Monday, April 24, 2017

The Great Forty-Seven.


As I've listened to Chuck Berry over the past month & a half, I was shocked to realize how small his initial output was.

In his most classic & influential decade--the 1950s--he released a mere 47 songs.

That's it.

Originally issued on three LPs connected by a string of singles, these songs helped to provide the backbone of rock & roll, defining its sound & style.

Until The Beatles hit, only Elvis's discography would be more influential, & even that had over twice as many releases in the '50s than Chuck Berry's did.

But as rock's first great songwriter & guitarist, Berry's '50s discography is a tighter, more precise document. It also speaks of the breadth of rock as a music & source of subject-matter. Over the course of these 47 recordings you can find driving rock, deep blues, country stomps, Latin jams, Christmas songs, & 1940s-style pop crooning.

You can also find songs about cars--buying cars & riding in cars, Cadillacs & Fords, racing cars & flying in cars. You can find songs about girls--getting girls & losing girls, dancing with girls & flirting with girls, thinking about girls & shying away from girls. You can find songs about school--going to school & getting out of school, complaining about school & celebrating school, walking to school & talking about school. & you can find songs about rock--singing about rock & dancing to rock, adoring rock & rebelling to rock, describing rock & listening to rock.

Cars, girls, school, & rock--it doesn't get more elemental than that.

But there is so much more. Chuck Berry's music solidifies a decided American music with a decidedly American vision. Along the way, there are not just teens & guitars, but hamburgers, gas stations, & baseball diamonds; blacks, whites, Jews, Hawaiians, Mexicans, & American Indians; locations as diverse as the San Francisco Bay & deep in the heart of Texas, way down in New Orleans & all over St. Louis, Chattanooga & Detroit, Boston & Baton Rogue, Philadelphia & Pittsburgh, & Portland, Maine. People touch ground on runways, they race each other in the streets, they chase biblical temptresses & are scared straight by visions of hell, they call up district attorneys, they dance on television. People are born poor & dream of a better life.

In the end, these 47 songs aren't just a (or perhaps the) foundation of rock, they are the foundation of modern America.

What follows is the stats for each song, along with a short review & a ranking on a five-star scale:


***** = Classic
**** = Great
*** = Good
** = Fair
* = Poor

'Cuz like the man said, you gotta hear something that's really hot.


* * *

1. Maybellene [Single A-Side, 1955; #5 US / #1 R&B] *****

The most influential debut single of a major rock star, period. This song changed everything as Berry readapted the country tune "Ida Red" into a song about rock's two founding subjects--cars & girls--& all but invented rock guitar in between.


2. Wee Wee Hours [Single B-Side, 1955; #10 R&B] ****

Berry would take many excursions into the blues over the years, but this was his first & finest. "One little song for a fading memory," he sings, proving that you didn't have to wait another decade before rock music contained poetry.


3. Thirty Days [Single A-Side 1955; #2 R&B] *****

A country romp with just enough blues to bubble over into one of the hardest records of its time. & if it wasn't amazing enough on its own merit, it will always be of paramount historical importance for containing the line that inspired the titular phrase "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction."


4. Together (We Will Always Be) [Single B-Side, 1955] **1/2

Berry reaches for Nat King Cole (& not for the last time) on this long-forgotten B-side, which Berry himself would have loved to see buried. It's not all that bad from a historical perspective but is far from his most memorable work.


5. No Money Down [Single A-Side, 1955; #8 R&B] ***

The great lost Berry A-side from his otherwise flawless streak through to the end of 1958, & oddly a fairly big R&B hit to boot. The stop-start blues pattern may have made it seem not rocking enough, but the car-obsessed subject matter was already intact, down to the smallest detail.


6. The Downbound Train [Single B-Side, 1955] ****

Fierce, spooky rockabilly that could go up against anything that Warren Smith cut at Sun Records. It remains one of the finest train songs of the 1950s, & even came complete with a moral.


7. Roll Over Beethoven [Single A-side, 1956; #29 US / #2 R&B] *****

A rock & roll call-to-arms, brilliant in concept, flawless in execution.


8. Drifting Heart [Single B-Side, 1956] **1/2

The title was country & the chords were jazz, but the tempo was a dinner-club shuffle. It's tempting to call it a glimpse into the music that Berry would've kept making if he hadn't stumbled upon "Maybellene."


9. Too Much Monkey Business [Single A-Side, 1956; #4 R&B] *****

Berry perfects rock & roll's teenage-subject vantage point, filled with fast, witty lines about the "botheration" of modern life. Played today, you can hear both the restlessness of a plugged-in Dylan & the hunger of a young Springsteen.


10. Brown-Eyed Handsome Man [Single B-Side, 1956] *****

Rock's first protest song (the first words are literally "Arrested on charges of unemployment"), cleverly disguised it as love song. The scope is staggering--it goes from the courtroom to the desert to way back in history before landing on Jackie Robinson hitting a homer, as women everywhere chase that elusive Brown-Eyed Handsome Man.


11. You Can't Catch Me [Single A-Side, 1956] *****

The hit that should've been, taking the Platonic car of "No Money Down," giving it wings, & using phraseology so perfect that John Lennon would later get sued for lifting it in "Come Together." Not that you could blame him.


12. Havana Moon [Single B-Side, 1956] ****

A proto-Jamaican groove with pidgin English that would directly inspire the original version of "Louie, Louie." & its deceptively simple tale of love, loss, & rum could nearly double as a Hemingway short story.


13. School Days [Single A-Side, 1957; #3 US / #1 R&B / #24 UK] *****

A driving stop-&-start stomp that tells the agony of the school day, followed by the ecstasy of the three o'clock bell, perfectly captured in a victory dance with words that have long since echoed through the core of the popular music canon: "Hail, hail rock & roll!"


14. Deep Feeling [Single B-Side, 1957] ***

The first of many Berry instrumentals was also one of the best. With the words put away & the tempo slowed to a blues, he could stretch out his strings in a way that was just as articulate as his finest lyrics.


15. Roly Poly [Album Track, After School Session, 1957] **

A lesser instrumental.


16. Berry Pickin' [Album Track, After School Session, 1957] ***

Another fine instrumental, built around a Latin shuffle that shows off his way around a groove.


17. Oh Baby Doll [Single A-Side, 1957; #57 US / #12 R&B] ***

Although it wasn't too much of a hit, someone at Chess must've liked it because it appears on nearly all of the early Chuck Berry compilations. Now its creaky references to singing "old alma matter" & vaudevillian shuffle make it one of the few Berry classics that hasn't aged well.


18. La Jaunda [Single B-Side, 1957] *

An endless Mexican ballad that ranks as Berry's first real clunker, but judging by the sound of it, it may have inspired Jay & The Americans' "Come A Little Bit Closer."


