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.