it
It’s got a back beat, you can’t lose it
Any old time you use it
It’s gotta be rock and roll music
If you wanna dance with me
If you wanna dance with me

I took my lover on over ‘cross the tracks
So she can hear my man awail a sax
I must admit they have a rocking band
Man, they were blowing like a hurricane

That’s why I go for that rock and roll music
Any old way you choose it
It’s got a back beat, you can’t lose it
Any old time you use it
It’s gotta be rock and roll music
If you wanna dance with me
If you wanna dance with me

Way down south they had a jubilee
Them Georgia folks they had a jamboree
They’re drinking home brew from a wooden cup
The folks are dancing, they got all shook up

And started playing that rock and roll music
Any old time you use it
It’s got a back beat, you can’t lose it
Any old time you use it
It’s gotta be rock and roll music
If you wanna dance with me
If you wanna dance with me

Don’t care to hear ’em play a tango
I’m in the mood to take a mambo
It’s way too early for a congo
So keep on rocking that piano

That’s why I go for that rock and roll music
Any old time you use it
It’s got a back beat, you can’t lose it
Any old time you use it
It’s gotta be rock and roll music
If you wanna dance with me
If you wanna dance with me

John Lennon and Chuck Berry (image courtesy Beatles Photo Blog)

There don’t seem to be any pictures of the Beatles with  Chuck. But there’s this great picture of Chuck and John together as they perform another Berry classic, “Johnnie B. Goode.” That seems fitting since John was perhaps the Beatle with the deepest affection for Chuck. And they look like they’re having a great time.

We all know that many artists talk about the debt they owe to the Beatles. Perhaps they use a favorite phrase of a friend of mine and ascribe their success to “standing on the shoulders of giants,” as Sir Isaac Newton described his work.

One suspects that the Beatles would say they stood on the giant shoulders of Chuck Berry.

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