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, shiny new Cadillac cars & old broken-down Ford cars, 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, Italians, Hawaiians, Cubans, Mexicans, & American Indians; people like Ludwig Van Beethoven, Venus De Milo, Geronimo, Santa Claus, Beautiful Delilah, Jackie Robinson, & Satan populating the land alongside the likes of homegrown heroes Maybellene, Sweet Little Sixteen, & Johnny B. Goode; 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, the New Jersey Turnpike & Portland, Maine. People touch ground on runways, they race each other in the streets, they chase biblical temptresses, they 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's 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.


  1. what about, 'you never can tell'? somebody released it and he wrote it...i think there are other you overlook if you missed that one.

  2. what about, 'you never can tell'? somebody released it and he wrote it...i think there are other you overlook if you missed that one.

  3. You Never Can Tell . . . 1964