The other day I was watching a video of Chuck Berry performing at the Blueberry Hill Restaurant and Bar in St. Louis in 2014. The legendary rocker looked nice in his satin shirt and captain’s hat, but man, it didn’t sound nice. Chuck more or less wandered around the stage, mumbling his lyrics and occasionally reaching down to strum the wrong note on his Gibson hollow-body. Then I looked up his age. Chuck Berry was born in 1926! This means he was still performing live at 88-years-old! Pardon my French, but that is motherf#@king rock ’n roll!
I don’t care if Chuck Berry today sounds like shit. The fact that he’s up there, living the dream, even as a deteriorating skeleton-sailor-man is the personification of rock. Hats off to you Mr. Berry. Now on to this week’s “Classic Album Tuesday” where I will be discussing one of Berry’s finest works.
The 1950s was an odd era for the “album.” Apart from jazz or classical musicians, most albums were nothing more than compilations of singles. The “album” didn’t take off as an art form until the 1960s, so most 1950s rock albums were a couple of the hits and then a bunch of covers or leftover junk. What’s special about Chuck Berry is he was a hit making machine. Seven of the twelve tracks on Chuck Berry is On Top were on the Billboard Hot 100 and there’s not a cover to be found.
Not only was Chuck a hitmaker, he had a presence. Few people were playing the guitar like Berry back then, with Bo Diddley being one of the few exceptions. So guess who also plays on this album? Yep, Bo Diddley. This stuff was raw, or at least as raw as you could get back in 1959. I think a great deal of credit goes to Chess records for making this happen.
If you’re not familiar with Chess Records, Chess was a record company founded by Polish immigrant brothers Leonard and Phil Chess, that over time became what Brownsville Station frontman and later music critic Cub Koda described as “America’s greatest blues label.” They even made a movie about it with Adrien Brody as Leonard Chess. I believe Mos Def plays Chuck Berry. I should watch it, but only if Mos Def duck walks. It ain’t a Chuck Berry movie if there’s no duck walking.
And these songs, what can I say? “Johnny B. Goode”, “Carol”, “Maybellene”, “Roll Over Beethoven.” It’s like the 1992 NBA “Dream Team” of songs. These are the songs that Berry built on a foundation of earth, wood and rock and roll. When I was taking guitar lessons as a teenager, the opening riff to “Johnny B. Goode” was one of the first things I learned. It’s amazing how much power Berry’s songs carry today and will continue to carry on.
Favorite Tracks: “Carol”, “Johnny B. Goode”, “Roll Over Beethoven”