On Chuck Berry's Birthday, A Crash Course In His Music

Oct 18, 2016
Originally published on October 18, 2016 5:44 pm

Chuck Berry turns 90 Tuesday. I know he's a very important person in music history, but he's never been a guy I listened to much. I mean, I've heard hits like "Maybellene" from 1955, but I wanted to learn more.

So I called Tony Trov. He's an artist out of Philadelphia, but more important, he plays in a Chuck Berry cover band called It's Marvin, Your Cousin Marvin Berry, a reference to a memorable scene in Back to the Future.

Trov couldn't comprehend how I wasn't a fan. "I dunno, are you a communist?" he asks me. "How can you not like Chuck Berry music? It just doesn't make any sense to me."

So he recommended three songs — "Roll Over Beethoven," "Too Much Monkey Business" and "Maybellene" — and made a suggestion for how I should start my Chuck Berry education.

"I think you need to put yourself in the right environment," Trov says. "I think you need to drive across the country with a Chuck Berry tape, a crappy copy that you get at a gas station, and the open road."

I'm not an open-road kind of guy, so "Too Much Monkey Business" was more my speed: Its beleaguered, chip-on-your-shoulder attitude is somehow both specific and universal.

Then there's the sound that I most associate with Berry — the licks, like from "Roll Over Beethoven." Similar licks show up in hits like "Johnny B. Goode" and "Carol" — call it same-y, a callback or a signature.

Trov says this signature riff is pretty easy to play, which makes it attractive to new guitar players. You can pick it up, nail it and then feel like a god. "You make your amp loud enough, you can sound pretty good playing that riff," Trov says.

As for Berry himself, he's still at it at 90. He just announced a new record that's coming out next year — his first in 38 years.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Rock and roll pioneer Chuck Berry is 90 years old today.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAIL, HAIL, ROCK AND ROLL")

CHUCK BERRY: (Singing) Hail, hail rock and roll.

SIEGEL: For people of a certain age - I'm not naming any names - this music starts a rush of teenage memories. For people of younger ages, people for whom Bill Haley might as well have been an astronomer, Chuck Berry is just a name. In fact, before he did this story, NPR's Andrew Limbong was one of those people.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: I know Chuck Berry is a very important person in music history. But he's never been a guy I listen to much. I mean, I've heard hits like "Maybellene" from 1955.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAYBELLENE")

LIMBONG: But I wanted to learn more. So I called Tony Trov. He's an artist out of Philadelphia. More importantly...

TONY TROV: I play in a band called It's Marvin, Your Cousin Marvin Berry.

LIMBONG: That's a reference to a scene in "Back To The Future." He couldn't comprehend how I wasn't a fan.

TROV: I don't know where - are you a communist? How do you not - how can you not like Chuck Berry music? It just doesn't make any sense to me (laughter).

LIMBONG: So he recommended three songs, "Roll Over Beethoven," Too Much Monkey Business" and "Maybellene."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAYBELLENE")

BERRY: (Singing) The Cadillac pulled up ahead of the Ford. The Ford got hot and wouldn't do no more. It then got cloudy and started to rain. I tooted my horn for the passing lane.

TROV: I think you need to put yourself in the right environment. I think you need to drive across the country with (laughter) just a Chuck Berry tape. It's like a crappy copy that you get at a gas station - and the open road.

LIMBONG: I'm not an open-road kind of guy. So "Too Much Monkey Business" was more my speed. That sort of beleaguered, chip-on-your-shoulder attitude is somehow both specific and universal.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOO MUCH MONKEY BUSINESS")

BERRY: (Singing) Same thing every day - getting up, going to school. No need in me complaining. My objection's overruled. Too much monkey business, too much monkey business.

LIMBONG: Then there's the sound that I associate most with Chuck Berry, the licks, like from "Roll Over Beethoven."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROLL OVER BEETHOVEN")

LIMBONG: Similar licks show up in hits like "Johnny B Goode" and "Carol." Call it samey, a callback or a signature.

TROV: That riff is fun to play. And you can play it pretty easily. And I think it's attractive to new guitar players, too.

LIMBONG: Right. You pick it up and then nail it. And then you feel like a god. (Laughter) You know what I mean?

TROV: Yeah. Yeah. (Laughter). You make your amp loud enough - you can sound pretty good playing that riff.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAROL")

BERRY: (Singing) Oh, Carol.

LIMBONG: And he's still at it. At 90, Barry's just announced a new record that's coming out next year - his first in 38 years. Andrew Limbong, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAROL")

BERRY: (Singing) Climb into my machine so we can cruise on out. I know a swinging little joint where we can jump and shout. It's not too far back off the highway - not so long a ride. You park your car out in the open... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.