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Chuck Berry

Reviewed on this page:
After School Session - Berry Is On Top - New Juke Box Hits - St. Louis To Liverpool - Rock 'N' Roll Rarities - Live At The Fillmore Auditorium - San Francisco - The London Chuck Berry Sessions - Bio - Hail! Hail! Rock 'N' Roll - Chuck

From signature guitar licks to easy-rolling rhythm to preoccupation with cars and girls to serving time, nobody's more rock 'n' roll than Chuck Berry. He didn't invent the genre (Bill Haley's "Rock Around The Clock" came out a year before Berry's 1955 "Maybellene"), but he showed there was more to it than just reckless abandon - spinning a series of catchy, clever youth anthems that inspired generations of rockers. And he did some kind of duckwalk, which I've never seen but apparently was pretty cool. You've probably heard the story of how he showed up at Chess Records as a blues guitarist, had a novelty hit with "Maybellene" and never looked back - in fact, blues legend Willie Dixon was the main bass player on his early recordings, and Berry scattered a few blues songs and guitar instrumentals on each of his early LPs. There has been some dispute about how much of his classic songbook was actually written by pianist Johnnie Johnson, who sued him in the 80s (and died in 2005)... Berry says if Johnson really thought he'd been ripped off, he wouldn't have waited that long to do something about it, which seems reasonable. But it sure is odd that most of his tunes are written in piano keys like F, C and B♭ rather than guitar keys like E, A or D.

Berry's hung around for forty years after his last significant composition, and often his admirers have performed his songs better than he did - both factors make it harder to appreciate how important he was. His voice was decent enough, with remarkably crisp enunciation though not too expressive, and he did have a tendency to repeat his lead guitar riffs. But I don't judge him harshly for that: pioneering artists tend to create their own clichés as they obliterate the clichés of the past. And whenever rock and roll gets too pompous and serious for its own good, new bands return to Berry's approach - garage bands in the 60s, punk in the 70s, grunge in the 90s - but never do it with the same panache.

I guess I'd better list all the Berry covers by artists we've reviewed on the site:

And that's not even counting the homages ("Back In The U.S.S.R.," "Subterranean Homesick Blues"), samples (LL Cool J's "Go Cut Creator Go") and lawsuit-necessitating thefts ("Come Together," "Surfin' USA"). Many of Berry's best songs were only released on greatest hits collections: the one to get is The Great Twenty-Eight, which has all the most important songs in chronological order, and lists personnel. I'd heard a lot of negative feedback about Berry's live shows, but I went to see him in June 2008 and had a blast: read that review here. And yes, there is a fine fan site. (DBW)

After School Session (1957)
Two irresistable classics: "School Days" is perhaps the best demonstration of Berry's direct line to the high school psyche; "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" is one of my favorite Berry melodies, and he even sneaks a little social commentary into the jokey lyric. "Too Much Monkey Business" is even better, a motormouthed rant with equally impressive delivery and wordplay. "Wee Wee Hours," the B-side of Berry's first single, effectively stakes out his claim as a bluesman, and Johnny Johnson's wild piano fills add interest - "No Money Down" combines car lyrics with "Mannish Boy"-style blues stomp. Berry also unveils his first attempt at Caribbean music, "Havana Moon." There are also some instrumentals which are just excuses for Berry's enjoyable soloing (the fast "Roly Poly," the slow slide feature "Deep Feeling"), but not a single misfire. (DBW)

One Dozen Berries (1958)
The big hits were "Sweet Little Sixteen" (the basis for the Beach Boys' "Surfin' USA"), "Reelin' & Rockin'" and "Rock & Roll Music," plus "Oh Baby Doll." (DBW)

