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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.
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.

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