Chuck Berry (www.kikapress.com)
Rock guitar pioneers including George Harrison, Keith Richards, and Eric Clapton have proudly admitted that they honed their style and developed their chops by emulating Chuck Berry, who died at his home on Saturday, March 18, at the age of 90. But many players from the British Invasion did more than adopt Berry’s 12-bar blues shuffle and his twangy Chicago blues solos. They gleefully covered his songs, as did dozens of other musicians through the decades, from Simon and Garfunkel to Motörhead.
Here are some of the most memorable:
The Beatles: “Roll Over Beethoven”
Even after they made their mark on the world with their own music, the Beatles continue to sing Chuck Berry’s praises. John Lennon once said, “If you tried to give rock ‘n’ roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry.’” In addition to including “Roll Over Beethoven” in many of their early sets, they recorded a studio version of the track, which became the opener of their 1964 album The Beatles’ Second Album.
The Beatles: “Rock and Roll Music”
While “Roll Over Beethoven” is the Beatles’ most famous Chuck Berry cover, they started playing the more raucous “Rock and Roll Music” in 1957 when they were still called the Quarrymen. The band played the song for eight years, spanning from 1959 to 1966, and recorded the track for the album Beatles ’65. The only tune they played more regularly in their early years was “Long Tall Sally.” It’s easy to see why: The propulsive chug of George Harrison’s and John Lennon’s guitars, along with the latter’s shouty vocals, make for a mighty explosive two minutes and 30 seconds.
The Rolling Stones: “Come On”
The Rolling Stones were so enamored of Chuck Berry and his raggedly blues approach to early rock ‘n’ roll that they chose to release Berry’s “Come On” as their first single in 1964, only two years after Berry put it out. “Come On” has since been released on numerous compilation albums between 1972 and 2012. The cover is far cleaner sounding than many of the Stones’ originals, and includes Mick Jagger’s trademark swagger plus a wonderfully moaning harmonica lead.
The Rolling Stones: “Bye Bye Johnny”
While they faithfully covered Berry’s classic “Johnny B. Goode,” the Stones possibly had even greater success with the song’s sequel, “Bye Bye Johnny.” Appearing for the first time on the 1964 EP The Rolling Stones, the song is ragged and raw; driven by Jagger’s edgy sneer, the fiery guitar interplay between Keith Richards and Brian Jones, and the bobbing bass of Bill Wyman locking with the steady hand of Charlie Watts.
Jimi Hendrix: “Johnny B. Goode”
Just one of many takes on Berry’s trademark song that Jimi Hendrix performed during his career, this one took place in 1970 at the Berkeley Community Center in Berkeley, Calif., and displays Hendrix’s masterful juxtaposition of composed performance and unhinged exploration. When he’s singing the verses, he sounds commanding and plays in tight, rhythmic down strokes. But when he launches into showman mode and blazes through his mind-bending solos, Hendrix proves why he was one of the best musicians ever to pick up a guitar.
The Yardbirds: “Too Much Monkey Business”
Berry’s fifth single for Chess Records was given an amped-up makeover by the Yardbirds at their 1964 Marquee Club concert. The song was later included on the album Five Live Yardbirds. As commanding as Keith Relf sounds on vocals, Eric Clapton steals the show, starting with a deft jangly intro and injecting emotive, string-bending fills and two searing guitar solos into the speedy, groove-laden song.
Motörhead: “Let It Rock”
In addition to being a huge fan of the Beatles and Little Richard, Motörhead’s late bassist and vocalist Lemmy Kilmister was a huge fan of Chuck Berry. In 1991, while promoting his band’s album 1916, Motörhead appeared on Late Night With David Letterman and played what might be the heaviest, most bruising Berry cover ever recorded. Lemmy sang in his gritty, gruff vocal style, while Phil Taylor and Würzel gave the guitar parts extra bite. “OK, that was great, but if you boys ever do that again, we’re going to have to close the teen center,” said Letterman after the performance.
The Beach Boys: “School Days”
It’s interesting that the Beach Boys would include Berry’s 1957 single “School Days” in their 1980 and 1981 sets, considering the history they had with him. When the Beach Boys released “Surfin’ USA,” Berry sued them and won a songwriting credit because it closely resembled his song “Sweet Little Sixteen.” Apparently, the Beach Boys forgave him, and in 1981 they delivered a stirring version of “School Days” in Long Beach, Calif. They started with an a cappella intro and then launched into a venerable tribute that matched Berry’s up-tempo delivery and chugging guitars, with the addition of their own trademark vocal harmonies.
Simon & Garfunkel: “Maybelline”
After performing “Kodachrome” for their 1982 Concert in Central Park, Simon & Garfunkel blended the song into a version of Berry’s 1955 hit “Maybelline.” While the guitar parts lacked the ragged chug and feral lead guitar Berry was best known for, the addition of horns and vocal harmonies made for a praiseworthy addition to the hordes of acts that have covered the rock ‘n’ roll pioneer, demonstrating just how broad his influence was.
Bruce Springsteen: “You Never Can Tell”
In 2013, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band decided to play a bunch of songs they hadn’t done in years. One of them was Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell,” a track he wrote in the early ‘60s while in prison for transporting a 14-year-old girl across state lines, allegedly for immoral or illegal purposes. Despite its origins, the song became popular and was placed in several movies and TV shows, including Pulp Fiction, MTV’s Scream, The Big Bang Theory, and Gilmore Girls. Once he warmed up his voice and cued the horn section what to play, the Boss and his band navigated the upbeat song as if they’d never stopped playing it. The piano solo was stirring, and even the horns nailed their parts.
Wanda Jackson: “Memphis Tennessee”
Turning a blues-based track into a sultry, drawling country-pop tune, Wanda Jackson clearly had fun with this cover, diverging from her rockabilly roots for a few minutes to bask in twangy guitar, jaunty piano, and “ah-oh” background vocals.
Judas Priest: “Johnny B. Goode”
One of the most original takes on Berry’s signature tune came from Birmingham, England, metal legends Judas Priest, who released their own blaring interpretation on their 1988 album, Ram It Down. While the song is clearly recognizable, it’s treated with so many structural embellishments and so much metallic guitar crunch that the band members pretty much make it their own. Rob Halford delivers the vocals in a histrionic, high-pitched wail, and the guitar solos are complete heavy-metal thunder — which was clearly the point.