19. Rock & Roll Music [Single A-Side, 1957; #8 US / #6 R&B] *****

A tour of a burgeoning young music that takes in a brave, new world & misses nothing. No wonder The Beatles couldn't get enough of it.


20. Blue Feeling [Single B-Side, 1957] **1/2

Another lesser instrumental, redeemed by the charging chords midway through.


21. Sweet Little Sixteen [Single A-Side, 1958; #2 US / #1 R&B / #16 UK] *****

All corners of the rock globe closing in on a Sweet Little Sixteen dancer, apparently on American Bandstand. & with the tumbling drums and the ringing piano, a reminder that Berry also had one of the best bands in the business.


22. Reelin' & Rockin' [Single B-Side, 1958] ****

"Rock Around The Clock," stripped of its cuteness & filled with hot licks & cool irony. In the 1970s, Berry would blow its cover & re-record it as a song about sex, but it's the original dance-floor version that he revived & sang into his old age.


23. Rockin' At The Philharmonic [Album Track, One Dozen Berrys, 1958] **

As an album track, it's filler, but as a historical document, it's a revelation: A cover of the first entry in Jim Dawson & Steve Propes' What Was The First Rock & Roll Record?, "Blues, Part 2" by Jazz at the Philharmonic: Illinois Jacquet & Jack McVea, J.J. Johnson, Nat King Cole, Les Paul, Johnny Miller, & Lee Young, 1944.


24. Guitar Boogie [Album Track, One Dozen Berrys, 1958] ***

The rare Berry instrumental that was more than the sum of its parts--as aerobic a workout as the electric guitar would get until Jimi Hendrix came along nearly a decade later; it's little wonder that the same year he burst upon the UK scene, The Jeff Beck-era Yardbirds laced it in acid to produce "Beck's Boogie."


25. In-Go [Album Track, One Dozen Berrys, 1958] **

Berry used instrumental cuts in the '50s the same way that Elvis would use movie songs in the '60s: A quick way to fill up LPs. & so, after the flash of brilliance in "Guitar Boogie," we're back to a forgettable R&B shuffle.


26. How You've Changed [Album Track, One Dozen Berrys, 1958] **

Another venture into Nat King Cole territory that no one asked for & no one needed.


27. Low Feeling [Album Track, One Dozen Berrys, 1958] *

A cheat--"Blue Feeling" slowed down & issued as a new track. Philosophically speaking, it was the worst song Berry would release all decade.


28. It Don't Take But A Few Minutes [Album Track, One Dozen Berrys, 1958] ***

After the swindle of "Low Feeling," One Dozen Berrys is revived by this cut, which mysteriously emerges out of & reemerges back into the ether like a Bob Dylan basement tape. & conceived as a jaunty celebration of a Jewish girl who dared to track down Berry at the colored-only hotels in the Deep South, it is another slice of his complex Americana.


29. Johnny B. Goode [Single A-Side, 1958; #8 US / #2 R&B] *****

Rock & roll's greatest record, period. Anyone getting misty-eyed over "Like A Rolling Stone" or "Satisfaction" or "A Day In The Life" doesn't know what they're talking about. Not coincidentally, it's also rock first (& finest) articulation of The American Dream.


30: Around & Around [Single B-Side, 1958] ****

A call-&-response dance floor rocker that was so irresistible, it was covered by The Rolling Stones. & The Animals. & David Bowie. & The Grateful Dead. & The Germs. & Guided By Voices. You get the picture.


31. Beautiful Delilah [Single A-Side, 1958; #81 US] ***

The sole non-holiday Berry A-side not to appear on an LP until the 1960s, it is the closest thing he has to a forgotten classic--perhaps this is what attracted the future kultist Kinks to it. It is also the closest Berry would step into biblical territory, with the archetypal vixen as its focus.


32. Vacation Time [Single B-Side, 1958] **

A forgotten B-side that, unlike its flip, deserves to be forgotten.


33. Carol [Single A-Side, 1958; #18 US / #9 R&B] ****

A breakneck rocker about learning to dance to impress a girl, filled with enough hot licks to make Keith Richards work overtime. Also one of the few songs in history to be covered by both The Beatles & The Rolling Stones.


34. Hey Pedro [Single B-Side, 1958] *

Barely a song, this two-minute groove ventures into sleeping-under-a-large-sombrero near-racism that remains Berry's worst original song of the decade. Oddly, it still made it onto his finest album, over superior songs like "Beautiful Delilah."


35. Sweet Little Rock & Roller [Single A-Side, 1958; #47 US / #13 R&B] ***

A single for the Christmas season that finds Berry in solid form, but recycling lyrical tropes like the young rocker better used in "Sweet Little Sixteen" & musical tropes like the sharp, driving intro better used in "Carol."


36. Jo Jo Gunne [Single B-Side, 1958; #71 US] **

Berry ventures back to 4000 B.C. for this jungle fable that's chockfull of quick, clever lyrics, but lacks the overall punch of his finest material.


37. Run Rudolph Run [Single A-Side, 1958; #69 US / #36 UK] ****

Sure, it sounds like the rest of his hits, but when Berry applied himself, as he does here, what a sound! Also may be the first yuletide song by a rock singer-songwriter; only Elvis' Christmas Album comes before it in the rock canon, & you know that none of those songs were written by Elvis.


38. Merry Christmas Baby [Single B-Side, 1958; #71 US] ***

A fine cover of Charles Brown's laid-back Christmas fare that has been overshadowed by Elvis's dirty version recorded a dozen Christmases later.


39. Anthony Boy [Single A-Side, 1959; #60 US] **

Label chief Leonard Chess asked Berry to write a song for "the Italian market" & Berry came up with this bouncy concoction, his shortest record of the '50s & not much of a hit. It didn't deserve to be--easily his weakest A-side of the decade.


40. That's My Desire [Single B-Side, 1959] **

A cha-cha flip-side that sounds like more like studio musicians latching onto a new style than a rock combo crafting great music. Sam Cooke's "Everybody Loves To Cha Cha Cha" released earlier that year proved that it was possible to do both.


41. Almost Grown [Single A-Side, 1959; #32 US / #3 R&B] ****

A coming-of-age tale, backed by The Moonglows, featuring a young Marvin Gaye, who himself was coming-of-age. Maybe it was his spirit that helped carry the song--whatever it was, over-30-year-old Berry sings it like a dragster's dare.


42. Little Queenie [Single B-Side, 1959; #80 US] ****

One of Berry's finest B-sides, featuring one of rock's great internal monologues. So driving & clever that Jerry Lee Lewis would try to make it his own, but to my ears it lives on as a secret inspiration for The Beatles' "I Saw Her Standing There."


