A couple of decades ago, I was hanging out backstage at a gig starring guitarist Cub Koda, formerly the leader of the Michigan band Brownsville Station, who’d had a huge hit in 1973 with “Smokin’ in the Boy’s Room.” Cub led his own band by this time and they rocked like crazy. Before he went out to do his show, he asked me if I had any requests. I knew that Cub, a good friend who has since passed away, had an encyclopedic knowledge of early rock and roll and all roots music. I took a few seconds and then said, with a straight face, “Do you know any Chuck Berry?”
At first he looked at me with daggers in his eyes, then he realized I was joking. Did he know any Chuck Berry? He knew the entire catalog, inside out! We laughed and Cub said, “Any rock and roll band that doesn’t know Chuck Berry shouldn’t be a rock and roll band.”
It’s with that in mind that we present, to commemorate his 90th birthday on October 18, our list of 17 of the greatest-ever Chuck Berry covers. Berry was rock’s poet laureate—he virtually created the language both lyrically and on the guitar. If you don’t know Chuck, you don’t know rock.
17. Johnny Winter And—”Johnny B. Goode”
“Johnny B. Goode” may just be the greatest single gift Chuck Berry gave to rock and roll—his own recording was sent out into the universe on the Voyager spacecraft as a sample of humankind’s greatest achievements. Accordingly it’s been covered by…well, too many to count, really. Jimi Hendrix often included it in his sets and the Grateful Dead played it hundreds of times. But we’ve settled on fellow guitar monster Johnny Winter, who first cut it on his 1969 album Second Winter and then again two years later, in concert, for his Live Johnny Winter And. Our video is from the same year—watch him rip into it.
16. Dave Clark Five—”Reelin’ and Rockin’”
Berry stashed this little gem on the B-side of the “Sweet Little Sixteen” single in 1957, and eight years later, England’s Dave Clark Five brushed it off, cranked up the volume and the tempo and, with the underrated Mike Smith singing, took it up the charts.
15. Carlos Santana—”Havana Moon”
Carlos Santana is not usually the first guitarist that comes to mind when you think of Chuck Berry disciples, but he too learned plenty from the inventor. In 1983 Santana not only recorded Berry’s Latin-influenced “Havana Moon,” he named his solo album after it.
14. Electric Light Orchestra—”Roll Over Beethoven”
The genius of Chuck Berry’s songwriting is that it is so adaptable to individual artists’ styles. The Electric Light Orchestra (ELO) rocked up “Roll Over Beethoven” with a violin and cello, and the song still retained all of its power.
13. Emmylou Harris—”You Never Can Tell”
Country singers have always known a good story song when they hear one, and Harris’ sweet Alabama voice took naturally to Berry’s early ’60s teenage romance tale (Chuck’s original later enjoyed renewed fame via its prominent usage in the film Pulp Fiction). Harris included it on her fourth album, 1977’s Luxury Liner.
12. The Hollies—”Too Much Monkey Business”
Berry’s fifth Chess single, released in 1956, became a favorite of the British Invasion bands several years later. The Beatles performed it on one of their BBC broadcasts, and both The Yardbirds and the Kinks covered it. But here we present the Hollies, with a young Graham Nash, giving it their patented vocal harmonies.
11. Lovin’ Spoonful—”Almost Grown”
John Sebastian and friends grew up on folk, jug band music and early rock and roll. They cut this spirited version of Berry’s 1959 single for the Elektra Records compilation album What’s Shakin’ in 1966.
10. Grateful Dead—”Around and Around”
Although it’s not the most well known Berry composition, the B-side of the “Johnny B. Goode” single was covered by everyone from Bowie to The Animals. But we’ll give this one to the Dead, who performed the song a whopping 400-plus times during their 30-year career. This 1977 live version starts out almost lethargically but sure doesn’t end that way.
