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On Chuck Berry's Birthday, A Crash Course In His Music

Rock 'n' roll legend Chuck Berry performs during a concert held in Santa Cruz de Tenerife in 2008. He turns 90 Tuesday.
Desiree Martin
AFP/Getty Images
Rock 'n' roll legend Chuck Berry performs during a concert held in Santa Cruz de Tenerife in 2008. He turns 90 Tuesday.

Chuck Berry turns 90 Tuesday. I know he's a very important person in music history, but he's never been a guy I listened to much. I mean, I've heard hits like "Maybellene" from 1955, but I wanted to learn more.

So I called Tony Trov. He's an artist out of Philadelphia, but more important, he plays in a Chuck Berry cover band called It's Marvin, Your Cousin Marvin Berry, a reference to a memorable scene in Back to the Future.

Trov couldn't comprehend how I wasn't a fan. "I dunno, are you a communist?" he asks me. "How can you not like Chuck Berry music? It just doesn't make any sense to me."

So he recommended three songs — "Roll Over Beethoven," "Too Much Monkey Business" and "Maybellene" — and made a suggestion for how I should start my Chuck Berry education.

"I think you need to put yourself in the right environment," Trov says. "I think you need to drive across the country with a Chuck Berry tape, a crappy copy that you get at a gas station, and the open road."

I'm not an open-road kind of guy, so "Too Much Monkey Business" was more my speed: Its beleaguered, chip-on-your-shoulder attitude is somehow both specific and universal.

Then there's the sound that I most associate with Berry — the licks, like from "Roll Over Beethoven." Similar licks show up in hits like "Johnny B. Goode" and "Carol" — call it same-y, a callback or a signature.

Trov says this signature riff is pretty easy to play, which makes it attractive to new guitar players. You can pick it up, nail it and then feel like a god. "You make your amp loud enough, you can sound pretty good playing that riff," Trov says.

As for Berry himself, he's still at it at 90. He just announced a new record that's coming out next year — his first in 38 years.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.
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