The Chess Box

"Maybellene," "Roll Over Beethoven," "Sweet Little Sixteen," "Johnny B. Goode," "Memphis" and "Promised Land" are six damn good reasons a Great Retro Box treatment of Chuck Berry is long overdue. And there are sixty-five more just like them on The Chess Box, the first thorough, quality vinyl examination of Berry's vital Chess Records catalog and his immeasurable contribution to the sound, language and life force of rock & roll. The trademark guitar sting and witty, often barbed lyric narratives with which Berry transformed everyday teenage life, the contemporary black experience and the healing powers of music into unforgettable pop playlets are a continuing influence on everyone and everything passing in his wake.

Blues auteur Willie Dixon is hardly short on whys and wherefores in meriting his own box either. Thirty-six of them are present and accounted for in this set, among them "I'm Your Hoochie Coochie Man," "Spoonful," "Back Door Man," "Little Red Rooster," "Seventh Son" and "Wang Dang Doodle." Dixon composed them all; he also doubled on some as producer and bassist. An infrequent performer, Dixon spread his signature over a virtual library of classic singles by his distinguished clients (including Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin' Wolf, Koko Taylor and Little Walter) during his 1951-69 tenure at Chess. Featuring the best and the most famous of those sides on three LPs (two cassettes or CDs), Dixon's box is an exhilarating if belated salute to a remarkable career, a Blues' Greatest Hits in all but name.

On first inspection, the Berry box, too, looks like nothing but hits. In fact, at his late-Fifties chart peak, Berry had only five Top Ten singles, and his sole Number One was the 1972 toilet-joke sing-along "My Ding-a-Ling." But if a hit can be defined not just by sales but by its lasting imprint on the audience that hears it and the art to which it aspires, The Chess Box is a monument to the musical durability of Berry's jaunty country-blues style (gassed up by ace sidemen like pianist Johnnie Johnson and drummer Fred Below) and the vibrant immediacy of his wordplay. Few songwriters have encapsulated the power and allure of rock & roll better than Berry ("I caught the rollin' arthritis sittin' down at a rhythm revue" – "Roll Over Beethoven") or captured its sexual potency with such wry, pithy humor ("If it's a slow song/We'll omit it/If it's a rocker/That'll get it.... C'mon, Queenie, let's get with it" – "Little Queenie").

As a black man enjoying white adulation, Berry in a very real way also equated rock & roll with his own pursuit of the American dream. Substitute "colored boy" for "country boy" in "Johnny B. Goode" (as Berry originally wrote it), and you basically have the story of Berry Made Good. True, Berry suffered from his success, doing jail time on a dubious Mann Act conviction at the height of the first wave of antirock hysteria. The hits were fewer after that, but his muse, however embittered, kept working overtime during the early Sixties ("No Particular Place to Go," "It's My Own Business," "It Wasn't Me"). As late as 1970, Berry was in peak form, marking his return to Chess (after four fallow years at Mercury) with "Tulane," a superb comic rocker about a drug-dealing couple, and its flip-side sequel, "Have Mercy Judge," a moving prison blues certainly rooted in personal experience. Indeed, in covering the emotional depth as well as the commercial breadth of his work, The Chess Box beats the coffee-table trap, succeeding as a true-to-life portrait of triumph and trauma reflected in a music that Chuck Berry, to a large degree, invented himself.

Willie Dixon plays bass on better than half the tracks on the Chuck Berry box, which gives you an idea of how omnipresent a figure the rotund composer was at the Chess Studios during the Fifties and Sixties. The handful of songs recorded under his name that are included in the Dixon box belies the true weight of his output. And while most of the tracks in the Dixon collection are readily available on other domestic and import reissues, The Chess Box shows how effectively Dixon employed the great Chess stable of blues singers as his "voice," finding the right equation between singer and song to "bring it on home," as he put it (via Sonny Boy Williamson) in 1963.

Like Berry, Dixon had a knack for bringing new life to old clichés ("You Can't Judge a Book by Its Cover") and making the most out of a little innuendo ("The men don't know/But the little girls understand"). At the same time, he was not afraid to step outside the accepted musical vocabulary of the blues, as demonstrated by the jazzy inflections of "Seventh Son," the radiant bursts of soul in the Little Milton version of "I Can't Quit You Baby" and the vicious whiplash rhythms of "Back Door Man." That the Dixon repertoire can accommodate covers by artists running the gamut from Mose Allison to Megadeth is a testament to its lyric punch and musical sophistication.

Though not as heavy on rare and previously unreleased material as Eric Clapton's Crossroads set, both the Berry and Dixon sets have enough curiosities to keep collectors happy – the Dixon box features, for example, Dixon's stark solo acoustic-guitar performance on "Weak Brain, Narrow Mind," from 1964; the Berry box offers such new gems as Berry's steelguitar instrumental "Crying Steel" and Berry and Bo Diddley's roaring ten-minute guitar jam "Chuck's Beat." And the care put into each box by MCA reissue producer Andy McKaie (detailed annotation, stylish packaging, digital remastering that enriches the sound but preserves the grit) deserves a big round of applause. But ultimately both of these collections succeed because the music inside is still very much alive, transcending both time and familiarity. History has already proven the worth of Chuck Berry's and Willie Dixon's art. Now you can hear that history in the making.

From The Archives Issue 64: August 6, 1970