9. The Kinks—”Beautiful Delilah”
Another 1958 Chuck Berry single discovered by another British band. The Kinks dug the song so much they led off their self-titled debut album with it in 1964—with Dave Davies singing lead!
8. Jerry Lee Lewis—”Sweet Little Sixteen”
The Killer was a contemporary of Berry’s and first recorded this one back in 1962, when he was signed to Memphis’ Sun Records. Of course, the Berry original is built on top of a seminal guitar riff but Lewis had no trouble transposing it to piano and rocking it up even more. Here’s a live version recorded in 1972 at a massive rock and roll concert in London. The Beach Boys later took the melody of this Chuck classic and created “Surfin’ U.S.A.” from it.
7. The Blues Project—”You Can’t Catch Me”
For their great 1966 Projections album, the New York quintet (led by keyboardist Al Kooper) absolutely tore into this blistering rocker, sung by lead guitarist Danny Kalb. Check out his solo (starting at 2:18 in the video).
6. Buddy Holly—”Brown Eyed Handsome Man”
Another B-side for Chuck (backing up 1956’s “Too Much Monkey Business”), this one was taken up by Buddy Holly, arranged as a kickin’ rockabilly number, and released in 1963—four years after his death.
5. Elvis Presley—”Promised Land”
Elvis and Chuck were contemporaries and the King greatly respected the older artist’s songwriting abilities. In 1973, Elvis went into Memphis’ Stax Records studios and cut this chugging 1964 rocker, making it the title track of a 1975 LP.
4. Linda Ronstadt—”Back in the U.S.A.”
It’s a testament to the genius of Chuck Berry that the same song could be molded so easily by a band as hard as Detroit’s MC5 and the golden-voiced Linda Ronstadt, who included it on her 1978 album Living in the USA. Here’s the latter, backed by Keith Richards and Chuck himself, singing it in the 1987 Berry tribute film Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll.
3. Johnny Rivers—”Memphis”
The former John Ramistella of Louisiana was (and still is) a master interpreter. His very first hit, in 1964, was this Berry cover, recorded live at L.A.’s Whisky a Go Go. Rivers gave the tune a little bit of twang, a formula he repeated on his second hit a few months later, “Maybellene,” another Berry number. (Other great “Memphis” covers: Faces and the rockin’ instrumental version by Lonnie Mack)
2. The Beatles—”Rock and Roll Music”
What can you say? Would the Beatles have been the Beatles had those young Liverpool boys not discovered Chuck Berry? They only recorded two of his songs on official albums—“Roll Over Beethoven,” sung by George, and “Rock and Roll Music,” given a roaring John vocal. Here’s a great live version.
1. Rolling Stones—”Carol” and “Little Queenie”
The Stones count Berry among their major influences and, in fact, their very first single, “Come On,” was a Berry cover. We couldn’t narrow our favorites down to one so for our list-topper we’re going to call it a tie: Both “Carol” and “Little Queenie” appear on their live Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!, recorded in 1969. We’ll go with the video for “Carol” though. Listen to Keith Richards and Mick Taylor trading Berry licks here—it still sends shivers up and down the spine.
Don’t miss a post! Sign up for Best Classic Bands‘ Newsletter; form is on every page.
Jeff has also served on the Nominating Committee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and as a consultant to the Grammys. As a consultant to the Music Club CD label, he assisted in releasing over 180 reissues and compilations, in styles ranging from jazz to country to pop. His first book was Got a Revolution! The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane (published in June 2003) – the first biography of this legendary San Francisco band written with the cooperation of all of the band members. He is also the co-author of Shell Shocked: My Life with the Turtles, Flo and Eddie, and Frank Zappa, etc, with Howard Kaylan. From 2002 to 2006 Jeff was the editor of Global Rhythm, the leading magazine for world music and global culture. He was the Associate Editor of JazzTimes from 2008-16. He lives in Hoboken, NJ, with his wife, the novelist and Boston Globe book columnist Caroline Leavitt. Their son, Max, is a theater major at Pace University in New York.