Berry Is On Top (1959)
The first two records are packed with hits, but this has got to be Berry's most influential album-length work. "Johnny B. Goode," "Roll Over Beethoven" and of course "Maybellene" are all in the first rank of early rock and roll hits, and five more tunes have become rock classics: "Around And Around" ("Reelin' & Rockin'" continued), the teen love song "Almost Grown," and the troika of lust songs "Carol," "Sweet Little Rock & Roller" and "Little Queenie." Even "Anthony Boy," Berry's stab at Dean Martin-style nightclub singalong, charted (#60). Then there's the deranged, half-spoken Latin mishmash "Hey Pedro," and another slide instrumental "Blues for Hawaiians." And I'm not crazy about Johnson's hunt-and-peck piano style, but it's better heard here than elsewhere. Crisp, economical, era-defining and mostly brilliant. (DBW)

Rockin' At The Hops (1960)
Only four Berry compositions here (including "Bye Bye Johnny" and "Let It Rock"), with a high blues quotient ("Confessin' The Blues," "Worried Life Blues"). (DBW)

New Juke Box Hits (1961)
Generally lacking in melody, energy and confidence, with just two great cuts: "I'm Talking About You" (which makes good use of the "Peter Gunn" bass line) and "Don't You Lie To Me," one of several tracks featuring L.C. Davis on tenor sax. Otherwise, it's a bunch of dull uptempo numbers ("Thirteen Question Method"), interchangeable ballads ("The Way It Was Before," "Diploma For Two"), and phoned-in covers ("Route 66," "Rip It Up"). Oddly, Berry brings in a corny vocal group to back him on several tracks ("Away From You"), as if he thought he was Ray Charles - when he starts playing his usual acerbic solo, it's quite a contrast, and not a pleasing one. After this disc, Berry cranked out one further single, "Come On," before going to prison on a violation of the Mann Act ("transporting minors across state lines for immoral purposes" - Chuck admits he brought the 14-year-old across state lines, but claims the immoral consequences were entirely her idea). (DBW)

Two Great Guitars (Chuck Berry & Bo Diddley: 1964)

St. Louis To Liverpool (1964)
Likely his last solid album, with four big deal hits: "Little Marie" (a sequel to "Memphis"), "No Particular Place To Go," "Promised Land" and "You Never Can Tell." Each has clever lyrics, though they're all rehashes of his classic sound, and a couple of other tunes are even more blatant ("Go Bobby Soxer," which manages to reuse bits and pieces from half a dozen Berry songs). As usual, he stretches most on the instrumentals: "Liverpool Drive" has some manic soloing though the title seems purely inspired by marketing rather than any audible Mop Top influence; "Night Beat" does live up to its name, a quietly desperate evocation of a nightclub after closing. Everything's by Chuck except for covers of "Merry Christmas Baby" and Elmore James's "Things I Used To Do"; my LP doesn't list a producer or sidemen, but I assume Johnnie Johnson was still pounding the keys. (DBW)

Fresh Berry's (1965)
"It Wasn't Me" - a wry look at Berry's legal troubles - is the only song here I'm familiar with. (DBW)

Rock 'N' Roll Rarities (rec. 1957-1965, rel. 1986)
At the dawn of the CD age, Chess decided to release this collection of alternate takes and mixes rather than reissuing the original albums. There's not much to recommend this if you have the original recordings, but there is one terrific previously unreleased track: the wistful love song "Time Was." And it's got enough of the classic hits to make it a good reference point if you see it real cheap. (DBW)

Golden Hits (1966)
Berry suddenly jumped to Mercury Records, and in Little Richard mode, immediately re-recorded his biggest Chess hits. (DBW)

In Memphis (1967)
I have most of these tracks on a cut-rate vinyl reissue, and they're mostly re-recordings of his hits ("Back To Memphis," "Sweet Little Rock And Roller") or standards ("Goodnight Well It's Time To Go," "Ramblin' Rose," "It Hurts Me Too"). Despite all that, the record's enjoyable enough, with louder guitars and more prominent sax than his Chess work. I'll dig out my copy and review it comprehensively at some point. (DBW)

