In the 1950s, the suburban ideal dominated: after the sufferings of the Great Depression and the losses and gains of World War II, it seemed like plenty of Americans were content to move to the suburbs, drive new cars, and watch the rest of the world happen on the telly. But underneath all that contentedness, there was something else rumbling. The Civil Rights movement emerged to point out how African Americans were excluded from that suburban dream. Black kids were unwilling to tolerate the oppression they and their parents had lived with for so long under Jim Crow laws. At the same time, plenty of white kids were antsy, bored, and frustrated with the buttoned-up version of life they were presented with. Underneath all that calm, smiley "Leave It To Beaver" stuff, a rebellion was in the works. The soundtrack of the rebellion? A new-fangled music called rock n' roll.
Chuck Berry was one of the African-American stars whose string of rock hits in the late 1950s was all about youth culture: sex, love, cool cars, and skipping school featured large in his lyrics, which he wrote to try to reach an interracial audience. Like other rock n' rollers of his time, Berry's image flew in the face of the white suburban values that dominated American culture. He was a sexy young black man who'd grown up poor and spent time in prison before making it big as a musician—not the most "respectable" line of work from the white suburban perspective. But "Johnny B. Goode," perhaps his most enduring hit, is hardly a song of rebellion. It's all about another version of the contradictory American Dream: a little country boy dreams about escaping the rural life for the big city, rocking out until he gets discovered, and seeing his name in lights. It's a story we've all heard before, and it's also, in a sense, Chuck Berry's story:
"I guess my mother has the right to be the source of 'Johnny B. Goode' as any other contender in that she was the one who repeatedly commented that I would be a millionaire someday... 'Johnny' in the song is more or less myself although I wrote it intending it to be a song for Johnnie Johnson," he writes in his 1986 autobiography. "I altered the predictions that my mother made of me and created a story that paralleled."
"Johnny B. Goode" is a heartfelt story of a kid who comes up through a hard life and succeeds based on talent and drive—the feeling summed up by the refrain "go, Johnny go!" Berry challenged one version of the American dream, but he helped create another: Johnny B. Goode's flashy hopes are a rock n' roll version of the hopes and fears of a kid who wants to "make it" somehow. Instead of growing up to be a middle-class businessman or a civil servant with a pension, now kids could day-dream about being celebrities, singing to crowds in Vegas, and having their faces on TV. It was the 1950s and the rock star was on the rise.
Berry's own origins were also not quite as Lincoln Log as the "Johnny" character of his imagination. He was born in St. Louis in 1926, deep in the Jim Crow era, and grew up in a working and middle-class black neighborhood known as "The Ville." The Ville was a source of pride for the black community because it was one of few areas in the city where African-Americans could own property (as described here). His mother was a schoolteacher and his father worked as a carpenter, often fixing homes in nearby white neighborhoods. St. Louis was highly segregated, but the Berrys were proud of their African American and Native American ancestry and taught Chuck and his five brothers and sisters to share that pride.
Berry sang in his Baptist church choir and listened to blues and country music on the radio. He learned to play the guitar in the early 1940s at Sumner High School, the first all-black school west of the Mississippi. After a stint in prison over an armed car robbery kept Berry locked up until age 21, he launched a music career in 1948. Young black people with musical aspirations had limited outlets, and success was hard to come by. In the early 1950s, Berry played shows six nights a week but kept a day job as a carpenter. He also did stints as a hairdresser, a janitor, and a painter.
The name "Johnny" in "Johnny B. Goode" actually comes from Berry's earliest muse and mentor, pianist Johnnie Johnson. Berry found Johnson playing a wild new mix of boogie-woogie and blues as the "Sir John Trio" at an all-black club called the Cosmopolitan (integrated music venues did not yet exist in St. Louis). The young Chuck, full of showmanship and energy, joined the trio, quickly picked up many of Johnson's tricks and adapted them for the guitar, and then changed the band's name to the "Chuck Berry Trio"—fine by Johnson, because Chuck had a charm that made him a great front man even if many of the musical ideas came from Johnnie.
Berry was on the verge of success, and he paired a heavy dose of talent with a conservative business sense. As he tells it, during his days at the Cosmo he still made more money painting houses than playing music. A penny-pincher by nature, he still admits that it was money that drove him to a career in music: "When the money got larger I put the paintbrush down."
