The greatest artists offer a reflection for a nation to see itself and its time, and Chuck Berry, a beautician by trade, knew a thing or two about holding up a mirror for a customer.
His most famous song, “Johnny B. Goode,” is a classic story of the American dream: A poor, uneducated boy from the sticks uses his ability to make a guitar ring like a bell to make good—or so the listener is left to assume, though Berry left the ending notably ambiguous.
But Berry, unlike his protagonist, didn’t grow up in log-cabin rural squalor—he was a middle-class African American from segregated urban St. Louis. It is another of his compositions, using nearly the same opening riff—and when you write a lick that good, why not reuse it?—that demonstrates Berry’s ability to depict post-war America so convincingly.
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