If Elvis Presley was the first great rock & roll singer — fully formed in his integrated roots and delivery on his 1954 Sun Records bow, “That’s All Right” — Chuck Berry, a singer, guitarist and composer, was the music’s first recording artist. In the two minutes and twenty-three seconds of his Chess debut single, “Maybellene,” recorded in May 1955 and a Top Five pop hit that summer, Berry minted the fundamentals of rock guitar-metallic, locomotive strumming; the slashing flourish of his riffs and fills — and created a modern, high — speed songwriting, a compact blend of Delta talking blues, everyday adolescence and Berry’s own invented lingo (“As I was motorvatin’ over the hill . . .”). Berry didn’t have as much sex and gospel in his voice as Little Richard; Fats Domino had more Mother Africa in his rhythms. But Berry made the first hit records — “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Sweet Little Rock and Roller” and “Johnny B. Goode,” to name just three more of his eighteen charting singles from 1956 to 1959 — in the language of America’s first rock & roll generation.
His greatest hits have never gone out of print, and there are plenty of Chuck Berry compilations of varying depth, for every pocketbook. And while his original Chess LPs such as After School Session and One Dozen Berrys (both 1958) were hash jobs, thrown together by the label from unrelated sessions, they still stand on their own as classic dance — party favors. But this four-CD package of Berry’s Fifties Chess sessions — most featuring the crack studio trio of pianist Johnnie Johnson, bassist Willie Dixon and drummer Fred Below — is worth its weight and price in chronological momentum. There is no getting around the academic effect of the programming. Five minutely different versions of “Sweet Little Sixteen” in a row will be four too many for most folks. More important, you hear Berry’s genius as it landed fully blown in ’55, in hot-rod songs like “You Can’t Catch Me” and “No Money Down,” then continued to evolve in attack — the low-grind guitar intro to “Reelin’ and Rockin’,” like a car engine turning over; the tumbling dada of “Jo Jo Gunne” — and lyric cheek. (According to Berry, the Venus de Milo lost her arms in a catfight over a “Brown Eyed Handsome Man.”) The extra takes can be revealing. The overdubbed harmony vocal on an alternate of “Rock and Roll Music” was wisely scrubbed for the single. And it is fascinating to hear Berry edit rhymes on the fly in the two takes before the master of “Reelin’ and Rockin’,” itself a Berry rewrite of Big Joe Turner’s “Around the Clock Blues.”
This collection has a built-in disadvantage: It ends before Berry does. Some of his best Chess recordings — including “No Particular Place to Go,” “You Never Can Tell” and “Promised Land” — are not here because he made them in the early Sixties, after his release from federal prison on a questionable Mann Act conviction. Berry came out of jail a changed, bitter man but in full possession of his powers — a resurrection that deserves its own volume of complete Berry.