Inside Chuck Berry and Pandora’s Music Genome Project
How Berry’s musical traits were copied and passed down through generations.
By Glenn Peoples, Music Insights and Analytics at Pandora
Biologist Richard Dawkins used the term “the selfish gene” in describing how a particular trait survives to be passed to the next generation. Music also has “genes” that represent traits inherited by future generations. The late Chuck Berry is a great study in musical evolution. Decades after birthing rock and roll music, Berry’s genes are everywhere, from the Beatles to the Black Keys and beyond.
Berry learned from Ira Harris, a jazz musician in Berry’s hometown of St Louis, the “swing riffs and ideas” that would help form the late guitarist’s style, he wrote in his 1987 biography. Berry later sharpened his chops by playing the songs of blues greats Muddy Waters, Tampa Red, Big Maceo and Little Walter.
If songs have genes, Berry is rock music’s ultimate patriarch. His riff-heavy, blues-based guitar-playing style was widely copied. Artists, both contemporaries and followers, mimicked his singing style and the way he repeated melodies and short, simple passages. Later musicians also copied his songs’ hard-swinging rhythm and, in one notable case, appropriated the way he played guitar while crouched down, one leg extended and hopping on the other.
Pandora’s Music Genome Project, a taxonomy of the musical characteristics of every song on Pandora, has catalogued the many traits in Berry’s songs. He was a dynamic male vocalist. His songs utilize repetitive melodic phrasing. Berry also uses extensive vamping, a term that describes short, repeating chord progressions. Berry was an exceptional guitar player who used chugging rhythms and blues song forms spiked with the kinds of riffs on display in “Johnny B. Goode” (known by many as Marty McFly’s energetic performance in the movie Back to the Future).
“Rocket 88,” recorded in 1951 by Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats — a backing band led by a then-unknown Ike Turner — is generally considered to be the first rock and roll song. But Berry wasn’t far behind and some people consider his 1955 hit “Maybellene” to be a standard bearer of proto-typical rock and roll songs of the era. Released by Chess Records, “Maybellene” became a crossover hit, topping the R&B chart and peaking at #5 on the pop chart. His best-known classics also ranked high on both R&B and pop singles charts: “Rock and Roll Music” in 1976; “Johnny B. Goode” in 1958; “Nadine” in 1963’ “No Particular Place to Go” in 1964; and “Ding-A-Ling,” his only song to top the pop singles chart, in 1972. While those songs are popular with Pandora listeners, two other songs, “Johnny B. Goode” and “Reelin’ & Rockin’,” are the #1 and #2 songs on Pandora’s Chuck Berry station.
“Maybellene,” the third-most popular song on Pandora’s Chuck Berry station, wasn’t at first recognized as a foundational moment in rock and roll. Instead, as Joe Lynch notes in Billboard, the original 1955 Billboard review of the “Maybellene” single released by Chess Records touts Berry’s “ace showmanship and expressive good humor”—not exactly Genome traits but good descriptions nonetheless. A subsequent review of “Roll Over Beethoven” mentioned the song’s driving beat and Berry’s “distinctive and wailingly primitive style.” Pandora’s Genome instead registers the song’s mild rhythmic syncopation, extensive vamping, electric rhythm guitars and dynamic lead vocals.
Other artists were quick to observe Berry’s brilliance and soon began recording his songs, however. Taking a look at the Genome, some of the artists who are genetically closest to Berry include Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Coasters and Fats Domino. The same year “Maybelline,” was released, country and western singer Marty Robbins recorded a country version that earned a top 10 hit. (For a thorough overview of country artists to have covered Berry’s songs, see this article at MusicRow by Robert K. Oermann, often referred to as the dean of Nashville’s entertainment journalists.) In the following years, the song was covered numerous times by genetically-similar artists such as Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Chubby Checker, among others.
Berry’s music laid the genetic groundwork for the British Invasion bands that further popularized rock music. The Beatles placed Berry’s songs on studio albums: “Roll Over Beethoven” appeared on both With The Beatles, released in 1963 and the following year’s The Beatles’ Second Album. Berry’s “Rock and Roll Music” appeared on 1964’s Beatles For Sale. The Rolling Stones may have been named after a Muddy Waters song, but their sound carried a deep debt to Berry. The Stones’ first three U.S. studio albums featured a Chuck Berry song. “Come On, Carol,” titled “Carol” on the album England’s Newest Hit Makers, was the Stones’ debut single. Their recording of Berry’s “Around and Around,” from the Stones’ Five By Five EP, is one of the ten most-played songs on Pandora’s Chuck Berry station. Yet another British band, the Kinks, put “Beautiful Delilah” on their debut album. The list goes on.
More of Berry’s influence can be seen in the most-played songs on his Pandora station. Near the top of the list is the Stray Cats’ 1981 hit “Rock This Town,” a rockabilly offspring of “Roll Over Beethoven” (singer/guitarist Brian Setzer even plays the same kind of thin, hollow-body electric guitar Berry played). The Beatles’ “I Saw Her Standing There” copied the bass line from Berry’s “Talkin’ About You” (Paul McCarthy admitted as much). The Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ U.S.A.” is Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” with different lyrics (threatened with plagiarism, Berry’s music publisher, Arc Music, was given the songwriting credit). In 1970, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Travelin’ Band” replicated the guitar-driven groove found in many of Berry’s songs.
Berry’s influence spread beyond just his music. His famous duck walk was appropriated by guitarist Angus Young of AC/DC, a rock group whose riff-heavy songs carry an obvious debt to Berry’s repertoire. But it’s in the genes of Berry’s music that his impact is best appreciated. His DNA, as the Genome shows, has helped shape rock and roll since 1955.