Morning name: Roll Over, Beethoven

This was one of two morning names on 2/13/16; I assume it popped up because some of the music that played while I slept was Beethoven. But of course Chuck Berry is something else again:

From Wikipedia:

“Roll Over Beethoven” is a 1956 hit single by Chuck Berry originally released on Chess Records, with “Drifting Heart” as the B-side. The lyrics of the song mention rock and roll and the desire for rhythm and blues to replace classical music. There is a popular saying that a deceased person would “roll over in their grave” if they heard something that would have deeply disturbed them had they been alive. The title line of the song is a reference to how Ludwig van Beethoven would do just that in reaction to the advent of the new musical genre that Chuck Berry was leading. The song has been covered by many other artists [especially notable versions by Jerry Lee Lewis, the Beatles and the Electric Light Orchestra]

Electrifying stuff. (I was 16 at the time, and I was certainly electrified.) First thing: the rock and roll of the time was great stuff. Top of the line: Elvis Presley, and Bill Haley & His Comets, both with what we would now classify as rockabilly, a fusion of (white) country & western and (strongly black) rhythm & blues, but performed by white guys. Chuck Berry was wildly and uncompromisingly black, and that was stunning.

On the other hand (second thing), his music spoke to the (largely young) audience for rock and roll by mostly plugging into themes of teen life, rather than the more adult concerns of c&w and r&b.

Third thing, his guitar playing was astonishing, and the structure of his songs was much more complex than the typical rock and roll of the time, with its four-square metrical and rhyming patterns. Berry’s performances became a kind of text for all serious rock guitarists to study, and many have proclaimed their indebtedness to him. On the complexity front, Berry’s free-form, apparently improvisational song-writing moved rock and roll from its early simplicity to the complexity of giants like the Beatles and the Stones.

From the Wikipedia article on Berry (note esecially the first paragraph):

Charles Edward Anderson “Chuck” Berry (born October 18, 1926) is an American guitarist, singer and songwriter, and one of the pioneers of rock and roll music. With songs such as “Maybellene” (1955), “Roll Over Beethoven” (1956), “Rock and Roll Music” (1957) and “Johnny B. Goode” (1958), Berry refined and developed rhythm and blues into the major elements that made rock and roll distinctive, with lyrics focusing on teen life and consumerism and utilizing guitar solos and showmanship that would be a major influence on subsequent rock music.

Born into a middle-class African-American family in St. Louis, Missouri, Berry had an interest in music from an early age and gave his first public performance at Sumner High School. While still a high school student he was arrested, and served a prison sentence for armed robbery from 1944 to 1947. After his release, Berry settled into married life and worked at an automobile assembly plant. By early 1953, influenced by the guitar riffs and showmanship techniques of blues player T-Bone Walker, Berry began performing with the Johnnie Johnson Trio. His break came when he traveled to Chicago in May 1955, and met Muddy Waters, who suggested he contact Leonard Chess of Chess Records. With Chess he recorded “Maybellene” — Berry’s adaptation of the country song “Ida Red” — which sold over a million copies

“Roll Over, Beethoven” isn’t easy to chart out. Most, but not all, of its verses have what’s written in some places as six lines in three pairs, with the second lines in these pairs all rhyming; in this presentation, line 5 is “Roll over Beethoven”. Here’s verse 2, my favorite:

You know, my temperature’s risin’
And the jukebox blows a fuse

My heart’s beatin’ rhythm
And my soul keeps on singin’ the blues

Roll over Beethoven
and tell Tchaikovsky the news

(Even after all these years, I still find the idea that Beethoven should tell Tchaikovsky the news — about the new order in music — just wonderful.)

You can listen to the original recording here.

The even-numbered lines (in this presentation) all have three end-accented feet, after which there is a space for fancy guitar work. I’m not at all sure how best to analyze the odd-numbered lines, beyond noting that they all end in an unaccented syllable and (in Berry’s performances) latch right onto the next line.

There are videos of Berry’s performances of this song. There’s one (undated, but I’d guess pretty early) from a live performance on French tv, for an audience of French people who pretty clearly had never seen or heard anything like this before, but who fairly quickly got into the beat. You can watch it here.

Then there’s a fairly amiable 1972 tv performance, which you can watch here.

His facial expressions are priceless. And in most videos, you get to see him doing his famous “donkey-walk”.


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