After 40 years and a couple weeks I finally got my copy of “Have Mercy” and I haven’t listened to the whole thing yet. I haven’t had time. But I keep jumping here and there, sampling the stuff I’ve never heard, and listening to a few old favorites. Here are some notes from memory.
First—the package is great. There are notes by Fred Rothwell, and several photographs I’ve never seen, including a couple “new” ones from the cravat and paisley jacket photographs that once graced the centerfold of the original London Sessions album. (There’s one of them here where I’d wager he’s just coming up from the "splits" photo shown on the cover. He's snapping his right fingers.) But my favorite might be a color shot of CB in headphones that hearkens (me) back to my original Chuck Berry centerfold—old black and white shots from inside The Golden Decade showing CB at work in the studio. There’s something sort of cool about seeing Chuck Berry sitting down with his guitar. It’s a vision of Johnny B. Goode, himself-- and I think he should add it to his stage show—a chair, a tree, a railroad track, and a few quiet moments of ballads and blues suitable for an elder statesman of rock and roll.
Which brings us to “Annie Lou.” Fred Rothwell game me a preview of this one, describing it as an intimate blues number—but I had no idea how much I’d like it. The song itself is run of the mill blues—not “Wee Wee Hours,” not “Have Mercy Judge,” not “Stormy Monday” or “How Blue Can You Get.” But the performance is special, if only because it’s a look at and a listn to a Chuck Berry we never get to see or hear. You can’t second guess a genius, but I wish he’d have slowed down his shows once in a while to pull something like this out of his hat, or a few ballads, or whatever moved him. In this cut he plays blues the old fashioned way—alone, just him and his guitar—and it’s beautiful. He was always just a step from the Delta anyway. The opening riff of “Wee Wee Hours,” with its bass bottoming out on a low D, is pure Muddy Waters Delta Blues done East St. Louis nightlife style. Here the nightlife is gone—and if it isn’t delta blues, it’s Wentzville livingroom blues, the sort of thing that I imagine Chuck Berry fingering when there are no fans around. It’s, to me, the reason to buy this collection.
Of course, there are a few duds. Sometimes “complete” means too much. Chuck Berry always seemed to want to set up the joke of “My Ding-a-Ling” by playing it straight as album filler. Thus the old “My Tamborine,” and thus, I guess, the studio version of “Ding-a-Ling” from the sessions that brought us “Tulane” and “Have Mercy Judge.” Have mercy, indeed. It’s one thing to hear “Ding-a-Ling” on the lengthy live cut from the Coventry concert that became London Sessions, but it’s torture to hear it in the studio. I didn’t make it through the entire cut before starting a tradition that will endure by hitting the forward button.
But there are other songs from those sessions that are worth hearing. A couple versions of the instrumental “Gun” show that they picked the right one for the album. One is too fast. The other is too slow. The album cut is just right.
And there’s a song called “untitled instrumental” that seems like an early version of the song that would become “Some People.” There’s an uncredited organ that I assume is played by Bob Baldori—a rare thing on a Chuck Berry record, and nice to hear. And although I don’t think too unkindly about the lyrics to “Some People” (he probably wrote them between sessions) the song works well as an instrumental.
Another “new” one from the Back Home sessions is “That’s None of Your Business.” It’s a good song with a vaguely weird and cluttered arrangement. I think if they had tried a few more times they might have had something—but it’s not my business to say.
That’s all for now. I’ve got to get to work. And I’ve got to listen a lot more. But there’s a lot more to listen to: a couple of decent cuts from the sessions with Elephant’s Memory. An early version of "Poem" from San Fancisco Dues-- this one called "My Pad" and done without accompaniment. A surprisingly clunky bunch of live songs from the Coventry concert that produced a couple of classics. Some interesting, previously unreleased songs from the sessions that became the 1975 album Chuck Berry, including, notably, Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya” and Robert Johnson’s “Dust My Broom.” I wish they’d been included on that album.