43. Blues For Hawaiians [Album Track, Chuck Berry Is On Top, 1959] **1/2

Clocking in at nearly three-&-a-half minutes, this was Berry's longest song of the decade, & spoke to his fascination with slide guitar. Never one to miss a beat, Chess would retitle & repackage it the following decade as "Surfing Steel."


44. Back In The U.S.A. [Single A-Side, 1959; #37 US / #16 R&B] ****

An unabashed celebration of The Land Of The Free, which, as Greil Marcus has pointed out, is stunning for its lack of irony. This is all the more remarkable since Berry wrote it while struggling with his country's racist judicial system.


45. Memphis, Tennessee [Single B-Side, 1959; #6 UK] *****

A sleeper flip-side that sounded like country & would go onto become of Berry's most-covered songs ever. It also spoke to his mastery of songwriting: Set up like a folksong, it held a surprise twist ending--the girl that was its focus was not a spurned lover, but a six-year-old girl he longed to reconnect with. (& in the minor '60s hit, "Little Marie," he does.)


46. Broken Arrow [Single A-Side, 1959; #108 US] **

Berry ended the 1950s with his first A-side not to make the US Pop or R&B Top 100 since "You Can't Catch Me," which was perhaps a harbinger of tough times to come for the '50s rockers in the new decade. & if its Indian-savage first verse hasn't aged particularly well, the quick wit of the other verses redeem it--even if it was based on "Old MacDonald Had A Farm."


47. Childhood Sweetheart [Single B-Side, 1959] ***

Berry closes the decade with a tune of wistful nostalgia, in a fine cut that finds him seeking solidarity in the harmonies of doo-wop.


* * *

In 47 songs, Chuck Berry defined a music & a country for a new age.

For this, he is & shall always remain an iconic legend of rock & roll whose finest music will never age a day.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Big Little Elvises.


[WARNING: This article contains a hunka-hunka burnin' SPOILERS.]

Last night I finally got caught up with Big Little Lies & like so many others, I was shocked--SHOCKED!--by the revelation in the finale: THERE WAS SO MUCH ELVIS!

I have never seen Elvis embodied so thoroughly, so accurately, so lovingly, & with so much variety, as here & yet in a way that was completely tangental to the main plot. Which is to say, if you take Elvis out of the story, the story remains entirely intact.

Based on the Liane Moriarty novel of the same name, Big Little Lies follows a group of deeply unhappy women in Monterey & the darkness that lies beneath their seemingly idyllic & lavish California lives. The fact that the climax occurs at an Elvis & Audrey trivia night (dads dress as Presley, moms dress as Hepburn) for their children's school is somewhat incidental; it could have happened at a normal dress-up fundraiser. Perhaps it was a statement on their rich lives or post-'60s masculinity & femininity, or maybe it was an excuse to get that spooky-but-awesome line of Audreys used in the opening montage.

At any rate, someone on the show LOVES Elvis because they got things done with so much loving detail that it made me wonder if every dad in Monterey was an Elvis expert. I mean, the show could've just as easily put everyone in jumpsuits & nobody would have faulted the show, let alone noticed. &, as an added bonus, there was a Elvis singing contest that three of characters entered, which meant that Elvis songs were sang throughout.

But this finale episode was different, & spoke to the ubiquity & pop culture saturation of Elvis in a way that no other modern figure can touch. Is there anyone else who is so iconic in so many different looks from so many different eras?

So let's take a look, with a special thanks to Vulture, who already briefly mined this territory & from whom I lifted the pictures below to save time, energy, & sanity (thanks, Vulture!).

Let's go in chronological order...of Elvis!



James Tupper as Nathan Carlson As Jailhouse Rock Elvis (1958).


Confident & cocky James Tupper's Nathan Carlson chose to be Elvis in Jailhouse Rock, the film in which Elvis plays Vince Everett, a confident & cocky prison inmate who, rashness aside, is a decent guy underneath it all. Pretty good choice for macho, salt-of-the-earth Nathan, with a costume that's correct down through the stenciled 6240 prison number. Only strange part is that he doesn't actually sing "Jailhouse Rock" in the contest. After an earlier scene finds him testing out the brooding "Burning Love" & "Trouble" but he ends up crooning "How's The World Treating You?", a lackluster ballad from Elvis's second album Elvis in 1956. Of course, his song seems to occur during the dramatic murder sequence, so maybe it was put in to represent a voice of fate, although others hear it as a diss track to his rival Adam Scott's Ed. Still, it's a weird choice since only the most devoted Elvis fans would've known it--in real life, the dance floor would've been filled with the idle chatter of the disinterested.



Jeffrey Nordling as Gordon Klein As Gold Lame' Suit Elvis (1959).



Jeffrey Nordling's Gordon Klein takes on his version of Elvis's gold lame' suit, which he wore on the cover of 1959's 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong: Elvis' Gold Records, Vol. 2. It feels like a pretty flat choice for a pretty flat character: His main appeal is his massive amount of money; it's hard to figure out why else Laura Dern's Renata would put up with him otherwise. He's a drip in search of a backbone, but he's rich so, sure, why not, do the gold lame' suit thing? It's also the least-accurate of the costumes, what with the black undershirt & gold chains that Elvis wouldn't wear for at least another decade. & he didn't even bother to shave his beard.



Adam Scott as Ed Mackenzie As Blue Hawaii Elvis (1961).


After an earlier scene teased us with Adam Scott's Ed Mackenzie wearing a '70s Vegas jumpsuit costume & crooning "One Night" before his daughter suggests the less-obvious (& less-good) "Pocket Full Of Rainbows." Based on this, I assumed Ed would be dressed in a jumpsuit & singing "Rainbows," but he ended up surprising us all. He instead shaved his beard (!), slipped into a Hawaiian shirt & lei (after all, Ed did say that he loves costumes). For the talent competition, Ed sang a lovely rendition of "The Wonder Of You," a beautiful song that actually did date from the jumpsuit era. Like everyone else who was watching, I wondered if it was/wanted it to be Adam Scott singing, but alas, it was not. Carefully sung as a tender ballad (Ed is smart enough to know that no one could touch Elvis's overwrought storm of a reading), it spoke of his simple devotion to Reese Witherspoon's Madeline, who gets it & is so touched that she cuts out in the middle of the song. We are left to assume that Ed Mackenzie is the only nice person with a y-chromosone in Monterey.



Alexander Skarsgard as Perry Wright As '68 Comeback Special Elvis (1968).



