Most people probably think of the song, “In the Mood,” as a quintessential, maybe the quintessential song of the Swing Era, yet it was played only once by any of the five bands that I heard at the recent Big Swing Thing in York, PA. Indeed, the song was the number one selling record for 13 straight weeks in 1940 and stayed on the Billboard charts for 30 weeks, yet, according to Wikipedia, it never reached higher than #15 in sheet music sales, which was considered the most accurate measure of real popularity at the time. The Big Swing Thing orchestras dug deep into the swing music catalogue to play songs that were quite popular with dancers then and I’m sure that many folks today have never heard of most of those songs that were played.
I bring this up to illustrate that what we think are the greatest songs because they are so representative to us, doesn’t mean that the people of the time judged them the same way.
Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” is an excellent example of such a phenomenon. Rolling Stone magazine named it one of the Top 500 songs of all-time, yet at its peak, “Johnny B. Goode” only reached #8 (or #9, depending on your source) on the Billboard Hot 100. In researching what songs charted higher than what was to become one of the iconic tunes of the entire rock ‘n’ roll era, I found an interesting passage from Cecil Adams’ blog. Adams reviewed the composite chart for May of 1958 which found “Johnny B. Goode” ranked 11th for the month:
It got beaten out by the following tunes, some of which, God help me, I cannot remember, and some of which, God help me, I can’t forget: (1) “All I Have To Do Is Dream,” Everly Brothers; (2) “Witch Doctor,” David Seville; (3) “Wear My Ring Around Your Neck,” Elvis Presley; (4) “Twilight Time,” Platters; (5) “He’s Got The Whole World (In His Hands); (6) “Return To Me,” Dean Martin; (7) “Book of Love,” Monotones; (8) “Looking Back/Do I Like It,” Nat “King” Cole; (9) “Tequila,” Champs; (10) Oh Lonesome Me/I Can’t Stop Lovin’ You,” Don Gibson.
So, there you have it. At the time, “Witch Doctor,” by David Seville, a.k.a. Alvin & the Chipmunks, ranked nine spots ahead of “Johnny B. Goode” for May, 1958.
Given the way we revere him today, you would think that Chuck Berry, a man who would be placed on the Mt. Rushmore of Rock ‘n’ Roll if there was one, would have had a string of #1 hits, even if “Johnny B. Goode” was not among them. Surely, “Sweet Little Sixteen” or “Rock and Roll Music” or “Roll Over Beethoven” would have made it to #1, but they made it to #s 2, 8, and 29 respectively. The only Chuck Berry song to reach #1 was “My Ding-a-ling” in November of 1972. Not exactly a classic (even if it does still make me giggle.)
The ultimate lesson is this: The people of a certain era aren’t necessarily the best judge of things from their era. The history of “Johnny B. Goode” is just one example among songs, movies, and other works of art (or dare I say political figures?) that require time and perspective to be truly appreciated.