Do Lyrics Matter In A Song?: Chuck Berry Vs B.B. King

The First Great Rock Lyricist: Dont Chuck Berry.

“The thrill is gone
The thrill is gone away
The thrill is gone baby
The thrill is gone away
You know you done me wrong baby
And you’ll be sorry someday”

The Thrill Is Gone – B.B. King

Reading B.B. King’s lyrics without accompaniment is a bit like peeing in a fridge: cold, unsatisfying, and not really what it’s meant for. Slapping his lyrics up on here does the great man a real disservice, but let’s take them as they are for a moment. They’re fairly pedestrian, without much depth or particular interest.

“Way down in Louisiana close to New Orleans
Way back up in the woods among the evergreens
There stood a log cabin made of earth and wood
Where lived a country boy named Johnny B. Goode
He never ever learned to read and write so well
But he could play a guitar just like ringing a bell

Johnny B. Goode – Chuck Berry

Compare his with Mr Berry’s. Chuck’s lyrics absolutely leap off the page. They’re so rich: full of character, energy, imagery, and humour. Mr Berry’s lyrics were so good they defined a whole genre. Not only that, but they lasted: I’ve heard that Johnny B. Goode has been appeared on more albums than any other song in history.

Before the King-ites come howling out of their Blues Dens, I’m not saying that Chuck beats B.B. I’m saying they’re equally good: Blues lyrics are more a vehicle for the music. They highlight the emotions in broad strokes, which is fine, but they struggle with detail.

What Chuck does differently is specificity. He narrows his focus, bringing in literary elements such as character, plot, and setting. He can tackle any subject – from political to romantic – and take it any way he wants – from humorous to sentimental.

The contrast between the two is huge: It’s the difference between seeing the world out of focus and seeing it in 20:20. Being able to accurately portray the world is the greatest and most important facility of the artist, and sometimes broad strokes is not enough.

So yes, lyrics do matter in a song. Unless, of course, you’re King of the Blues.

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4 Comments

Filed under Lyrics, Melody, Performance

4 responses to “Do Lyrics Matter In A Song?: Chuck Berry Vs B.B. King

  1. Ivana

    How important lyrics are? So important that Croatia has finally decided to send a song in English to the ESC (as everybody else has been doing for years). So important that I know at least one *great* songwriter whose music wouldn’t be worth a penny without lyrics. But of course, lyrics are not everything. Otherwise you wouldn’t be able to appreciate instrumental music at all and there are quite a few pieces that can take you places without a single word – including humorous and political. Good music conveys emotion, mood, idea… If you can do that, then you’re safe even if you’re not King of the Blues.

  2. To me song lyrics are wonderful because without lyrics there wouldn’t be a song because when you write a song it’s just like telling a story. Lyrics brings out the song, but the music brings out more into it’s forum so yes lyrics do matter to the songs. I’m a singer-songwriter too and when I write the lyrics I write it like a story. All my songs tells a story though some of them are love songs. My goal is to accomplish my dreams. Always look at it like a song story. The lyrics matter. “Music Is All Around Us, All You Have To Do Is Listen.” The words is worldwide. God bless you all.

  3. It totally depends on the genre – a country song with crappy lyrics is a crappy country song, while an R&B tune can be great with so-so lyrics.

    As an artist, I write really specific lyrics and, if something comes out sounding a bit more generic, it goes into the sync/placement pile and never makes it in my live set or onto the record.

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