I was fascinated by the fact that Alexander Skarsgard's Perry Wright was the Comeback Elvis. For starters, his character is constantly leaving & coming back, both physically, as work often takes him on trips (probably) & psychologically, as he turns from a seemingly devoted husband into a rage-filled monster just as frequently. Thus, his whole character is about coming back &, as his long-suffering wife, Nicole Kidman's Celeste finally acknowledges in this episode, will keep coming back until she leaves him. If you listen to Elvis's best music from & directly after The Comeback Special, much of it seems to contain a thinly-veiled layer of rage--just check out "Guitar Man" or "Wearin' That Loved On Look." It is the music of a displaced man & part of its thrill lies in its intensity, the terror at which Elvis feels his convictions. With Neil Young's "Helpless" playing over an earlier scene of Celeste's abuse & The Temptations' "Papa Was A Rolling Stone" being lip-synched by fatherless child Ziggy in an earlier episode, one cannot help but wonder what song Perry would have sung had he not been brutally murdered by Bonnie. (Which makes him the only character to also play an equally influential Elvis: Dead Elvis.)



Oh yes, & Bonnie. Zoe Kravitz's Bonnie is the only Audrey Hepburn to sing at the event, as she croons a beautiful rendition of "Don't," Elvis's last single before he went into the Army. 


She is also the only actor who didn't have to lip-sync to another singer (as the daughter of Lenny Kravitz & Lisa Bonet, she didn't need to). She gives a performance that is completely sultry & feminine, reminding you just how gentle Elvis could be to impress the ladies. It is also a reminder of how great the oft-overlooked "Don't" is.

& although I can't find a picture of it, Santiago Cabrera's Joseph was a great '50s Elvis, dressed in the black-&-white suit Elvis often wore onstage & on TV. Out of all the actors, he is the one who naturally looks the most like Elvis, so for him, it felt like less of a costume than as a second skin. Given his stage background, one wonders if crooned elsewhere in the night too. Maybe he too was planning to sing "The Wonder Of You" to Madeline, although "Suspicious Minds" would've been the more appropriate choice.

I also love the Elvises that we only saw glimpses of--the African-American purple Vegas Elvis who we see sing the end of a slow-burn "Treat Me Nice"; the military Private Elvis we see in one shot as people are walking in; all the half-assed Elvises who simply threw on glasses & or fake sideburns because they didn't care enough to do any better.

& perhaps that speaks to the depth of the Elvis well. Iconic & versatile as she was, Audrey never had a chance against Elvis. Most of the women were variations on Breakfast At Tiffany's with a few My Fair "Ladies" thrown in, although I was rewarded in a long-shot of a Sabrina. For so many different men to delve into so many different Elvises, it begs the question, if you were attending this party, which Elvis would you go as? Or more directly, which Elvis are you?

I've often held that Elvis is a figure like William Shakespeare or Abraham Lincoln--we project onto him how we would like to see ourselves.

Much to my surprise & delight, the finale of Big Little Lies showed what a multi-layered & multi-faceted exercise this could be.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Chuck Berry: The Complete Discography, 1955-1964.


Since Chuck Berry died a month ago, I've been listening to nothing but his music. It is easy music, in that it doesn't demand much & rewards the listener tenfold. There is also not that much of it, in the classic period anyway.

11 albums, to be specific.

& of those 11 albums, one is a multi-artist compilation, one is a duet record, & two are greatest hits LPs.

So it's really more like 7 records. Of which one is a poorly-masquerading "live" album of mostly-previously-released material.

So 6 records. At any rate, you get the picture.

Chuck Berry's first decade of music from "Maybellene" in 1955 through "Promised Land" in 1964 will always be his paramount era that the rest of his career (& most other rockers' careers) will be held against. It was all released on Chess Records & it was all classic. You can hear him hit the ground running (literally, in a song about a car) with a fresh new sound in the middle of the '50s, chase it over the course of a string of hits over the remainder of the '50s, try to find new roads in the early '60s, get thrown in jail for a few years, & then rebound upon release with some of his finest music in 1964.

Soon after 1964, his music lost its steam; only one song after this period--"Let Me Be Your Driver"--is considered a Chuck Berry classic, & it's essentially a rewrite of a song from this period. It's no wonder that by 1966, Berry had jumped ship to Mercury Records, where he recorded a few minor gems (& far more inferior re-recordings of his earlier hits), found his way back home to Chess Records like the prodigal son of a Brown-Eyed Handsome Man, & scored a fluke hit with the throwaway novelty "My Ding-A-Ling" in 1972, but by then, he was already living off of his back catalog, all of which is included here.

What follows is reviews of all the albums he released in his first decade of music-making--or, the albums to first contain this music. Not every song that he released in this period is here; by my count there are five MIAs: Both sides of the "Beautiful Delilah"/"Vacation Time" single, the Christmas tune "Run Rudolph Run," & the B-sides "That's My Desire" & "O Rangutang," which were issued as the flips of "Anthony Boy" & "Nadine," respectively. None are truly essential, although "Beautiful Delilah" & "Run Rudolph Run" remain fine classics that are readily available in the digital era.

But for our purposes here, we will focus on the albums as, incidental as it may have been in rock's infancy, they are the way in which rock music has been packaged for the last 50 years.

& it goes without saying that Chuck Berry has contributed more than a few classics to the genre.

All of these albums are ranked on the following five-star scale:

***** = Classic
**** = Great
*** = Good
** = Fair
* = Poor

There's more than enough here to keep your heart beatin' rhythm & your soul keep a-singin' the blues.


Rock, Rock, Rock [Chess, 1956] ***




Chuck Berry's first appearance on an LP was also Chess Records' first LP, period--which says a lot about the mid-1950s R&B/blues market since they were the home of Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, & many more. But the occasion of Berry's appearance in the film Rock, Rock, Rock--along with Chess & (Chess subsidiary) Checker--label-mates The Moonglows & The Flamingos) was reason enough to put an LP together, & they came up with this, the archetypal rock soundtrack. Although Berry only sang one song in the film, "You Can't Catch Me," he gets his three other biggest hits up to that point to round out the LP, "Maybellene," Thirty Days," & "Roll Over Beethoven," along with other songs by The Moonglows & Flamingos that similarly did & did not appear in the film. As we will see, the strictness of the 1950s LP market prevented these classics to be MIA from Berry's first several albums, with "Thirty Days" not making an LP until the following decade. But his own LP catalog's loss is this LP's gain, as it stands as a snapshot of African-American rock the year that Elvis broke the music through. That said, it's interest is primarily a historical one, with Berry's tunes sticking out like lightning & pointing the way to the future that none of the artists could have ever imagined.



