Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
Really? As in, surely Cover Me must have talked about “Johnny B. Goode” before? Well, I’ve searched, and it seems “Memphis, Tennessee” is the only Chuck song to show itself on this platform. Of course, it may just feel like we’ve given Johnny the once-over twice on account of ol’ Charles Edward Anderson Berry wrote so many of the standard templates of rock (and roll). I mean, it isn’t as if nobody’s ever tried a cover, it difficult to imagine any guitar band ever not taking a crack at it. Is it not compulsory that every band of spotty youth, convening in a reluctant father’s garage, include it in their nascent set of tunes? Hell, I bet it casts a longer shadow than even “Louie, Louie,” always previously the lodestone at such gatherings. Secondhand Songs, still the wiki for cover lovers, suggests 328 versions, which, given the site’s understandable inability to know or find every single itty bitty rendition, suggests possibly a fair few more. (Indeed, as ever, we rely on you to let us know some more good(e) covers in the responses.)
Berry wrote “Johnny B. Goode” in 1955 and released it in 1958. Was it supposed to be autobiographical, and was Johnny actually Chuck? Probably, not least as the original draft told of “that little colored boy” rather than a “country boy,” but, you know, 1950s radio and all that. Then again, like so many of the songs filed under Berry’s name, no small part of the song came about through the presence and participation of Johnnie Johnson, Berry’s longtime (and long-suffering) piano player. But Johnson wasn’t actually on this recording; that honor goes to the extravagantly named Lafayette Leake. Furthermore, the iconic never-more-Berry guitar lick that introduces the song is a near-lift from a Louis Jordan song and the playing of Carl Hogan. But hey, whatevs (to coin a phrase).
“Johnny B. Goode” was a success right from the starts, reaching number 8 on what existed back then as a pre-Billboard chart, higher on the more specialist charts. And it has lived on and on and on, a regular on any of those best 500 lists and songs to hear afore you’re dead. It’s even in outer space, the only rock song chosen to represent the form on the Voyager record.
I guess the majority of covers follow somewhat faithfully the original template, and my role here at Five Good Covers is not really to wheel those particular examples out. So, sorry, no room for even such worthies as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, The Chipmunks, or Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. (Or even Cliff Richard, whose version from 2013 was enough to make me believe he actually, for a while, was a coulda shoulda contender.) Here we seek the outliers and the outsiders. Before we do, though, cast a quick ear at the Sex Pistols, um, giving it a whirl. All somewhat before Mr. Lydon resorted to music stands and lyric sheets, I imagine.
Peter Tosh – Johnny B. Goode (Chuck Berry cover)
Peter Tosh was an original Wailer, along with Bob Marley and Bunny Wailer, ahead of striking out on his own. His cover of “Johnny B. Goode” does so much more than merely redact the rhythm. Tosh populates the song with all the familiar tropes of any self-respecting Rasta. The horns are perfect, and the skittering percussion makes for a sound basis for his vocals and the rest of the backing. The backing vocals are consummate. Altogether, Tosh proves unequivocally the intrinsic brotherhood between bluebeat and rock, the song translating perfectly into its new idiom.
The Balham Alligators – Johnny B. Goode (Chuck Berry cover)
’40s jump jive, anyone? Geraint Watkins would be a giant to be included alongside such names as Allen Toussaint, were the world a fairer place. But, as we know too well, it isn’t, and to be born in Abertridwr, South Wales, tends to scupper most chances of making it as a premier Zydeco squeezebox player, or N’Awlins piano man. But that never stopped him playing, and here he adds his not inconsiderable talents to London’s premier Cajun band of the last century, the Balham Alligators. But, rather than Louisiana, on this upending of the original, it is more a Chicago vibe he occupies. Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings did what sounds a much similar arrangement–unsurprising, given Watkins was an occasional member of the revolving door entourage of top UK session men. He has also been a sometime musical director for Van Morrison and released a handful of solo albums. Currently he is a member of Slim Chance, the revived erstwhile band of the late Ronnie Lane, once of the Faces.
Micky Dolenz – Johnny B. Goode (Chuck Berry cover)
Yes, that Micky Dolenz, the Monkee last standing. That itself makes a valid case for his “Johnny B. Goode”‘s inclusion. But more, much more, it occupies such an unexpected take on the original as to warrant being here anyway. I struggle quite how to describe it; there are elements of tropicália, yet with a touch of the Jordanaires in the BVs. The vocal is light and airy, the guitar an effortless constant, and certainly more than you would expect from a drummer. The parent album, 2012’s Remember, was Dolenz’s scrapbook of influences and touchstones along his path to success and beyond. By the way, if you think this a novel approach to classic rock’n’roll, just catch his take on “Sugar, Sugar.”
Jim & Jesse – Johnny B. Goode (Chuck Berry cover)
Of course there has to be a bluegrass version. In fact, there are quite a few available, to no one’s surprise. This one rises easily to the top of the carton, in part through the mandolin, but more the vocal. So, who Jim and Jesse? Were, is the operative, as this band of brothers is no more, Jim (McReynolds) having succumbed back in 2002, his brother lasting until just this last summer, June 2023. Jim sang lead and played guitar, Jesse harmony and mandolin. Their band, the Virginia Boys, included a number of notables, most prominent being fiddle man Vassar Clements, a not infrequent mention in these pages. This version strays barely a stone’s throw from the melody as initially transcribed, but gives it a whole different traction.
Nikos Tsiamtsikas – Johnny B. Goode (Chuck Berry cover)
I rather like this one, if not entirely sure why. Nikos Tsiamtsikas is a Greek bluesman, and this comes from a 2005 album, Messing With The Blues, which, at least as far as this song is concerned, is well messed. OK, was it ever blues, but the reconstruction isn’t without some attraction. The credits suggest it is Nikos on guitar, bass and vocals, and the bass does shine as the rendition unfolds. The drums smack of no human input, and are credited to the studio engineer, who supplies also the synthesizers the album has elsewhere; I think it’s safe to say he played them with a mouse and a button. Not that that is a fault, the retro repetitive clunkiness quite appealing.
BONUS TRACK: Block & Crown – Johnny B. Goode (Chuck Berry cover)
File under Lord knows what, with elements of ska and house jumbled up in a mix that may have well paid royalties to Chuck, but has rather more, to my ears, lifted from Men At Work’s “Be Good Johnny,” itself an homage to the original song. Do you recognize the original anywhere? Me neither, but that isn’t unusual when the good burghers of Holland cut loose on the Great American Songbook, with Europop never much of a stickler for accepted proprieties. Yes, Block & Chance are from the Netherlands, with a back catalog encompassing a whole bevy of morphed covers designed to promote more fun and unrest than a new toy in a daycare center.