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Chuck Berry’s Finest Deep Cuts: 10 Overlooked Gems

Delve deeper into the rock originator’s legacy with a selection of great tracks that goes beyond the huge hits

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Go beyond Chuck Berry's biggest hits with our list of 10 great overlooked tracks.

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Chuck Berry‘s peak years of artistic genius produced many classics beyond his
well-known hits. He was still making great recordings in the 1970s and even
the 1980s. Here are 10 obscure must-hear gems from throughout his
career.

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“Oh Baby Doll” (1957)

A
memory of a high-school romance that ends when summer vacation begins.
Perfect miniatures like this one were how Berry created the teen
mythology
of rock & roll: a teacher leaves the room, the kids turn on a
portable radio and dance in the halls, everyone’s back in their seat
when the teacher gets
back. His vocal carries the melody. Everything else is rhythm, chugging,
shimmying and shaking. As close to a drum circle as the pop charts got
in 1957.

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“Let It Rock” (1960)

The music is frantic and laid back at the same time, a Berry hallmark. He adapts the folk tale of John Henry – African-American hero, symbol of unstoppable strength – to the slice-of-life story of a steel-driving man in Mobile, Alabama, taking a break from working on the railroad to shoot craps in a teepee set up on the tracks. When an unscheduled train rolls through, there’s a mad rush to tear the teepee down. “Can’t stop the train,” Berry sings, then goes out on a solo. The story of America in 1:54. The Stones made a live version the B side of “Brown Sugar.” 

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“Thirteen Question Method” (1961)

The funniest and oddest of his sex songs. Set to a Latin beat, it begins with piercing single notes, each like a raised eyebrow, as Chuck lays out his seduction principles: “The 13-question method is the one/To use when you want to go have some fun.” Question number eight: “Is it a date?” Question number 12: “When we’re by ourselves.” That’s where the door swings shut. He never gets to question number 13. Use your imagination. 

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“Nadine” (1964)

In 1962 Chuck went to prison for 20 months on morals charges. He studied (typing, accounting, history, business law) and wrote songs, most of them about the freedom he didn’t have: “Promised Land,” “No Particular Place to Go,” “Tulane.” Among them was this one, about spotting a woman who “moved around like a wayward summer breeze” and trying to catch up to her. He cut it in January of 1964, in his first session after he got out. He told the story of chasing perfection many times – “Maybellene,” “I’m Talking About You,” “Little Queenie” – but the language was never more alive than it was here, because everything he was chasing had never been further out of reach. 

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“You Two” (1964)

A hipster double date, involving “the cozy clan of four” taking a ride to drink in some country air and roast hot dogs, with a portable record player in tow to provide some jazzy sounds. “Listening to my idol Nat Cole prompted me to sing sentimental songs with distinct diction,” Berry wrote in his autobiography. This gentle swinger is one of his sweetest, a portrait of domestic bliss and modern leisure. 

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“I Want to Be Your Driver” (1965)

Recorded in late 1964 while on tour in England, this track is just about the only thing worth hearing on Chuck Berry in London. Berry stretches a standard blues sex metaphor to the limit – “Your rounded-body, wheel-to-roll limousine/I’ve never had the thrill of riding such a wonderful machine … Drive you so slow and easy you won’t want to put me down” — with a desperate vocal and whip-snap guitar that turns the subject every which way but loose. “I Want to Be Your Driver” came out in May, 1965. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Beatles recorded “Baby You Can Drive My Car” five months later.

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“Have Mercy Judge” (1970)

The sequel to “Tulane,” which was about a dope-dealing couple on the run, finds Tulane’s man Johnny locked up, “charged with traffic of the forbidden” and facing an almost certain trip “to some stony mansion.” His woman won’t wait, and he doesn’t blame her. “Have mercy on my little Tulane,” the poor boy pleads. “She’s too alive to try to live alone.” Berry had been trying this kind of tears-on-the-guitar-strings blues since 1955. Here he finally got it right.

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“Wuden’t Me” (1979)

“Promised Land” and “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” were coded race parables. The lead track from Berry’s last original album, Rock It, was explicit: Our hero runs a stop sign in the South, gets in trouble with his mouth and is tossed in jail with “no phone, no bail, no plea.” So he breaks out, gets chased by a Grand Dragon posse and seven bloodhounds. “Just meters from a canine jubilee” he’s saved by a kindly trucker – who’s wearing a “Swasti-KKK” armband. Vowing self-reliance (“That’s when he knew he had to get on, help himself/Instead of sitting, depending on somebody else”) he disappears into the woods, bound for freedom.

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“Oh What a Thrill” (1979)

Celebrating love and sex and music, as ever. And as much a phrasemaker as ever: “squeezing and teasing and pleasing the evening away,” “All the clouds from the west go east to confess it’s spring,” “those same sweet songs of a golden yesterday.” This tune was covered by Dave Edmunds and Nick Lowe’s Rockpile a year later, but with less of the easy sunshine and simple joy of being granted the privilege of staying the night with that beautiful someone.

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“Wee Wee Hours” (1986)

Chuck idolized Muddy Waters and wanted to play the blues. But he was better at inventing rock & roll. He lives out his original dream, though, on this 1986 live take of the B-side of “Maybelline,” recorded at the 60th birthday concert captured in the documentary Hail, Hail Rock & Roll. Keith Richards leads a band that includes Berry’s original piano man, Johnnie Johnson; Eric Clapton joins on vocals and guitar. Johnson’s right hand swirls in rapture, and Clapton delivers a typically impressive B.B. King-style solo. “Take another one,” Chuck calls out. So Clapton does, unfurling impossibly rapid-fire notes that bend time, then slowing down to show how much sustained double-string bending and bell ringing he – and everyone else – learned from Berry himself.

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