After School Session [Chess, 1957] ****


Six months after Rock, Rock, Rock, Berry got his own full-length album debut After School Session, & it stands as one of the classic debuts in rock history. Stripped of hits like "Maybellene," "Thirty Days," & "Roll Over Beethoven" (all of which were culled for the Rock, Rock, Rock soundtrack), After School Session does its job quite well & is a testament to the high quality of Berry's initial output. The album is remarkably well-paced, with up-tempo rockers alternating between mid-tempo blues for a variety that one might not expect when you only hear Berry's big hits. The opening run of the anthemic "School Days," the lovely instrumental "Deep Feeling," the fast & sly "Too Much Monkey Business," & the sweet blues of "Wee Wee Hours" get things off to an especially remarkable start. If the rest of the album doesn't quite live up to these, few albums could. "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man" finds Berry dipping his toe into politics, "Havana Moon" is a near proto-Jamacian style groove, & "Downtown Train" is as terrifying a rockabilly number as has ever been waxed. But it's the odd deep cuts, like the long-forgotten '50s ballad "Together (We Will Always Be)" & the jazz-inspired "Drifting Heart" that show both where this new music Berry was helping to shape had come from--& hints at other places it could have gone.



One Dozen Berrys [Chess, 1958] ***


As one of rock's first major artists, Chuck Berry also experienced one of rock's major curses: The second album sophomore slump. In his case, it isn't bad per se--no album with "Sweet Little Sixteen," "Rock & Roll Music," & "Reelin' & Rockin'" could be--but it definitely feels like a holding pattern as opposed to a leap ahead. Aside from the aforementioned hits, the Chuck Berry classic to make the LP was the minor hit "Oh Baby Doll," which has aged worse than any other of his early string of hits. The album is filled out by, well, filler--instrumentals and B-sides, & little of note. The only exceptions are "Guitar Boogie" (the godfather of The Yardbirds' "Beck's Boogie"), which serves as a aerobic workout for rock guitar, & "It Don't Take But A Few Minutes," which shows that Berry could throw a decent rocker together in what sounds like was no more than a few minutes. Worst of all is "Low Feeling," a slowed-down playback of the B-side "Blue Feeling" (which also appears earlier on this album), just shows how much they were scrounging for material. But they shouldn't have been. Like After School Session, One Dozen Berrys could have been greatly improved by the singles that already had appeared on Rock, Rock, Rock, but for the second time in a row, the absence of these songs when held up against the filler that took their place denied Berry of a great record. Luckily, this wouldn't happen again.



Chuck Berry Is On Top [Chess, 1959] *****


Chuck Berry's masterpiece is rock's great lost masterpiece. Although it rarely makes a "great album" list, the stupidly-titled, ugly-designed Chuck Berry Is On Top at the very least holds its own with his peers' '50s masterpieces like Elvis Presley, Here's Little Richard, & Buddy Holly's The "Chirping" Crickets, & might even beat all three. Finally--FINALLY!--whatever powers-that-be at Chess realized they were shooting themselves in the foot for withholding the songs from Rock, Rock, Rock, so for the first time, "Maybellene" & "Roll Over Beethoven" appeared on a Chuck Berry LP. This may not be worth much except for the fact that the rest of the newer material found him mostly matching if not surpassing this material. "Carol," "Little Queenie," & "Around & Around" are all classics, but it's the epic "Johnny B. Goode" at the end of the first side that blows the roof off the joint & stamps this album as a classic. Even "Anthony Boy" & "Jo Jo Gunne" are minor classics in the Chuck Berry canon. The only cutoff in quality comes at the tail end, with the borderline racist "Hey Pedro" & the fine-but-not-amazing instrumental "Blues For Hawaiians." They feel more like a coda that wasn't needed, but do nothing to blunt the whole record's impact. Which is a huge one.



Rockin' At The Hops [Chess, 1960] ***1/2


If you need evidence whether The Rolling Stones are impossible without Chuck Berry, look no further than this record. They covered three out of the first four songs that appear on it--the "Johnny B. Goode sequel "Bye Bye Johnny," the juke joint romp "Down The Road Apiece" & the blues standard "Confessin' The Blues"--in their early years. Even better is Berry's slashing cover of "Worried Life Blues," one of his finest blues covers, which perhaps was too good for even The Stones to touch. The rest of the album is filled out by the cool "Mad Lad," one of his most interesting instrumentals, the insipid "Too Pooped To Pop," somehow the biggest actual hit from the album, & some non-hit singles leftovers, the weird "Broken Arrow" (based on "Old MacDonald Had A Farm") & the sweet "Childhood Sweetheart." The Stones also covered the album's closer--the searing "Let It Rock"--which appeared as the live B-side to "Brown Sugar" in the UK. It is the best song on the album, & one of Berry's finest songs, period. Clocking in at under two minutes & oddly not containing its titular phrase, "Let It Rock" tells of a bunch of train workers shooting dice in a teepee on the track as a train comes & cannot stop. The song ends with the workers scrambling to leave & the train failing to break, but gives no indication to anyone's fate. More than any other song Berry ever wrote, it plays like a folk song, effortlessly tying together workingmen, gambling, & trains, in an unresolved cloud of mystery. No wonder The Stones loved it. Apparently along with the rest of the album.



New Juke Box Hits [Chess, 1961] **


Ironically, the album titled New Juke Box Hits was the first Chuck Berry album to not contain a single charting record. The album's driving opener, "I'm Talking About You"--also covered by The Stones--was its lead single & should have been a hit, but everything else on the LP pales in comparison. The best Chuck Berry music is utterly timeless; everything on this record that is not "I'm Talking About You" sounds like 1961. Desperate to stay competitive as the first wave of rock & roll crashed into the teen idol music of the new decade, this album added backing choruses and smooth saxophones to the sound, taming it for a pop audience that didn't care. (Just check out the spoken intro to the maudlin "Little Star"--on second thought, don't.) Only a few stray places does Berry's wit & style come to the surface, but these were fleeting glimpses. This isn't necessarily a terrible record, it's something that's arguably even worse--near forgettable, disposable pop.



Chuck Berry Twist [Chess, 1962] *****


By the time that Chuck Berry Twist appeared, Berry was in jail serving time for driving an underaged girl across state lines in a violation of the ancient & racist Mann Act. & just like RCA Records put out Elvis' Golden Records when he went into the Army, Chess used the break in new material to issue the first Chuck Berry compilation--& like Elvis' Golden Records, it stands as one of the finest collections ever issued. While there would be bigger & more comprehensive Chuck Berry anthologies, none were better programmed than this: From the opening "Maybellene" & "Roll Over Beethoven" through the masterful closing suite of "Johnny B. Goode," "Rock & Roll Music," & "Back In The U.S.A." The latter makes its debut on a Chuck Berry album, along with "Come On" & "Thirty Days." Sure, there are some nuggets missing--most notably, "Too Much Monkey Business," "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man," & "You Can't Catch Me"--but they aren't noticed with the aforementioned cuts, as well as "Around & Around," "Come On," "Let It Rock," & the second-side opener "School Days." If you don't believe me, take your copy of The Great Twenty-Eight or The Definitive Chuck Berry & construct a playlist to Chuck Berry Twist. You'll thank me.



