A St. Louis, Missouri native, guitarist Chuck Berry would make the move to Chicago and join the famed Chess Records roster alongside Muddy Waters in 1955. The performer went on to revolutionize the rock genre we know today. Long considered to be rock and roll’s first hero, Berry not only took the guitar out of rhythmic shadows and made it a solo instrument, but his songwriting style would turn into a formula many bands and artists would use to score hits of their own for generations to come.
An inductee in the first class of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he influenced countless musicians who are blues, rock, and pop favorites, including Stevie Ray Vaughan, The Rolling Stones, and The Beatles. Known for his love of fast cars and as the perfector of the on-stage “duck walk,” here’s our pick of the best Chuck Berry songs.
14. Brown Eyed Handsome Man
Clocking in at less than 2:30 minutes, ‘Brown Eyed Handsome Man’ might be short, but it packs a big punch with six verses. Building on the song title’s metaphor, rock ‘n roll pioneer Chuck Berry uses the lyrics to describe the vast landscape of all different types of male figures across America, from those residing in areas full of civil unrest to historic figures like baseball player Jackie Robinson. Robinson’s dedicated verse happens last, with Berry singing about the former Dodgers player hitting a home run. This is just one of several Chuck Berry tunes that would go on to shape the direction rock and roll went in. It inspired Creedence Clearwater Revival frontman John Fogerty’s song, ‘Centerfield,’ and before he passed away Buddy Holly recorded a cover of the track as well that was released posthumously.
13. Thirty Days
Berry’s music was full of comedic wit and sometimes-dark sentiments. He let his guitar and the drum beat drive the song as he spun stories about failed relationships, doing hard time, and trying to get by in a world full of chaos. In ‘Thirty Days,’ listeners find the guitarist singing about a lover who’s left him, but he’s not giving up on her. The lyrics don’t take a romantic twist though. Berry admits if she doesn’t come back to him within “thirty days,” he’s going to cast a bed spell on her by sending out a “worldwide hoodoo.” Though the song deals with an already rocky relationship gone bad, music critics have also stated this 1955 single release was also written by Berry as a tribute to country music’s original bad boy, Hank Williams.
12. Too Much Monkey Business
So many artists were influenced by Chuck Berry, including Bob Dylan, who was especially fond of the rock and roller’s lyrical abilities. A simple song about a bad day that anyone can have, ‘Too Much Monkey Business’ features Berry singing so many lyrics it becomes a bit of a rap piece. Dylan loved this technique, and applied it to his own song, fan-favorite ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues,’ which features lyrics with a particularly melodic, fast-paced beat. Berry also loved to occasionally throw in words that he made up. In this case, he uses the creative line, “I don’t want your botheration,” when talking about needing to get away from the daily work grind.
11. Sweet Little Sixteen
A big hit for Berry in 1958, if one listen to ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’ has you also singing The Beach Boys’ ‘Surfin’ U.S.A,’ you’re not crazy. The Beach Boys’ big hit features a near carbon copy melody to this Chuck Berry classic. It was so close, a lawsuit even ensued, but the vocal group sidestepped it by giving Berry a songwriting credit on their track. Chuck wrote the fast-paced shuffle while on tour when he met a young fan who insisted on getting each act’s autograph. The teenager’s interest in his music made him realize he could reach a wider audience, so he penned this track in effort to appeal to younger audiences.
10. My Mustang Ford
By the time ‘My Mustang Ford’ was released in 1965, not only had Chuck Berry settled into his signature rock and roll sound, but he had spent the ’50s influencing the genre and ushering it forward into a new decade. This blues-inspired rock single is an ode to one of America’s most beloved sports cars, the Ford Mustang. Known as “the car of the ’60s,’ the Mustang debuted in 1964 and record sales followed. In keeping with the car’s lightning speed, Berry opens up the tribute track with some throttled up hot licks on his Gibson guitar nicknamed “Maybellene” (more on that later). Berry takes listeners on a wild ride with this tune as he sings about all the antics he gets into while spinning the wheels of his cherry red pony.
9. School Day
One of Berry’s most iconic lines is hidden in this popular track towards the end when he proclaims, “Hail, hail rock and roll.” It’s such a popular line, many refer to the song with that title, and indie duo Shovels and Rope even have a song titled ‘Hail, Hail’ in honor of the Father of Rock and Roll. A rollicking tune about getting through the day so you can head to a juke joint and get down to some rock and roll, Berry wrote the single to help reach younger audiences who were enthralled with the rock genre he pioneered. Though he was in his ’30s at the time, he felt school hadn’t changed too much since he attended, so he chose to write about the educational experience in order to connect with high schoolers. He lays down some pretty nasty licks in between lyrics for this tune, and at about 1:34, he rips into a classic Berry solo.
8. Havana Moon
We take a little detour with this Latin-inspired gem, and it’s a fan favorite among Berry enthusiasts. Featuring a syncopated beat and guitar stylings that mimic the flow of water, Chuck paints a forlorn picture of the distance between two people, one residing in America and one residing in Cuba. The rocker traveled quite a bit in the ’50s while performing and recording for his label Chess Records. He first became inspired to write ‘Havana Moon’ while being exposed to all different types of music during his residency in St. Louis at a popular music club. When he traveled to New York and spent time around the Cuban culture for the first time, the song’s lyrical story took shape.
