More than 60 years after changing the course of history as one of rock music’s progenitors, Chuck Berry died at the age of 90 on March 18, 2017. Berry’s economical but vivid approach to songwriting and guitar soloing on a series of singles from 1955-1960 helped codify the then-nascent genre of rock n’ roll, and thousands of teenagers — many of whom would go on to become icons in their own right — imitated his style and songwriting techniques for decades to come.
From the Rolling Stones to Motörhead to Nina Simone, here are 15 essential Chuck Berry covers.
The Beatles, “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Rock and Roll Music”
The impact of Chuck Berry’s music on pre-Beatles John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison is incalculable. After becoming stars in their own right, they sang his praises at every turn and as a band delivered two studio versions of Berry songs. Lennon’s unhinged take on “Rock and Roll Music” reveals his love for everything Chuck Berry, and Harrison acquits himself nicely on “Roll Over Beethoven.”
John Lennon, “You Can’t Catch Me”
On John Lennon’s 1975 covers LP Rock ‘n’ Roll, the former Beatle reinterprets Berry’s classic single through the lens of his own “Come Together,” melding the chorus of the former with lines from the latter. It’s a woozy, disorienting rocker, not unlike the otherworldly sonic template Berry himself mined on classics like “Havana Moon.”
Electric Light Orchestra, “Roll Over Beethoven”
ELO — which melded rock with orchestral flourishes — couldn’t not cover “Roll Over Beethoven” at some point during their career. Their version opens with the dramatic strings of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, and while it runs the risk of seeming hokey and hammy at first, it’s saved by the fact that the usually immaculate ELO lets loose and tears through their Berry cover with the joyous abandon of teenagers discovering rock for the first time.
The Rolling Stones, “Come On,” “Carol” and “Little Queenie”
While Lennon and McCartney’s love for Little Richard probably assured their future in rock regardless of Berry, it’s no understatement to say the Stones wouldn’t have existed at all without Chuck Berry (just ask Keith). Hell, their debut single, “Come On,” was a faithful Berry cover that managed to stand on its own merit simply thanks to the band’s sneering delivery. While some of the band’s Chuck covers could be a little too slavish, they similarly manage to inject some fresh energy into Berry’s “Carol.” And to hear what they could do with the master’s material live, check out the “Little Queenie” cover from their Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! concert album.
The Yardbirds, “Too Much Monkey Business”
With Eric Clapton on guitar and Keith Relf on vocals, the Yardbirds opened their iconic 1964 Marquee Club concert (included on the classic LP Five Live Yardbirds) with a careening cover of Berry’s “Monkey Business.” Clapton’s furious guitar solos (yes, there are two of them in this under-four-minute song) just might be the best that ever graced a Chuck Berry cover.
Nina Simone, “Brown Eyed Handsome Man”
The genre-melding genius lent her indelible voice to a soulful reinvention of Berry’s socio-political rocker on her High Priestess of Soul album. Dropping the guitar riffage, Simone pairs a cheeky horn section with her winking vocal delivery to create a fresh, endlessly listenable cover.
AC/DC, “School Days”
On AC/DC’s Australia-only T.N.T. album from 1975, the hard rock pioneers covered Berry’s rallying cry with workhorse-like efficiency, working the riff with a slow sensuality while Bon Scott sneered the lyrics like a bratty schoolboy.
Motörhead, “Let It Rock”
Probably the finest of this oft-covered Berry composition comes from Motörhead, who married Lemmy’s guttural growl to a bar band-style cover of the rock n’ roll standard.
As one of the greatest voices to interpret others’ rock songs, Rod Stewart delivers the most effectively lovelorn, downtrodden version of this sweet, sad song. Most vocalists miss the mark entirely while covering “Memphis,” but Faces frontman Stewart makes this one feel like an affecting snapshot of youthful disappointment.
Linda Ronstadt, “Back In the U.S.A.”
Unlike most rockers who’ve taken on this tune, when Ronstadt growls “I’m so glad I’m living in the U.S.A.” toward the end of this song, you can feel she means it in her gut. Like Stewart, she’s one of rock music’s smartest interpreters, and Berry’s material is in the hands of an expert on this live 1978 Ronstadt cut (which hit No. 16 on the Billboard Hot 100, higher than his No. 37-peaking original).
MC5, “Back In the U.S.A.”
The Detroit proto-punks titled their second studio album after Berry’s 1959 single, and while Linda Ronstadt did it better eight years later, it’s still a rollicking run-through.
Jimi Hendrix, “Johnny B. Goode”
Hendrix called his take on Berry’s most renowned song “a loose jam kind of thing,” and sure enough, he uses the familiar guitar riff as a jumping-off point for a focused jam session that demonstrates how durable Berry’s material is.