Chuck Berry's Quiet 1950s Revolution: Dispatches From the Pages of Billboard's Past
On this sad day, music fans are uniformly hailing Chuck Berry, who has passed away at the age of 90, as the godfather of rock. That's a far cry from the response the St. Louis singer-songwriter received 62 years ago when he made his debut with "Maybellene" on Chess Records. The response to his revolutionary sound was positive at the time, but also a tad condescending. At the very least, it was clear the grown-ups didn't get it.
"Berry socks across an amusing novelty with ace showmanship and expressive good humor," the review in the July 23, 1955 issue of Billboard reads. "The tune has a catchy rhythm and a solid, driving beat. Fine jockey and juke wax." (The last sentence just means it should be good fodder for radio and jukeboxes.)
Original Billboard review of Chuck Berry's debut single from July 23 1955 issue. pic.twitter.com/xQMRBYqXGx— Joe Lynch (@branniganlynch) October 18, 2016
That review, while hardly inaccurate (though "Maybellene" is misspelled), comes across as a shrugging 'sure why not' endorsement -- not exactly what you'd expect for a song many historians and critics cite as the purest distillation of early rock n' roll music, a then-nascent genre that would soon take over the world for decades to come.
But most culture-shifting artists aren't hailed as such at first (the industry saw the Beatles as a teen craze for years), and the kids saw something different in Berry than the adults did.
What Billboard interpreted as humor in "Maybellene" was actually something much more appealing to teens: Attitude. Being funny means being liked, but having attitude means being cool – and cool was currency in the exploding teen demographic of the mid '50s. The way Berry hammered on his guitar and spat out his lyrics with breakneck speed was "ace showmanship," true, but it was also just plain awesome. It had a cool attitude that rock hits such as Fats Domino's "Ain't That a Shame" and Bill Haley & the Comets' "Rock Around the Clock" -- already on the charts when "Maybellene" dropped -- didn’t. (Only Bo Diddley's "Bo Biddley," released before "Maybellene," had that same swagger.)
"Maybellene" did well on the R&B charts, occupying the No. 1 slot for nine weeks, though previously mentioned singles from Domino and Haley continued to perform better on the pop charts. Over the next few months, the line between pop and R&B continued to blur, with each chart's respective top 10 frequently featuring many of the exact same recordings.
This was the setting for when Chuck Berry truly arrived with his unassailably sassy 1956 single "Roll Over Beethoven," a confident kiss-off to the old guard of music.
Here's how the May 19, 1956 issue of Billboard reviewed one of rock's all-time greatest songs: "This side has humor, a driving beat and, most of all, Berry's own distinctive and wailingly primitive style. A natural for action." (The last sentence is in reference to radio/jukebox action.)
Original Billboard review of "Roll Over Beethoven" from May 19 issue. pic.twitter.com/V9QLODzcdd— Joe Lynch (@branniganlynch) October 18, 2016
Again, just like in the review for "Maybellene," we see that curious word: "humor." And while it's true -- the lyrics to "Roll Over Beethoven" are cheeky as hell -- what the grown-ups saw as a laugh was taken for what it really was by the kids: Boisterous attitude. Rock n' roll was in its infancy in '56, and on Berry's third single, he's telling the most worshipped artist in a far more prestigious musical genre to get out of the way. Berry's song exudes and promotes confidence in youth culture. To adults, that was playful and funny, but to teens, it was a rallying cry to dance, or pick up a guitar, or maybe just drive a little faster than you were supposed to. While the grown-ups weren't wrong about the humor, they missed the point -- namely, that the attitude of rock n' roll was about to change teen culture in America.
In addition to its lyrics, Berry's masterpiece came at the right time in history. Pop bastardizations of R&B songs -- controversial even at the time -- had a history of commercially outperforming originals on the pop charts. But teens were getting hip to the real deal by 1956.
"The majors' practice of covering promising indie disks -- particularly rhythm and blues clicks -- has long been a source of considerable controversy in the record field, since in many cases the covers – backed by stronger promotion, distribution and name value – snowed under the originals on the pop charts," wrote June Bundy in the May 5, 1956 issue of Billboard.
But the thrust of Bundy's article, titled "Indie Originals vs. Covers: Battle of the Pop Charts," wasn't to chastise the masses -- it was to report that for the first time, the charts were favoring R&B originals over pop covers.
"A survey of the charts over the last seven months indicates the indie originals now make it about half the time, as compared to the 'hardly ever' status of such disks a couple of years ago. However, the percentage has swung over sharply in favor of originals since the first of the last year. Last January, for instance, Pat Boone's cover of Little Richard's 'Tutti Frutti' was top disk on the pop charts, while today Boone's cover of Little Richard's 'Long, Tally Sally' has yet to make the pop list, while the original is No. 13 on the pop chart this week, and No. 1 on the R&B list."
Even though the teens' tastes (which drove record sales) were trending toward R&B originals, the industry hadn't quite caught up yet. You can see the evidence in the pages of the May 19, 1956, issue of Billboard. While Berry's "Beethoven" review got prime placement in the "Review Spotlight" section, there was little advertising for the song in the pages of Billboard. Meanwhile, that same issue, there's a full-page ad for lily-white pop singer Helene Dixon's cover of "Roll Over Beethoven," released the same week as Berry's.
But while the Billboard review of Dixon's cover predicted success -- "This would seem a certain money-maker for the label" -- her whitewashed pop cover of Berry's "Beethoven" was the version that rolled over. Despite the full-page ad behind it, Dixon's cover didn't make much of an impact beyond its initial release, while Berry's original -- which peaked at No. 7 on the R&B chart -- went to on be covered and/or worshipped by everyone from the Beatles to Keith Richards to Iron Maiden.
Record sales aside, that issue of Billboard provides startling historical context, too. The May 19, 1956 front page story is about the long-running Rabbit Foot Minstrel Show, an "all Negro" review nevertheless run by a white man, F.S. Wolcott. A few pages later, there's a two-page ad for Amos 'n' Andy, which itself had roots in minstrelsy. This was the world Chuck Berry -- a supremely talented young black man -- faced when he made his revolutionary recordings in the mid '50s.
Six decades later, Berry is a household name, revered as the godfather of a critically respected musical genre. Meanwhile, Pat Boone is more-or-less a punchline as an artist, the Wolcott minstrel show is a historical footnote, and Amos 'n' Andy are remembered thanks to a quick reference in Pulp Fiction. As it turns out, the kids were right in the long run.