The Meaning Behind the Semi-Autobiographical Rock ‘n’ Roll Classic, “Johnny B. Goode”

Chuck Berry’s 1958 song “Johnny B. Goode” is floating in the deep reaches of space. The composition, which is a semi-autobiographical work by Berry about a guitar player living way out in the country hoping to make it famous, is No. 11 on the 27-track Voyager Golden Record that is shooting through the universe.

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If Aliens find the Voyager satellites and decipher its message, they may be able to play the song and know what Earthly music sounds like. That’s how seminal and important Berry’s song is. It’s an ambassador.

Composing the Classic

Berry wrote the song in 1955 and released the recording in 1958 on Chess Records.

The protagonist of the short story-like song is a young man from Louisiana close to New Orleans living in the rural country. But, man, can he play his guitar. Originally the song lyrics included “colored boy” but Berry said he changed it to “country boy” for radio airplay.

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The last name of the character “Goode” is thought to hint, in part, at Berry’s first home’s address in St. Louis: 2520 Goode Ave. And the meaning of the song was inspired by friend and collaborator, Johnnie Johnson, who played keys in Berry’s group. Perhaps the “B.” in the song is for Berry, himself.

Historians have pointed out that the opening guitar line for the track resembles Louis Jordan’s “Ain’t That Just Like A Woman,” which was released in 1946.

Back to the Future

The song enjoyed a resurgence in the mid-’80s thanks to the 1985 movie Back to the Future, starring Michael J. Fox. Trapped in the past, Fox’s character Marty McFly plays a rendition of the rock song for a stunned early 1950s audience. At the same time in the film, Marvin Berry picks up the phone to call his cousin to play him the “new sound.” Some 30 years after the song was released, it got another life.

Fox said for the performance that he wanted to “incorporate all the characteristics and mannerisms and quirks of my favorite guitarists, so a Pete Townshend windmill, and Jimi Hendrix behind the back, and a Chuck Berry duckwalk. And we worked all that in.”

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

John Lennon once said this of the “Johnny B. Goode” songwriter: “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry. ‘”

So, given that stature, it was a no-brainer that Berry would be inducted into the museum honoring the genre he is synonymous with. He was in the Hall’s first-ever class, in 1986.

When Berry entered the Hall, he was backed by none other than Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. Together, they played “Johnny B. Goode” along with two other of Berry’s hits, “Maybellene” and “Rock and Roll Music.”

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Lasting Legacy

Many believe that “Johnny B. Goode” is the first song of its kind. Joe Queenan wrote for The Guardian, that the track is “probably the first song ever written about how much money a musician could make by playing the guitar.” In that way, it’s likely the first rock biography.

Since the 1958 release, a myriad of rockers have cut the track, from Jimi Hendrix (whose version hit No. 35 on the UK Singles Chart) to reggae artist Peter Tosh, whose offering hit No. 84 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Today, the song is flying through the cosmos. It’s come a long way from down in Louisiana close to New Orleans / Way back up in the woods among the evergreens.

.Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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