7. Route 66
Nat King Cole first popularized this lighthearted standard shortly after it was written by Bobby Troup in 1946. Cole’s version became a hit and as a result quite a few artists decided to cover it, including Chuck Berry. His rendition is especially jovial, with ragtime-style piano dancing in the background and his smooth vocals setting an easy tone. The famous route in the song first became a cultural icon thanks to John Steinbeck’s classic novel, The Grapes of Wrath. In the story, Route 66 was known as the way to “the promised land,” which took people from the depths of the 1930s dust bowl that ravaged midwest American farmland and transported them to Chicago. Unfortunately, due to The Great Depression, Chicago wasn’t much better off. Despite the route’s heartbreaking history, the song ‘Route 66’ is a fun number that respresents the freedom of the open road and better days ahead. The Stones loved Berry’s classic take so much they covered it themselves and it became a wildly successful track from their debut album.
6. Rock And Roll Music
One of the early rock genre’s premier songs, ‘Rock and Roll Music’ wasn’t just a fan favorite among Chuck Berry listeners, but an artist favorite as well among fledgling rockers. The Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards was especially fond of Berry’s guitar playing, and they often covered this uptempo track at their early shows. The tune is infectious, featuring a man who is so in love with rock and roll he won’t dance to anything else. It’s one of those tracks that went on to define what “rock music” is, wailing piano in the background, screaming guitar, and “a back beat you can’t lose.”
5. Roll Over Beethoven
Many may associate ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ with the loveable but whacky Saint Bernard from the hit ’90s film, Beethoven, which featured this top 40 Berry hit. But when Chuck wrote it in the ’50s, he had classical composers Ludwig van Beethoven and Tchaikovsky on the brain. As an innovator, he faced a lot of criticism early on from critics who felt rock music was just a passing trend, and that classical music would always reign supreme. Berry felt differently, and he understood the staying power genres like the blues, R&B, and rock could have. And that’s what he was thinking about when he wrote this culturally influential tune, which acts as an anthem of sorts, telling these classical composers to move over and let rock music do its thing. Aside from its hit status, it was also one of Berry’s most commercially successful tunes.
The first song he recorded for his Chicaco label, Chess Records, ‘Maybellene’ is known as one of rock’s most important works, but it has a distinctly country feel. Berry used the tune ‘Ida Red’ by Bob Wills & The Texas Playboys as inspiration for his own number one R&B hit. The single tells the story of a man with a fast car, Berry’s favorite Ford V8 to be more exact, and the trouble he goes through trying to track down his girl who’s running around on him. Not only did the song’s subject matter become a textbook songwriting formula for countless rock hits, but the tune’s driving rhythm would become an essential feature of the evolving rock genre as well. Also the nickname of Berry’s tried-and-true Gibson guitar, ‘Maybellene’ is one of the guitarist’s most important contributions to rock and roll history.
3. No Particular Place To Go
A few times in his life Berry was faced with doing time in the slammer. While riding out his sentences he made sure to use his time wisely. During one of his stints, he wrote ‘No Particular Place To Go,’ an instant rock classic that has a slight melancholy undertone to it despite its uptempo rhythm and lyrics celebrating living the fast life with a pretty girl by your side. It was a top ten hit, and became one of Chuck’s signature tunes that’s been endlessly covered and used in all types of media including commercials. Featuring his instantly recognizable chiseled guitar work and frenetic performance, it’s easy to love this trademark Chuck Berry tune.
2. You Never Can Tell
“It was a teenage wedding, and the old folks wished them well.” You may remember the iconic Pulp Fiction scene featuring this song as Uma Thurman and John Travolta share a strange, somewhat haphazard dance together in the Quentin Tarantino cult classic. ‘You Can Never Tell’ contains a couple of famous lines people have often repeated in shows and books to make a metaphorical point, one of those being, “C’est la vie… it goes to show you never can tell.” With this hit, Berry proved even after he had to serve time in the slammer yet again, he could still pen rock masterpieces like no other. Though many songs about young love feature a tragic ending, for this number, Berry took a different and surprising approach with the couple in the song living happily ever after. With a rock-and-roll-obsessed teenage audience, he knew the story’s plot twist would appeal to starry-eyed young listeners.
1. Johnny B. Goode
With T-Bone Walker inspired guitar licks (the blues musician heavily influenced Berry’s sound and stage prescence) and autobiographical lyrics, our top pick for the best Chuck Berry songs tells his coming-of-age story, though a few details were changed to make the song a bit more commercially appealing. Those in the biz call that “creative license.” In this signature release, ‘Johnny B. Goode’ is actually Berry, and he came up with the moniker with his co-collaborator and pianist Johnnie Johnson, who worked with him on many hits. The song tells the story of a poor boy who grew up with no direction and no real opportunities until he picked up a guitar. With the first notes strummed, the young boy’s life changed and he grew up to become a famous guitar player (sound familiar?). Not only is this perhaps Berry’s most recognizable effort, but it’s a rock standard, and continues to influence the genre to this day. The song has even been touring the cosmos since 1977, when it was sent as part of a collection of “culturally significant” music atop the Voyager Space probe so that alien life could get a sense of Earth’s artistic tastes if they came across our NASA craft.