Category Archives: Roots of rock

Chuck Berry Johnny B Goode

Chuck Berry Johnny B Goode

released March 31, 1958

Chuck Berry Johnny B Goode
45 rpm of Johnny B Goode

“Johnny B Goode was not Chuck Berry’s first hit. He had topped the R & B charts with his first single, “Maybellene”  in 1955.  “Roll Over Beethoven” (1956) hit #2; “Too Much Monkey Business” (1956) #4; “School Day (Ring! Ring! Goes the Bell)” #1 in 1957.

And in 1957 he’d already had a R & B #1 with “Sweet Little Sixteen.”

Chuck Berry Johnny B Goode

Johnny B Goode

Berry’s “Johnny B Goode” was mostly autobiographical, though he was actually born in St Louis, not deep down in Louisiana close to New New Orleans way back up in the woods among the evergreens. But his St Louis street address was 2520 Goode Avenue. Love that trivia.

It is a song about the American Dream. It is about hope. That talent will prove out.

His mother told him “Someday you will be a man,
And you will be the leader of a big old band.
Many people coming from miles around
To hear you play your music when the sun go down
Maybe someday your name will be in lights
Saying “Johnny B. Goode tonight.”

The song has become American icon covered by dozens of performers and with Chuck’s sad death on March 18, 2017 we must carry his torch.

The song is ranked as number seven on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of “the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

Many write of the similarity of Johnny B Goode’s opening to Louis Jordan’s “Ain’t That Just Like a Woman.” You can decide.

Berry’s recording of the song was included on the Voyager Golden Record, attached to the Voyager spacecraft.

Keith Richards inducted Chuck Berry into the first Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on January 23, 1986.

His bio from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame sums up Chuck Berry’s contributions: 

While no individual can be said to have invented rock and roll, Berry arguably did more than anyone else to put the pieces together. As rock journalist Dave Marsh wrote, “Chuck Berry is to rock and roll what Louis Armstrong is to jazz.” On “Maybellene” – Berry’s first single, released in 1955 – he played country & western guitar licks over a base of rhythm & blues. The distorted sound of Berry’s guitar captured the rough, untamed spirit of rock and roll. The song included a brief but scorching solo built around his trademark double-string guitar licks. It kicked off Berry’s career in style and paved the way for a steady stream of classics over the next decade.

Berry died on March 18, 2017. (NYT obit)

Chuck Berry Johnny B Goode

Big Mama Thornton Hound Dog

Big Mama Thornton Hound Dog

Big Mama Thornton

December 11, 1926 – July 25, 1984
…and Sam Phillips’ answer to it
Big Mama Thornton Hound Dog
the label of the 78 rpm “Hound Dog”

Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton was 26 when Peacock Records released Hound Dog in March 1953.  Written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller in 1952, it spent seven weeks at number one on the Billboard R&B charts and sold almost two million copies. Big Mama saw very little of that money.

Big Mama Thornton Hound Dog
78 rpm of Rufus Thomas’s Bear Cat

If imitation is the highest form of flattery, then Sam Phillips, the young record maker and founder of Sun Records in Memphis, flattered Hound Dog by writing “Bear Cat.” He knew Rufus Thomas and decided he’d be the ideal person to sing the song.

Big Mama Thornton Hound Dog
Rufus Thomas as a DJ at WDIA in Memphis

Click below to hear “Bear Cat”:

Big Mama Thornton Hound Dog

Bear Cat

Though Rufus Thomas wasn’t familiar with the term, where Phillips grew up in Alabama, a bear cat was “the meanest goddamn woman in the world.

Thomas and Phillips knew they had not come close to the superior “Hound Dog” but were satisfied with the results and released it on March 22,  just a few weeks after the release of “Hound Dog.” Even the full title told you what you could obviously hear: “‘Bear Cat’ (The Answer to Hound Dog)”

“Bear Cat” was an immediate hit. The first in Sun Records young but turbulent history.

Big Mama Thornton Hound Dog

Answer songs

“Answer songs” were very popular and Sam Phillips innocently didn’t realize he had struck a hornet nest of problems by releasing the song without permission from Lion Musical Publishing Company which held the rights to “Hound Dog.”

Sam Phillips ended up writing a check to Lion and gave up all claims to the publishing.

 “Bear Cat” eventually reached #3 on the R & B charts and did not leave the charts until June.

Big Mama Thornton Hound Dog

Hound Dog

Of course, three years later a young white singer named Elvis and his cover of “Hound Dog” would forever displace Thornton’s version.

Ironically, Big Mama would write (in 1961) and release (in 1968) a song (“Ball and Chain”) that would be taken by another young singer.

I highly recommended book about early rock and roll and Sam Phillips: Sam Phillips, the Man Who Invented Rock and Roll by Peter Guralnick.  

The subtitle of the song is “How One Man Discovered Howlin’ Wolf, Ike Turner, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley, and How His Tiny Label, Sun Records of Memphis, Revolutionized the World.”

Big Mama Thornton Hound Dog

Charles Hardin Buddy Holly

Charles Hardin Buddy Holly

When we boomers fell in love with the Beatles and enthusiastically poured more gasoline on Beatlemania’s already raging conflagration, we congratulated ourselves on finding such new wonderful music.

Ah, youth! forever dear, forever kind.

And forever naive.

Charles Hardin Buddy Holly

American music

The Beatles, of course, like most of the world’s young people who loved rock and roll, fell in love with American rock music: the descendant and combination of the blues, country, and gospel music. I imagine that John, Paul, George, and Ringo were a bit dumbfounded to hear our discovery of their “new” music. They knew that they were doing their best to come up with something new, yes, but thoroughly based on the American music they so loved.

Like that of Charles Hardin Buddy Holly.

Charles Hardin Buddy Holly

Buddy Holly

Charles Hardin Buddy Holly

Charles Hardin Holley was born on September 7, 1936  in Lubbock, Texas and played several instruments as a child, but it was the guitar that he settled on.

And he dropped the e from his last name.

He and his band, the Western and Bop Band, performed throughout the southwest. Nashville’s Decca Records signed Holly: Buddy Holly and the Two Tunes, later Buddy Holly and the Three Tones.

Charles Hardin Buddy Holly

Success then release

Decca released a few singles before dropping the band. Holly and his band mates returned to Lubbock. During this time Holly developed his singer-songwriter skills and the band became a local favorite to open for touring musicians. The most important gig was opening for Elvis. That experience shifted Holly to rock and roll.

Charles Hardin Buddy Holly

Norman Petty

Charles Hardin Buddy Holly

On February 25, 1957 Buddy Holly and the Crickets were in Norman Petty’s Clovis, NM studio. They recorded another version of: “That’ll Be the Day.”

Charles Hardin Buddy Holly

Peggy Sue

The song attracted national attention and a national tour. “Peggy Sue” was a #3 hit here and a hit in the UK where young musicians like John, Paul, George, and Ringo were just starting out. A 1958 tour in England gave Holly and even bigger presence there.

Charles Hardin Buddy Holly

It was while on the 1958 Winter Dance Party Tour that Holly decided to take the plane and not the bus.

On February 3, 1959 that plane crashed just outside Mason City, Iowa killing all on board including the Big Bopper and Richie Valens.

Charles Hardin Buddy Holly

Quarrymen

Holly’s influence continued beyond his death. The Quarrymen eventually changed their name to the Beatles in homage to Holly’s Crickets. They also slowly developed their own singer-songwriter abilities, the hallmark of the most successful musicians whom the 1960s–and beyond–produced.

Charles Hardin Buddy Holly