It's hard to conceive of contemporary pop music without Chuck Berry. In their book "Chuck Berry: Rock 'n' Roll Music" (Pierian Press), author Howard A. DeWitt and researcher Morten Reff estimate Berry songs have been recorded by more than 500 artists, from the Beatles (who recorded five of the songs) and the Rolling Stones (11) to the laid-back John Denver and punk rockers the Ramones.
The most versions of a Berry song? "Memphis," which has been recorded 120 times. Next in line: "Johnny B. Goode" (101 versions), "Roll Over Beethoven" (73), "Maybellene" (62) and "Sweet Little Sixteen" (61).
In Berry's new autobiography from Harmony Press, he reminisces about some of the classic songs. Here are some excerpts:
"Maybellene." 1955. Opening lyrics: Maybellene, why can't you be true? / You've started back doin' the things you used to do .
Background: "I have never, in my life, met or even known of any woman named Maybellene. The name actually was first brought to my knowledge from a storybook, when I was in the third grade. . . . Along with Tom the cat and Donald the duck, there was Maybellene the cow. Not offending anybody, I thought, I named my girl character after a cow."
"Roll Over, Beethoven." 1956. Well, I'm gonna write a little letter, gonna mail it to my local deejay/Yes, it's a jumpin' little record I want my jockey to play.
"(This song was based on) the feelings I had when my sister would monopolize the piano at home during our youthful years. In fact, most of the words were aimed at Lucy instead of the Maestro Ludwig Van Beethoven. . . . Telling Mother in an attempt to get support for my kind of music did no good, but writing a letter and mailing it to a local deejay might have."
"Johnny B. Goode." 1958. Deep down in Louisiana, close to New Orleans / Way back up in the woods among the evergreens. / There stood an old cabin made of earth and wood / Where lived a country boy named Johnny B. Goode.
"I wrote of a boy with an ambition to become a guitar player, who came from the least of luxury to be seen by many. . . . I'd guess my mother has as much right to be declared the source of 'Johnny B. Goode' as any other in that she was the one who repeatedly commented that I would be a millionaire someday."
"Little Queenie." 1959. I got lumps in my throat when I saw her comin' down the aisle / I got the wiggles in my knees when she looked at me and sweetly smiled.
"That was typical of me in high school, to stand around thinking instead of acting during the occasions when I'd have the opportunity to get next to a girl by dancing. . . . It's just like me even today to wait around 'til it's too late to latch on to the chance to meet a person I favor."
"Memphis." 1958. Lyrics: Long distance information, Give me Memphis, Tenn . , / Help me find the party / trying to get in touch with me / She could not leave her number, but I know who placed the call / 'Cause my uncle took the message and he wrote it on the wall.
"My wife and I had relatives there who we were visiting semi-annually, but other than a couple of concerts there, I had never had any basis for choosing Memphis for the location of the story."