Some say that rock and roll began with “Rocket 88“by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats (1951). Others say it started earlier, with “Boogie Chillen‘” by John Lee Hooker (1948). Some are a bit more traditional, and say that rock and roll as we know it begins with “That’s All Right Mama” by Elvis Presley (1952).
What was really the first rock and roll song? Who cares. Something was happening. These songs were all created released within four years of each other. Listening to them, it is easy to see how one inspired the next. An art form is being created right before our ears. A narrative is being created. And yet, most critics and experts can’t say for sure what the very first rock and roll song was.
But I think I know.
“Johnny B. Goode” was released by Chuck Berry in 1958. By this time, Elvis Presley had enjoyed major hits with “Hound Dog,” “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Heartbreak Hotel.” Buddy Holly already released “That’ll Be The Day” and “Peggy Sue.” Rock and roll was a fact. It had begun. But nothing sounded like Chuck Berry.
“Johnny B. Good” is archetypal. It’s a blueprint. A mission statement. It’s got all the necessary ingredients. It may be the greatest rock and roll song ever recorded.
The song tells the mythical story of a kid who grows up in the backwoods of Louisiana who can play a guitar just like “ringing a bell.” Of course, the song is completely autobiographical. It tells the story of a life, and we hear that life both in the words and in the music.
In true rock and roll fashion, the opening guitar solo is a total ripoff, lifted almost note for note from “Ain’t That Just Like a Woman,” a 1946 jazz song by Louis Jordan. Chuck Berry took it, put a back beat to it, and echoes of the solo can be heard in songs by The Beach Boys, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, the list goes on and on. The guitar solo connects rock and roll to jazz, and speaks to the generations that follow.
“Deep down in Louisiana close to New Orleans
Way back up in the woods among the evergreens
There stood a log cabin made of earth and wood
Where lived a country boy named Johnny B. Goode
Who never ever learned to read or write so well
But he could play a guitar just like a-ringing a bell”
Of course, the greatest rock and roll song needs to be about rock and roll. It needs to be autobiographical, self-referential. We are caught up in this story, because we want it to be the story of us. It is a dream so many of us have had…to be able just pick up a guitar and play. To be a rock and roll star. To play a guitar just like “ringing a bell.”
“He used to carry his guitar in a gunny sack
Go sit beneath the tree by the railroad track
Oh, the engineer would see him sittin’ in the shade
Strummin’ with the rhythm that the drivers made
The people passing by, they would stop and say
“Oh my, but that little country boy could play”
More than a musician, Chuck Berry was a salesman. He wrote songs that he thought people would buy. He wrote songs about cars, school, and teenagers being repressed by adults. He wrote lyrics that were palatable and accessible, which is why the last line of the second verse was changed from “that little colored boy could play” to “that little country boy could play.”
And then the song breaks down. With a massive snare drum marking the measures, Berry tears it up again on guitar, playing a variation on the opening solo. You can’t sit down. You can’t not be excited. This is rock and roll.
“His mother told him, “Someday you will be a man,
And you will be the leader of a big ol’ band
Many people comin’ from miles around
To hear you play your music when the sun go down
Maybe someday your name’ll be in lights
Sayin’ ‘Johnny B. Goode tonight!'”
“Jukebox Hero.” “Summer of ’69.” “So You Wanna Be a Rock and Roll Star?” These songs all tell the same story, the same story we hear in “Johnny B. Goode.” Small town kid becomes a big time rock and roll star.
But “Johnny B. Goode” is the first. “Johnny B. Goode” is the prototype. It is the story of Chuck Berry. It is the story of rock and roll almost before rock and roll even existed. “Johnny B. Goode.” Perhaps the place that rock and roll music really begins.
“Johnny B. Goode”
Written and Performed by Chuck Berry
Released March 31, 1958