Chuck Berry On Stage [Chess, 1963] *


With Berry still in jail, this is the point where Chess Records goes from being crafty (Chuck Berry Twist) to desperate (this LP). Quite simply, every element of this album reeks of desperation. For starters, it isn't a live album at all, but a collection of studio recordings (oldies, leftovers, & outtakes) with overdubbed applause to give the impression of a live album. Eight of its 13 tracks had been previously released (albeit without fake clapping), & of the 5 that weren't, one of them--"Brown-Eyed Handsome Man"--was an inferior alternate take of a released song. Most pathetically, two of the songs get renamed--"Sweet Little Sixteen" & "Blues For Hawaiians," as "Surfin' U.S.A." & "Surfin' Steel," respectively--to try & cash in on the surf music craze that Berry helped to inspire. (& yes, "Surfin' U.S.A." is a rewrite of "Sweet Little Sixteen," but it was still misleading to boast the former on the LP cover & only contain the latter.) Of the four previously unreleased songs, only "I Just Want To Make Love To You" is worth seeking out, but even then, as the original studio undubbed version. In an apparent attempt to atone for their sins, Chess Records now has Chuck Berry On Stage available on iTunes in a double-length version: The original LP, followed by the original versions of the songs, unedited. But the original LP of retitled surf songs with false applause is an almost meta act of rock packaging: A masquerade that double-backs & masquerades on itself.



Chuck Berry's Greatest Hits [Chess, 1964] ***


Two months after Chuck Berry On Stage was released, Berry was released from prison. In April, this LP appeared, only two years & two months after Chuck Berry Twist. This was presumably to account for two songs that were missing from Twist--"Memphis, Tennessee," which was a hit for Johnny Rivers that same year & "Nadine," which was Berry's first post-jail single. It's a shame they didn't wait until later in the year, when "No Particular Place To Go" proved to be Berry's REAL comeback hit, but they couldn't have known that then. At any rate, Greatest Hits was the lesser of the two collections--in part because it only had 12 songs to Twist's 14, but also because its running order was too top-heavy, opening with "Roll Over Beethoven," "School Days," "Rock & Roll Music," "Too Much Monkey Business," & "Johnny B. Goode," instead of spreading the goods out more evenly. One perk though--both "Too Much Monkey Business" & "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man" now made the cut (both could have been on Twist), along with "Memphis" & "Nadine." The other eight songs are the same, as both oddly include "Oh Baby Doll," which was apparently considered a major hit for him back in the day. & unlike every other Chuck Berry album thus far, this one made the charts at a cool #34, making it his first charting album. It's little wonder that Chess kept in print for decades to come.



Two Great Guitars [Checker, 1964] **


Chuck Berry's first studio album released after he was released from prison was a duet album with Bo Diddley, in which Berry was the featured artist (hence it was released on Chess subsidiary Checker, to which Diddley was signed). This may speak to Berry's popularity fading while in prison, but it is still odd to think of Bo Diddley as being the bigger artist, influential though he was. Perhaps that's why Berry gets the first side & Diddley gets the second; each side contains one regular-length, recently-recorded instrumental, followed by a long jam with the two of them. On Chuck's side, it's "Liverpool Drive"--which also would be included on his next LP--& the ten-minute "Chuck's Beat," which would be edited as the album's (non-charting single) single. It's a pretty cool track, as winding jams go, with Chuck's "chugga-chugga-chugga" rhythm taking center stage & allowing Berry some space to let loose on some licks that sound loose & ripe enough for a young Keith Richards to pick. Solid stuff, but not really a Chuck Berry record in the true sense, as given away by the side two closer, "Bo's Beat," which is of course built around Bo Diddley's signature rhythm. Clearly, this was all set up as a showcase for Diddley, but Berry is a ready & willing accomplice, fresh out of jail & ready to trade hot licks with the other guitar rock legend on his label.



From St. Louis To Liverpool [Chess, 1964] *****


As some like to tell it, this is Berry's studio masterpiece. The Beatles & The Rolling Stones had clearly reinvigorated his music (& his own tours of England had reinvigorated his energy), with Berry's first post-jail LP of original material the studio album of his career to beat. It didn't hurt that it contained some of the strongest material he would ever wax: "No Particular Place To Go," the stop-&-start car-&-romance lament that sounded so good & original you'd never notice it was based around the structure of "School Days" (or that it could be read as a tongue-&-cheek take on his crime that landed him in prison in the first place); "Promised Land," which told the story of east to west, rich to poor, & obscurity to fame, in a spiritual-quoting rocker with a folksong structure; & "You Never Can Tell," a hot, uncharacteristically guitar-less (in its central instrumentation, anyway) tale of two young newlyweds charting their life on their own cool terms. All made the charts & deserved to; also charting was "Little Marie," a sequel to "Memphis, Tennessee" in which the singer reunites with his lost lover & little girl. If the rest of the album sounded like B-sides in comparison, that's because they were, although none brought down the overall quality. "Our Little Rendezvous" was the flip to the minor hit "Jaguar & Thunderbird" (released on Chuck Berry On Stage), which would sound better rewritten as "Let Me Be Your Driver" the following year; "Go Bobby Soxer" was an ode to the new British Invasion teens who used to scream for Berry (& would scream for him again); "You Two" was a smooth swinger that reached for the style of Nat King Cole; only "Things I Used To Do" reached the mark of excellent, finding Berry in his most confident blues mode. Most bizarre was the inclusion of 1958's "Merry Christmas Baby," presumably because the album was released in November, but otherwise does not fit in with the rest of the proceedings. Luckily, there's more than enough strong recent material to cancel out any head-scratching it may have caused. As an album in the traditional sense--which is to say, all new, recently-recorded material (minus "Merry Christmas Baby")--this was the Berry album to beat, & so far he hasn't.

We'll have to see how Chuck sounds when it comes out later this year.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

The Essential Chuck Berry.


There have been literally hundreds of Chuck Berry collections over the years.

To try & narrow his music down to the definitive canon, I investigated what I consider to be the 10 standard anthologies. What follows is a rating (on a five-star scale) & brief review of each, followed by the songs that appear most frequently on all of them. Many of these collections are out-of-print, but with the comeback of vinyl & the back catalog of iTunes, they may be easier to encounter than one might think.

Because, like the man said, "You gotta hear something that's really hot."

* * *

Chuck Berry Twist: The Original Collection (1962). ****




Chuck Berry Twist was released by Chess Records while Berry was in jail, in a brazen attempt to get some product going for their artist as well as cash in on the omnipresent twist craze. It was the first anthology of his music, & as some like to tell it, the best, period. Rock criticism's old guard have paid it particular tribute, with Greil Marcus listing it in his classic rock discography in the back of Stranded and Robert Christgau once listing it as the fourth greatest record ever. As a listening experience, it simply rocks, but to my modern ears, it is lacking for omitting "Too Much Monkey Business" & "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man" in favor of lighter fare like "Oh Baby Doll" & "Come On." However, the running order more than makes up for this; you'll be hard-pressed to find a better Side 1 opener than "Maybellene," a better Side 1 closer than "Reelin' & Rockin'," a better Side 2 opener than "School Day," & a better Side 2 closer than "Back In The U.S.A." All of which makes it seminal collection--no wonder it's still available on iTunes.



