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This song is based on Berry's life. It tells the tale of a boy with humble beginnings with a talent for guitar. Some details were changed: Berry was from St. Louis, not Louisiana, and he knew how to read and write very well. He graduated from beauty school with a degree in hairdressing and cosmetology.
The line, "That little country boy could play" was originally, "That little colored boy can play." Berry knew he had to change it if he wanted the song played on the radio.
Berry got the name "Johnny" from Johnnie Johnson, a piano player who collaborated with Berry on many songs, including "Maybellene
," "Roll Over Beethoven" and "Sweet Little 16." Johnson often wrote the songs on piano, and then Berry converted them to guitar and wrote lyrics. Berry joined Johnson's group, The Sir John Trio, in 1953, and quickly became the lead singer and centerpiece of the band.
Johnson was very well-respected among many musicians. He played with Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, John Lee Hooker and many others before his death at age 80 in 2005.
Berry lifted some guitar licks for this song: the intro came from the Louis Jordan song "Ain't That Just Like A Woman
," and the guitar break came from a 1950 T-Bone Walker song called "Strollin' With Bones." Jordan was a very influential R&B singer and a huge influence on Berry; Walker was a famous guitarist in the '40s and early '50s who came up with an electric guitar sound and raucous stage act that Berry incorporated.
Berry got the word "Goode" from the street in St. Louis where he grew up. He lived at 2520 Goode Avenue, which in 1986 was renamed Annie Malone Drive after the woman who financed a children's home on the street.
In 2000, Johnnie Johnson sued Berry, claiming that he never got credit for helping write many of Berry's hits, including this. The case was dismissed in 2002, with the judge ruling that too much time passed between the writing of the songs and the lawsuit.
This song is a great example of the care and precision Berry used when writing and delivering his lyrics. He wanted the words to his songs to tell a story and stand on their own, and took care to clearly enunciate so listeners could understand them. Many of the Country and Blues singers who preceded Berry weren't so clear with the words.
In 1981, Keith Richards went backstage at a Chuck Berry show in New York. Not knowing who he was and thinking he was an annoying fan, Berry punched him, which wasn't out of character for the sometimes-prickly Berry. Richards later said: "I love his work, but I couldn't warm to him even if I was cremated next to him."
Berry recorded a sequel to this song called "Bye Bye Johnny," which tells the story of Johnny as a grown man.
Johnny Winter played this at the Woodstock festival in 1969.
At the Summer Jam in Watkins Glen, NY in 1973, The Band, The Allman Brothers and The Grateful Dead played this as an encore. It was the largest rock concert ever, with about 600,000 people attending.
This was featured in the 1985 movie Back To The Future. Michael J. Fox' character goes back in time and plays it to a stunned crowd as Marvin Berry looks on. Marvin rings his cousin, Chuck, saying that he thinks he has found the new style he is looking for, then points the telephone so that it catches most of the music coming from Marty McFly. This scene produced a classic line when McFly comes on stage and tells the band, "It's a Blues riff in B, watch me for the changes, and try to keep up."
This has been covered by Peter Tosh, Jimi Hendrix, and The Beatles.
The Sex Pistols covered this in a medley with "Roadrunner."
In 1977, NASA sent a copy of this on the Voyager space probe as part of a package that was meant to represent the best in American culture. Someday, aliens could find it and discover Chuck Berry. (thanks, Antonio - Orlando, FL)
In 1991 Johnnie Johnson released his first solo album: Johnnie B. Bad.
In 2004, John Kerry used this as his theme song at most of his campaign events when he was running for president of the US. In 2008, John McCain used the song in his successful run for the Republican nomination, but phased it out and began using ABBA's "Take A Chance On Me
." Chuck Berry made it clear that he supported McCain's opponent, Barack Obama. (thanks, Bertrand - Paris, France)
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