Chuck Berry’s 1956 smash hit “Roll Over Beethoven” was written as a dig at his sister Lucy, who was always hogging the family piano to play classical music, while the impatient Berry wanted to play R&B. He would say to her “roll over Beethoven.”
The alternative version is that it is about the Rock ‘n’ Roll craze that was taking over America in the 50s. Beethoven and Tchikovsky were classical composers who were being bumped aside by rock and roll. At the time, many critics dismissed rock music as a passing fad.
What is unique about “Roll Over Beethoven” is how fast one of his tunes grabs the listener and then the wittiness of the lyrics kick in as the energy of Berry’s guitar catapults it forward without stop.
The song begins by describing a “jumpin’ little record” that the singer wants the DJ to play, adding, “Roll over Beethoven, I gotta hear it today.” Comparing the music to a feverish illness, Berry sings a celebration of this new musical form, repeating the phrase “Roll over Beethoven” again and again.
His signature blazing guitar riff, accompanied by a pounding piano from lifelong sidekick Johnnie Johnson the track moves forward at a furious speed, the high-speed tempo set by the thundering rhythm of drummer Jasper Thomas.
It’s been said that Berry was careful to write lyrics that told a coherent story, which in this case follows many as he pursues his favorite music with the lyrics chock full of cleverly rhymed references.
As well as referring to classical composers Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, Berry alludes to several popular artists. “Blue Suede Shoes” is the name of a Carl Perkins track and “Early in the mornin’” refers to a Louis Jordan song. “The Cat and the Fiddle” is taken from the nursery rhyme “Hey diddle diddle” is a droll reference to Bo Diddley, an accomplished violinist. The “rhythm revue” mentioned towards the end of the song refers to an old style of R&B show still popular at the time, in which many different artists appeared in front of one big band.
Despite it becoming Rock and Roll’s historical anthem, the very term “Rock and Roll” is barely mentioned- instead, he sings: “my soul keep a singin’ the blues” and “I need a shot of rhythm and blues.”
Chuck Berry took care to deliver his lyrics clearly so a wider audience could understand them. This helped him avoid the fate of many Little Richard songs: more popular, but sanitized covers by people like Pat Boone- which he despised.