Chuck Berry's Greatest Hits: The Long-Time LP Standard (1964). ***



Chuck Berry's Greatest Hits came along two years after Chuck Berry Twist, but apparently too early in the year to catch his massive hit, "No Particular Place To Go." Featuring 12 cuts to Twist's 14, it cut some tunes to make room for the previously-M.I.A. "Too Much Monkey Business" & "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man," as well as the classic "Nadine" & the big-hit-by-that-point (thanks to Johnny Rivers) "Memphis." Still, the running order felt top-heavy & clunky after the expert flow of Twist, diminishing the effect of what could have been a smoother, streamlined set. All of this made it a perfectly fine collection, but not the phenomenon that Chuck Berry deserved. Luckily, better ones would come along.



Chuck Berry's Golden Decade: The First Multiple-LP Set (1967). **




Chuck Berry's Golden Decade was apparently conceived as the one-stop shop of the vinyl era. In 1967, Berry had left Chess Records for Mercury, & the latter label quickly tried to cash in on their new acquisition by issuing an LP of re-recorded versions of hits masquerading as the originals under the deceptive title Chuck Berry's Golden Hits; the fact it remained in print well into the CD age just shows the ruthlessness of the music industry.

Mercury's greed had one good result, however--it forced Chess Records' hand to issue Chuck Berry's Golden Decade & gave him his first substantial anthology. (Mercury subsidiary Smash Records pulled the same trick with Jerry Lee Lewis a few years earlier; after issuing the re-recorded Golden Hits Of Jerry Lee Lewis, Sun Records responded with their first Lewis collection, Original Golden Hits, but I digress.) Golden Decade featured 24 songs over two LPs & remained a staple of essential rock LP lists well into the 1970s.

At first glance, it does its job, but then one look at the Volume 2 (1973) & Volume 3 (1974) that were to follow in the next decade, some glaring omissions can be found. For starters, two of Berry's best songs, "You Never Can Tell" & "Promised Land," are missing (although they all but make the second volume almost worth getting if you already have the first). But then again, so are "Carol," "Let It Rock," "Little Queenie," & "Come On." & what's taking these songs' places on Volume 1? Stuff like "Deep Feeling," "Too Pooped To Pop," & "Anthony Boy"--nothing detrimental, but also nothing that should make it into the first 24 classics over the songs that landed on Volume 2. All & all, a missed opportunity--no wonder it's long out-of-print.



The Great Twenty-Eight: The Classic (1982). *****



The Great Twenty-Eight has been making best-of rock lists in the obligatory Chuck Berry slot, at least since it was issued on CD in the '80s on a single disc. For much of the initial CD era, it was the disc to pick, especially since most stores only ever stocked the dreadful Mercury 1967 album Chuck Berry's Golden Hits of re-recordings. The Great Twenty-Eight came at a higher price point, but it was the greatest collection around; even after it lapsed in print by the late-'90s, it's continued to pop up on lists like Rolling Stone's original 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time (#21), TIME's Albums Of The Century & Entertainment Weekly's 100 Greatest Albums (the latter all the more astounding since it includes almost entirely studio albums, as opposed to greatest-hits collections).

& yet...I have always held a grudge against it for omitting two of Berry's stone-cold (albeit slightly later-period) classics: "You Never Can Tell" & "Promised Land." This is especially since both songs fit on a single CD along with the other 28 tracks. Why not put them on as bonus tracks, like The Beach Boys' Endless Summer did with "Good Vibrations"? The fact that "I Want To Be Your Driver," which was never even issued a single made the cut but these other two didn't only adds to the frustration.

However, if you can overlook these two songs, this is the phenomenal compilation that Chuck Berry always deserved. The running order is flawless--chronological (by recording), mostly--& it is little wonder that it is the default favorite of fans & critics all around the world.



The Chess Box: The Boxed Set (1988). *****



The Chess Box arrived in the late '80s with the first wave of CD boxed sets, along with other "Chess Box" masterpiece compilations of Berry label-mates like Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, & Howlin' Wolf. There has probably never been a better series of boxed sets in rock history. It also shocks me to write this, but The Chess Box is also the only collection TO THIS DAY that includes every one of Chuck Berry's US & UK charting hits. There have only ever been 33 of them. Sure, that's a bit too many for a single-disc, but surely with the double-disc sets, they must've thrown them all in right? Nope. Granted, some of his most classic standards like "You Can't Catch Me," "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man," & "I'm Talking About You" never charted while non-essential tunes like "Little Marie" & "Dear Dad" did, but once you're past the length of a single disc, you think it would be second nature to put them all together.

Well, the only where this was ever done is The Chess Box. But it also has so much more: Deep cuts, jazz covers, & instrumentals; the only thing missing is the Mercury recordings from the mid-to-late-'60s (for obvious reasons), which only yielded two near-classics (at least in the relative world of Chuck Berry): "Club Nitty Gritty" & "Back To Memphis" (neither of which charted). Otherwise, Chess has it all.

Among the things this collection has is "My Ding-A-Ling," the 1972 live novelty recording that to this day is Chuck Berry's only #1 US (& UK) Pop hit. (Adding insult to injury, Berry's "My Ding-A-Ling" kept Elvis's "Burning Love" from the top spot, a far-superior song that should've been The King's final US #1.) Most rock scholars either ignore the song entirely or sit around chastising it (there is literally a book that picks it as The Worst Rock & Roll Single Of All-Time), but rock snobbery or not, it is an essential part of The Chuck Berry Story. I mean, even Bob Dylan is still waiting for his first US #1 Pop hit. & The Chess Box is the first official collection to include it. (Come to think of it, perhaps this is why everyone loves The Great Twenty-Eight so much--"My Ding-A-Ling" is nowhere in sight.)

Where other Berry albums are a cursory glance at the hits, this remains the full portrait of an American icon. Even though--or perhaps because--it contains "My Ding-A-Ling."



