Not every song is great because it has memorable lyrics. Or a memorable performance. Some achieve greatness by striking the culture in the sweet spot at the perfect moment in history. That’s what happened when Chuck Berry, former auto assembly worker and ex-con, released “Johnny B. Goode” in 1958.
This wasn’t Berry’s first million-seller. That was “Maybelline” in 1955. Nor was it his biggest hit, an honor held by “Sweet Little Sixteen.” (“My Ding-a-Ling” went to number one in 1972, but as a novelty song.) But from its opening guitar licks through the end, it represented the energy of this new force called rock and roll. It is, after all, mostly autobiographical. Berry was born on Goode Ave. in St. Louis, and the “B.” probably stands for Berry. In fact, the original lyric said “Oh my, that little colored boy can play” but Berry changed it to “country boy” so the song would be played on the radio.
The longevity of “Johnny B. Goode” is evident by the number of artists who’ve covered it, ranging from country (Buck Owens) to metal (Twisted Sister) to the sublime (Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain). The song was listed by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as one of the 500 songs that shaped rock and roll, and is in the Grammy Hall of Fame. And Rolling Stone put it at number one in its list of the 100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time.