I was listening to Johnny. B. Goode last week, a song that I have played at least a thousand times and have become a bit guilty of finding it, the most unfair criticism of any song, “overplayed”. Chuck Berry has also become a bit tired of playing it however, refusing to play it when I saw him a few years ago (though he may have been in the middle of a court case about it to be fair!). Anyhow, as I was listening I started to think about the words and realised that I had no idea who this Johnny actually was, and was listening to a story that tells you enough to want to know more about this boy, but not really who he actually is.
It turns out that Johnny.B.Goode is actually a semi-autobiographical of a young Chuck Berry. Written in 1955 at the age of 29 and recorded and released three years later in 1958 (produced by Leonard and Phil Chess), the song is about a poor boy from the deep south who couldn’t read or write but found fame and fortune through his guitar. Berry was actually from Goode Street, St.Louis in the mid West and was pretty well read.
So why the name, Johnny. B. Goode? Johnny came from Chuck Berry’s keyboardist, Johnnie Johnson, whilst Goode came from the previously mentioned street on which he grew up. The song is very much a twelve bar rock-n-roll song with typical guitar breaks and a driving backbeat though interestingly if you listen carefully the drum part is swung against the straight guitar part. In the nature of a good artist borrowing and a great artist stealing, both of the guitar breaks were heavily influenced, if not lifted, from Louis Jordan’s Ain’t that just like a Woman, a big-band jazz tune.
So, despite a few autobiographical discrepancies the song is fundamentally autobiographical and even has a sequel in the form of “Bye, bye, Johnny” in which Johnny leaves on the Greyhound bus, heads West and finds fame and love. He actually used the character, Johnny, in some form in over thirty songs also including Go Go Go and Johnny.B.Blues.
Chuck Berry hasn’t had the most straightforward of careers or lives, but this is an interesting insight into his early life, though perhaps slightly over-simplified compared to how it has actually turned out.