Monday, November 1, 2010

Who Wouldn't Think This Man is Cool?

I first found Chuck Berry in 1971, and even then record stores like Tower already put his music in the “oldies” section, near Fabian and Frankie Avalon—pretty pathetic considering that his most recent masterpieces (“Nadine,” “You Never Can Tell,” “No Particular Place to Go” and “Promised Land”) were just six or seven years old at the time.

By the early 1970s he played at “rock and roll revivals,” and Ricky Nelson, perhaps thinking himself advanced, wrote about how “someone opened up the closet door and out jumped Johnny B. Goode.” (I like the song—but there’s no way Ricky should have put himself in the same stanzas as Chuck Berry.)

Back then a 45 year old rock and roll star seemed ancient—an amusing thought now that the most famous rock and rollers seem to be wrinkled men in their 60s and 70s.

The truth is that Chuck Berry kept making good, new music throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

In fact, my own Chuck Berry experience focused squarely on the newer material. My first record was the original volume of “Chuck Berry’s Golden Decade,” a double record of big hits from 1955 to 1964. But my second Chuck Berry record was “Back Home,” released in 1970, and some of my favorite Chuck Berry songs are grown-up songs that he released over the next ten years on albums like “San Francisco Dues,” “The London Sessions,” “Bio,” and other late albums.

Those later albums are not uniformly great—but Chuck Berry “albums” never were (and few albums by other people are, ever.)  The early Chuck Berry LPs usually contained a bunch of great songs, some good ones, and a few clunkers. The only thing that changed with the 1970s LPs was the ratio (in the later records there are a few great ones, a bunch of good ones, and a few clunkers).

Everyone makes boxed sets and compilations these days. When I first did this post there was no such thing as the "Have Mercey" box, which has all of the 1970s recordings from Chess.  But someday, someone should put together the best of the later material. My own compilation would include:
  • Tulane,” (Back Home) often described as the last “great” Chuck Berry song, it’s a great story about Johnny and Tulane running from the law.
  • Have Mercy Judge,” (Back Home) an original blues song, an ode to “Tulane.”
  • Flying Home,” (Back Home) a wonderful (and complete) reworking of the Benny Goodman/Lionel Hampton/Charlie Christian song, with a new melody, Bob Baldori on harmonica, Lafayette Leake on Piano, and Phil Upchurch on bass.
  • Oh Louisiana,” (San Francisco Dues) a GREAT song of homecoming, nostalgia and sensuality and sorrow (“your beautiful delta, and bayous of green”).
  • "Annie Lou,"  the great solo blues just realeased for the first time on "Have Mercy."  Just Chuck and his guitar, and incredible-- a missing link between rock and roll and Rober Johnson.
  • Mean Old World” (The Chuck Berry London Sessions) a powerful version of the song by Chess label mate Little Walter, and one of Chuck Berry’s hardest hitting blues recordings ever, with stunning guitar work. (Put it with “Wee Wee Hours,” “Deep Feeling,” and “Have Mercy Judge” and you’ve got a credible blues career, forgetting the rock stuff altogether.)
  • Bio” from the album of the same name—a miniature life story, set to the Elmore James riff.
  • "Hootchi Cootchie Man," from Live at the Fillmore.  Just because.
  • Got it and Gone,” (Bio), a nice Johnny B. Goode type story about “just him and his guitar.”
  • Woodpecker,” (Bio) a loosey-goosey, feel-good instrumental, with hand claps, saxophone, lots of shouts and laughter and some great guitar.
  • Move it!” (Rockit) just a good song from his last (but not last!) album of original material.
  • Cottage for Sale/I’m Through with Love” (Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll) (Mr. Berry, we hardly knew ye.)
I might throw in a couple of songs from the Mercury years, too—like the wonderful “Back to Memphis,” recorded in Memphis with the Memphis Horns.

You know the home folks here
They let you do just like you wanna.
You can walk down Beale Street, Honey,
Wearin’ your pajamas!

From “Back to Memphis” © Chuck Berry, Isalee Music Pub. Co.

Put these songs together and you’ll hear that Chuck Berry never stopped making great music. I just hope he’ll let us all hear the latest stuff some day.

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