Chuck Berry

     After School Session (Chess, 1957)
     One Dozen Berrys (Chess, 1958)
     Chuck Berry Is on Top (Chess, 1959)
     Rockin' at the Hops (Chess, 1960)
     New Juke Box Hits (Chess, 1961)
      From St. Louis to Liverpool (Chess, 1964)
  Chuck Berry's Golden Hits (Mercury, 1967)
   The London Sessions (Chess, 1972)
    Rockit (Atco, 1979)
      The Great Twenty-eight (Chess, 1982)
      The Chess Box (Chess/MCA, 1988)
      The Anthology (MCA/Universal, 2000)
     Blues (Chess, 2003)
      The Definitive Collection (MCA, 2006)
      Johnny B. Goode: His Complete '50s Chess Recordings (Hip-o Select, 2007)
      You Never Can Tell: The Complete Chess Recordings 1960-1966 (Hip-o Select, 2009)

with Bo Diddley
   Two Great Guitars: Bo Diddley & Chuck Berry/The Super Super Blues Band: Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley (BGO, 1964)

Chuck Berry was the first important writer, performer, and instrumentalist in rock & roll, a man whose immediately identifiable style has remained touchstones for succeeding generations of artists. Had he been only a profound influence on Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones he would merit distinction; but Berry's signature shows up frequently in contemporary punks and singer/songwriters alike.

At a time when critics discounted rock & roll as adolescent noise, Berry not only defined a subculture but also provided running commentary on a country in the midst of change—more mobile, more affluent, more restless, free for the moment from the specter of war but bitterly divided internally over racial issues. Aiming his messages unequivocally at young persons, Berry made poetry of the seemingly mundane complexities of adolescent life. His was folk music for teens, with references to a world with its own language, symbols, and customs. And he rocked like no one else.

Berry wrote some of the greatest songs about rock & roll: "Sweet Little Sixteen," "Around and Around," "Rock and Roll Music," and "Roll Over, Beethoven," to name a few. But he was also given to deeper ruminations. "Too Much Monkey Business" is a vivid depiction of the drudgery and ennui of the working life. "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man" is about black men overcoming segregation. The force and sincerity behind "I've Changed" will move anyone familiar with Berry's checkered history with the law.

Those seeking classic Berry all in one place now have countless choices, but these are the best: the flawlessly programmed The Great Twenty-Eight (or its slightly retooled update The Definitive Collection), the more in-depth and fully rounded Anthology (reissued in the exact same form as Gold, in 2005), or the hefty Chess Box, which offers the pleasure of side trips into Berry's lesser-known work, much of it in a blues vein and some of it instrumental.

When he arrived at Chess in 1955, Berry was familiar with a number of styles. In his longtime pianist Johnnie Johnson he had an accompanist equally at home in blues, boogie-woogie, R&B, and rock & roll, and at Chess he worked with the sterling players populating the label's studio: Willie Dixon, Otis Spann, Fred Below, Jimmy Rogers; even Bo Diddley and his maraca man Jerome Green sit in on a few cuts. Completists, then, are advised to pick up the exhaustive Johnny B. Goode: His Complete '50s Chess Recordings and You Never Can Tell: The Complete Chess Recordings 1960-1966, which include lots of demos, alternate takes and instrumentals, and in the case of the Sixties set, an early, hungry live performance.

Noteworthy for those wanting the music in its original form are the reissues of his debut After School Session and third album Chuck Berry Is On Top, as well as the out-of-print former LPs One Dozen Berrys, Rockin' at the Hops, and New Juke Box Hits. These show how indebted early rock & roll was to Latin rhythms and how Berry also wedged in other kinds of alternative material—check out the minimal Caribbean vibe of "Havana Moon" from After School Session, the slinky English- and Spanish-language "La Juanda (Español) from One Dozen Berrys, his steel guitar on the instrumental "Blues for Hawaiians" from Chuck Berry Is on Top, the deeply felt covers of Jay McShann's "Confessin' the Blues" and Charles Brown's timeless "Driftin' Blues" on Rockin' at the Hops, and the stirring treatment of B.B. King's "Sweet Sixteen" on New Juke Box Hits.

The title of From St. Louis to Liverpool is a reminder that in 1964, when this album was released, it was clear that the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and lesser British rockers were deeply indebted to the man. In addition to classic tracks—"Little Marie," "Promised Land'," "You Never Can Tell," and "No Particular Place to Go"—the album includes one of the best cover versions of the Charles Brown classic "Merry Christmas, Baby," a tough rendition of Guitar Slim's "Things I Used to Do," and a searing instrumental, "Liverpool Drive"; then Berry calms down with a mellow, after-hours blues, "Night Beat." The London Chuck Berry Sessions (1972), is notable for producing Berry's only Number One single, "My Ding-a-Ling," a dreadful fluke novelty.

Berry left Chess to record for Mercury between 1966 and 1969, producing nothing of note. Chuck Berry's Golden Hits consists of reworkings of some of the great Chess sides, plus one new track, the unremarkable "Club Nitty Gritty." Accept no substitutes for the originals. In particular, the many latter-day live recordings with various pickup bands are to be shunned. Apart from the Chess material, the other Berry album of note is Rockit, originally released on Atco in 1979. It's no gem, but an exemplary return to good rockin' form. Guitar aficionados may find something of interest in the teaming of Berry and Bo Diddley on two of the four extended instrumental tracks from Two Great Guitars, but for these two masters, the workouts are fairly routine (currently reissued as a twofer with the equally forgettable Super Super Blues Band). An excellent item for the blues-loving Berry fan not willing to shell out for the "complete" '50s and '60s sets, Blues includes Nat "King" Cole–style blues pop and jump blues in addition to modified Delta blues twangers. The disc is wonderful for comparing Berry to Chess blues masters and for hearing how he concocted rock from the roots.

Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).

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