It's a good thing he did put the paintbrush down. Chuck Berry had something to give the world that a lot of folks had never heard before. He had been influenced by country music as much as blues, and when a lot of people first heard him, the big shocker was that he was a black guy singing "hillbilly music" (ironically, hillbilly, country and the blues share some of the same roots…but that's another story). He was the electric blues mixed with the excitement of kids driving fast cars, chasing trouble, and dancing in ways their parents never dreamed of. And on top of that, he was dashing, personable, and a little bit gimmicky. His energetic live shows and his famous "duck walk," along with great guitar licks and an original style, gradually drove him towards fame.
Berry's career really took off in 1955 when he got in contact with some well-networked entrepreneurs, harbingers of their own American dream: Phil and Leonard Chess of Chess Records. The Chicago-based label had made a name for itself by selling audiences on the electric blues. The label's signature style of rocking to the blues through newfangled amplification spread fast among black audiences, and later on the Chicago blues got popular with white audiences too. The Chess brothers were Jewish Polish immigrants with a sharp business sense, becoming some of the first producers in the nation to push blues to an interracial audience. They were deeply involved in their label's music and image, creating a sound and legacy that became known around the world. They signed Muddy Waters in 1947, and other big blues names like Willie Dixon, Howlin' Wolf and Little Walter did most of their important work on Chess. When Leonard Chess heard Chuck Berry, he knew he had a sound that no one else could replicate. He signed Chuck immediately, and Berry's first release on Chess ("Maybelline") was a quick hit. During that era, Chess also signed Bo Diddley and later Etta James. The Rolling Stones—big fans of Muddy Waters and Chicago blues—made an early recording of "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" in the Chess studio. When Berry met Muddy Waters on a random vacation to Chicago, Berry had stumbled into one of the centers of early rock n' roll.
The year that Chuck Berry met Leonard Chess could easily be described as the year of rock n' roll. James Dean's Rebel Without A Cause became a film sensation. Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and
Berry entered the fray with a series of hits from "Maybelline" to "Sweet Little Sixteen" to "Johnny B. Goode," a top-ten charting song in 1958. He was living the dream that "Johnny B. Goode" sings about: buying cars, touring the fifty states, and even starting one of the first racially integrated performance venues in St. Louis. He was a brilliant musician, and the boogie-woogie driven guitar riffs in "Johnny B. Goode" quickly became rock n' roll signatures. But he was also business-minded, always collecting his pay in cash at the start of a gig even when he started making upwards of $10,000 a night. In fact, Berry developed a reputation for traveling alone without an entourage, driving his own car rather than paying a driver, and playing with a pick-up band in every new town to avoid the trouble of bringing a band of his own. (He was once backed by Bruce Springsteen before Bruce got his break. Springsteen says the rumor was that Chuck collected $11,000 in cash at the start of the night, and at the end of the night he'd give a grand back if the band was good and the equipment worked.) It seems in Berry's mind that part of the "Go, Johnny, go!" mentality was to be sparing and cautious—not really our image of the reckless rocker in the style of Kurt Cobain.
If rock n' roll is sometimes in conflict with the mainstream vision of the American dream, Chuck Berry's early rock bridged the gap. He influenced generations of musicians (including the Rolling Stones and the Beatles) with unforgettable musical phrases and distinctive styles. But he also kept his head above water and avoided descending into addiction or depression, despite facing discrimination and a dramatic imprisonment at the peak of his career (see "Sweet Little Sixteen" for that story). He watched his finances closely and stayed in control of his career. As a black man trying to make a name in a white world, Berry could not afford to slip into sloppiness.
The Rock N' Roll Hall of Fame sums up Berry's contribution this way: "While no individual can be said to have invented rock and roll, Chuck Berry comes the closest of any single figure to being the one who put all the essential pieces together." Nowadays, Berry is more than an influence—he's an icon. He's one of the many co-conspirators and architects whose music, sexuality and sass changed the world. He is also a part of that youthful daydream of fame and fortune, the rock n' roll version of an ever-changing "American dream." According to the Hall of Fame, "Berry gave rock and roll an archetypal character in 'Johnny B. Goode.'" He lived out a new kind of American dream, one that said that young black men with poor parents could become superstars, drive Cadillacs, and see their names lit up on the marquees of places where they'd once been turned away based on skin color. Along with the other black musicians who struggled to get ahead, he had to write the script for a new kind of success story. The script's refrain? "Go, Johnny, go!"