His Best, Volume 1 & Volume 2: The First Two Volume Collection Of The CD Age (1996-1997). ***



His Best, Volume 1 & Volume 2 are the result of Chess Records' 50th Anniversary, where they issued (mostly) one-disc, 20-song summaries of their biggest names: Bo Diddley, Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, & others. Of all the artists on their roster, only two were granted two-volume "His Best" sets: One was Muddy Waters. & the other was Chuck Berry. The result is a cross between The Great Twenty-Eight & The Chess Box, but lacks both the punch of the former & the depth of the latter. It misses the Top 10 R&B hit "No Money Down" as well as the fine "Run Rudolph Run" Christmas song, while including stuff like "Anthony Boy" & "Jo Jo Gunne." The second disc does a fine enough job running through the latter years, taking us up to "No Particular Place To Go" before soon dropping us off with "My Ding-A-Ling," as most modern sets would do. But in the end, it is the split nature of His Best that ultimately ruins it. Unlike an act like The Beatles, Berry's hits came very early on & there is no reason to buy Volume 2 unless you already owned Volume 1. Did Chess Records think anyone was gonna just get the volume with "Sweet Little Rock & Roller" & "Come On" at the expense of the one with "Johnny B. Goode" & "Maybellene"? Perhaps that's why they were issued a year apart.



Anthology: The Standard Two-Disc Set (2000; Later Issued As Gold in 2005). *****



The Anthology/Gold picks up the mantle from His Best, adds ten tracks for a cool 50, & sells it in a single two-disc package. Of the 40 tracks of His Best, only one fails to make the cut to Anthology, the less-than-stellar (but still charting) "Anthony Boy," which, while far from essential, is at least as good as "Jo Jo Gunne" & a few others that DID make the cut. The eleven additional tracks, however, do a lot to fill out the story: Among them, "No Money Down" is an oft-overlooked Top 10 R&B hit that finds the rock sound still coalescing from the blues; "Guitar Boogie" is the blueprint for Jeff Beck's "Beck's Boogie" with The Yardbirds; "House Of Blue Lights" gives a taste of Berry's classic R&B covers; & "Dear Dad" & "Bio" help to fill out the picture of his latter days at Chess. Any quibbles have to do more with what isn't here than what is--with the length of CDs, a few more tracks could have easily fit, so why not include "Anthony Boy," plus "Run Rudolph Run," "Merry Christmas Baby," & "Little Marie," which would have covered all of his charting hits, as well as all of his solo A-sides from 1955 to 1965? But in the end, these are quibbles & proof of the set's worthiness is that when Rolling Stone updated its 500 Greatest Albums list, they included this in the place of The Great Twenty Eight, because at that point the latter had gone out-of-print. & to this day, Anthology remains the best full-scope collection to get--although you now have to do it in the gaudily-repacked Gold edition.



The Best Of Chuck Berry (20th Century Masters) & Icon: The Single-Disc Samplers (1999 & 2011). ***



The Best Of Chuck Berry (20th Century Masters) & Icon are lumped together because they are nearly-identical sets that conceived of & made for the budget racks for those people who need some Chuck in their lives but can't bring themselves to cough up more than $4.99 to do so. In this regard, they do their jobs fine; The Best Of contains all of his Top 20 US Pop hits in 11 tracks; Icon includes these exact 11 tracks & adds a 12th, the #23 hit "Nadine," which now means it includes all of his Top 25 US Pop hits. There's nothing wrong with either, although it is a bit depressing to see "My Ding-A-Ling" get a slot over smaller but better hits like "Thirty Days," "You Can't Catch Me," "Memphis," "Almost Grown," "Back In The U.S.A.," "Promised Land," or about a half dozen others (even if "My Ding-A-Ling" is his only #1 Pop hit). Again, there's nothing wrong with these sets, but if anyone is worth shelling out a few more bucks for, it's Chuck Berry.



The Definitive Collection: The Current Standard One-Disc Set (2006). *****



The Definitive Collection seems to have come about from when the Universal Music conglomerate were issuing their Definitive Collection series & realized that The Great Twenty-Eight had gone out-of-print. The solution? This disc, which they might as well have named The Definitive Thirty. A whopping 27 of the 28 tracks of The Great Twenty-Eight make the cut, in nearly the exact running order, with only "Bye Bye Johnny" cut (even though it could have been included as a 31st track). Rounding out the set is the criminally-absent "You Never Can Tell" & "Promised Land" (oddly coming before "No Particular Place To Go," since the latter was the lead single off of the album that held all three), & the infamous "My Ding-A-Ling," in the live single edit. Thus, for the first time, all of Berry's Top 25 US Pop hits were gathered in a single place on a single CD (since the above-discussed Icon wasn't released until 2011). While The Great Twenty-Eight is the sentimental classic, this is the pragmatic choice of the modern age, if only because it includes "You Never Can Tell" & "Promised Land." &, oh yeah, his only #1 hit.

* * *

Collectively, these 10 anthologies collective feature over 75 different Chuck Berry songs. I polled them all & found that of these, there are 32 songs that appear on 4 anthologies or more. These I consider to be the Chuck Berry canon.

1. Maybellene
2. Thirty Days
3. You Can't Catch Me
4. Too Much Monkey Business
5. Brown-Eyed Handsome Man
6. Roll Over Beethoven
7. Havana Moon
8. School Days
9. Rock & Roll Music
10. Oh Baby Doll
11. Reelin' & Rockin'
12. Sweet Little Sixteen
13. Johnny B. Goode
14. Around & Around
15. Beautiful Delilah
16. Carol
17. Memphis
18. Sweet Little Rock & Roller
19. Little Queenie
20. Almost Grown
21. Back In The U.S.A.
22. Let It Rock
23. Too Pooped To Pop
24. Bye Bye Johnny
25. I'm Talking About You
26. Come On
27. Nadine
28. You Never Can Tell
29. Promised Land
30. No Particular Place To Go
31. I Want To Be Your Driver
32. My Ding-A-Ling [Live]

These 32 songs run exactly 82 minutes, so if you're making a playlist, you're fine, but if you're burning a single disc, you need to kick one or two off. My vote would be for "Too Pooped To Pop," in part because it's really, really dumb, but more expressly, it is the only song on the list not written by Chuck Berry. For all that has been said about Chuck Berry's pioneer sound & guitar playing, it is easy to forget that he was rock's first great singer-songwriter, a feat that would go unrivaled until Bob Dylan came along in the 1960s. But, of course, if you want to keep it in Berry's "Golden Decade" of 1955-1965 & boot off "My Ding-A-Ling," I wouldn't hold it against you. In fact, I might even encourage it.

So for those keeping score, 6 songs appear on all 10 collections: "Maybellene," Roll Over Beethoven," "School Days," Rock & Roll Music," "Sweet Little Sixteen," & "Johnny B. Goode." These are the core of the Chuck Berry Canon & should be considered essential rock & roll listening alongside the likes of Sgt. Pepper, Highway 61 Revisited, & Exile On Main Street--or more tellingly, Elvis's Sun & early RCA sides, Jerry Lee Lewis's early Sun sides, & Little Richard's records for Specialty.

Long live rock & roll.