Written in 1955 while Chuck Berry was working as a beautician in St. Louis, Missouri, and performing with various groups, this ground-breaking rock and roll song was written for, and partly inspired by, the pianist Johnnie Johnson, who would sometimes co-write songs with Chuck Berry and has been recognised as contributing to his individual style of music. It was also partly based on Chuck Berry’s own life, and includes reference in the name to the fact that he was actually born in Goode Avenue, St. Louis, but not Louisiana as the song says, and describes the rags to riches journey of a guitar playing “colored boy” which he would later change to “country boy” to ensure it being played on radio. He wasn’t down and out either in reality as he was a graduate of beauty school in cosmetology and hairdressing.
The song was released in 1958 and became a classic of the rock ‘n’ roll era, reaching No. 8 in the Billboard chart, and still remains so today with Rolling Stone listing it as No. 7 in their 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. It was not Johnnie Johnson who would appear on the recording of it as pianist though, but Lafayette Leake. Alongside Berry and Leake on the original recording was Willie Dixon on bass and Fred Below on drums.
Such is the recognition of the song’s achievement in the music of the 20th century it was attached to the spacecraft Voyager when it was launched into space on the Voyager Golden Record so that any other alien being that may find it would get a taste of the life on earth.
The song, the music, or sometimes just its name has been featured in the movies Back to the Future, Back to the Future II, American Graffitti and Threads, in the television series Kingdom Hospital, Histeria, and Misfits of Science, in the musicals The Buddy Holly Story and Return to the Forbidden Planet, on the computer games Earthbound, Animal Crossing: Wild World and Theme Park, and in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novel, Soul Music. Mentioned in many songs, parodied, or the music being sampled, it can be heard on the Beach Boys “Fun, Fun, Fun”, Bobby Bare’s “The All American Boy”, “Garden Party” by Ricky Nelson, Big Bopper’s “Purple People Eater Meets the Witch Doctor”, Devo’s “Come Back Jonee” and the band TISM record on the Genre B. Goode label with one of their songs being “The Ballad of Johnny To B. Or Not To B. Goode”. Other times the song has been used in the public eye are when the NASCAR driver Johnny Benson is spoken about by television commentators and it as the song used by John Kerry when he ran for the US presidency in 2004. Other artists that have covered it are numerous and too many to mention, but they include ACDC, Aerosmith, Buddy Holly, The Beatles, Julian Lennon, Twisted Sister, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Led Zeppelin, The Carpenters. Jimi Hendrix, Elton John, Huey Lewis & The News, The Coronados, Freddie & The Dreamers, Bill Haley & His Comets, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley. Status Quo, The Sex Pistols, The Tornadoes, Stray Cats, Slade, Johnny Winter, Carlos Santana, The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain.
Strangely enough, it was never released as a single in the UK and it didn’t appear there until it was the B-Side of the live recording of “My Ding-a-Ling” in 1972, which was his only UK No. 1 hit. Chuck Berry later wrote the sequels “Bye Bye Johnny” and the instrumental “Concerto in B. Goode”.
Chuck Berry recordings
Chess CH 2131 (CH 2228-E) (US 45)
This is the 1972 version, which is the B-Side of the live recording made in Coventry, England, with the backing group being The Roy Young Band.