Live At The Fillmore Auditorium - San Francisco (1967)
Two-minute rock 'n' roll was out, and slow blues was in, so Berry fell back on the Chicago blues that had brought him to Chess in the first place. The good news is, he's convincing and compelling as a blues interpreter ("Driftin' Blues"), and he amply displays his quirky, double-stopped guitar technique on a wider range of material. The bad news is, most of the songs are awfully familiar ("Hoochie Coochie Man," "Everyday I Have The Blues"). The only rockers he plays are "Reelin' And Rockin'," and the high-speed set-closer "Johnny B. Goode" - for variety he throws in the childish ode to masturbation "My Ding-A-Ling." For all its faults, though, this double-length CD is probably your best bet to hear Berry live. My 1994 reissue contains two bonus tracks: Berry's quality instrumental "Feelin' It" and a version of "It Hurts Me Too" with backup vocals from Steve Miller. Throughout, the band is Miller's, since by now Berry had abandoned the concept of a regular band and was using whatever locals he could scrounge up at each tour stop. (DBW)

From St. Louis To Frisco (1968)

Concerto In B Goode (1969)
Chuck goes psychedelic: the entire second side is a 17-minute version of "Johnny B. Goode." (DBW)

Back Home (1970)
The title refers to his return to Chess Records.

San Francisco Dues (1972)

The London Chuck Berry Sessions (1972)
Someday I'll pull together a feature on The London Everybody-And-His-Grandmother Sessions. Anyway, there's one studio side and one live side, and neither is worth hearing. It's not as star-studded as the similar Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters releases, but the studio tracks do feature Ian McLagan and Kenny Jones on a batch of intermittently interesting blues jams ("London Berry Blues," "Let's Boogie"). The live tunes, featuring a cast of no-names, are incredibly lengthy and frequently boring ("Reelin' & Rockin'"), capped with an 11-minute rendition of "My Ding-A-Ling" - a heavily abridged single version became a surprise #1 hit, Berry's first and last. (DBW)

Bio (1973)
Rather than follow up "Ding-A-Ling" with more nursery rhyme smut, Berry delivered his most sober, reflective work to date. All new Berry originals, encompassing his trademark rock and roll ("Hello Little Girl, Goodbye") and slow blues ("Aimlessly Driftin'"), but everything's dour and dispirited. The title track, a bittersweet summary of Berry's recording career, was a single, but it's not particularly gripping; the lengthy "Talkin' About My Buddy" is downright depressing. The problem is, Berry's brisk, precise approach - though it can convey sorrow, as on "Time Was" - couldn't be less suited to songs of world-weary angst. At least the sound is crisp, with the band more clearly recorded than on the early records; "Woodpecker" is the oddball cut, a medium-slow rollicking instrumental where Berry trades solos with a sax player (uncredited, like the other players). (DBW)

Chuck Berry (1975)

Rock It (1979)
The single was "California." (DBW)

Hail! Hail! Rock 'N' Roll (1987)
Keith Richards put together an all-star concert for Berry's 60th birthday, and a film and soundtrack LP followed. The set list is predictable - "Johnny B. Goode," "Maybellene," etc. - and the band is precise, but not too exciting: Richards is inaudible on rhythm guitar. Berry seems to be in a good mood, but he dashes through each tune as if it was past his dinnertime ("Around And Around"). Almost all the guest vocalists play it too safe, afraid to steal Berry's spotlight - Eric Clapton on "Wee Wee Hours," Robert Cray on "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" - the exceptions are Linda Ronstadt, who reprises her overblown cover of "Back In The U.S.A.," and blues legend Etta James, who shows no sense of subtlety or pitch, and frankly sounds like your aunt who drinks too much at family functions and monopolizes the karaoke machine ("Rock 'N' Roll Music"). (DBW)

Chuck (2017)
Berry's first new studio album in almost forty years was completed before he passed away in early 2017. (DBW)

Go, Johnny, go.

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