I guess it has to start with "Wee Wee Hours.” How else? It was the fourth song on my first Chuck Berry record, and the second side he released-- maybe first in his heart at the time. It’s got such a great sound: smokey voice, huge bass, a rippling piano that goes half mad, and steady, wet sounding drums. The guitar is understated, half hidden by the drums, which are right up front with the singing. (They were making this for the big beat generation). The lyrics are simple and great, full of the regret and loss that fill so many of Chuck Berry’s best music. If there was ever a time Chuck Berry got close to the Nat King cool that he longed for, this might have been it. And if he’d never been a rock and roll star, this one might have lived on as a minor blues classic.
After that, for me, it’s “Deep Feeling.” I remember an older friend who heard this one in the mid-1970s on a blues radio show. Transfixed, and then bowled over when he learned it was Chuck Berry. It’s a totally unique sound, somehow stuck between Delta Blues, Roy Rogers, and Dick Dale. It’s slide guitar with a real melody. They say Hubert Sumlin’s on it somewhere (anyway, I think Hubert Sumlin has said that Hubert Sumlin is on it,) evidently playing the rhythm guitar in the background. The piano is ever present. The drums are in the background now.
Berry did a similar number several times, but never in my mind as memorably until the closing scene of “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll!” when the camera floats across a decrepit swimming pool to find CB playing his old steel guitar again. I think the melody there is closer to the version called “Surfin’ Steel,” but it’s a desolate, stark version that matches the mixed feelings you feel towards the end of that movie.
The next one, for me, is “I Got a Booking,” Chuck Berry’s reworking of "Key to the Highway." He's modern and cool. Almost cold.
I got a booking, with the Airline
Packed up and prone to go
I’m gonna leave here by plane darlin’
Because railway is much too slow.
I’m going back to my home town
Where I’m better known
Cause you haven’t done nothin’ darlin’
But ruined a happy home.
The song opens with a blues intro I credit to Berry. Maybe it’s borrowed-- but I haven’t heard it anywhere else. It’s pretty much the same figure that begins some other favorites, like his 1972 version of “Mean Old World.” Like a lot of the "Chuck Berry inn London" record, it's dominated by a wailing harmonica. But it's a hell of a blues song.
Then we go to Mercury, where he rcorded lots of blues. There are lots of interesting, slightly ragged blues on the "Live at the Fillmore" album, but my favorite is “It Hurts me Too.” Must be one of his favorite blues (along with Every Day, and Mean Old World, since he sings them a lot.) The Mercury records all suffer from what I think of as bad sound-- but listening again now, maybe I’m crazy. The Steve Miller band was a great backup, anyway, capable of the swing Chuck Berry needs, and the album is filled with raw, wonderful guitar.
“Have Mercy Judge” might be Chuck Berry’s best original blues song-- and it’s got to be one of the most literary blues ever written. The lyrics tell a wonderful story-- or rather, tell a horror story, wonderfully.
I go to court tomorrow morning
And I got the same judge I had before.
Lord and I know he won’t have no mercy on me
Cause he told me not to come back no more.
He’ll send me ‘way, to some stoney mansion
in a lonely room and lock the door.
Lord have mercy on my little Tulane
She’s too alive to try and live alone.
I know her needs and although she loves me
She’s gonna try and make it, while the poor boy’s gone.
(She can’t do it, no no no)
Somebody tell her to live, and I’ll understand it
And even love her more when I come back home.
This is a song written by the author of Memphis, Tennessee-- someone who knows how to put half a novel into a few verses. It's a song written in hard times. There's no question Chuck Berry knows what he’s talking about in this one. Like maybe he’s gone back, if not to the same judge, to the same courthouse, and that he’s been to the stoney mansion, that he’s lost Tulane. It’s a hell of a song. I think in his Autobiography he says he wrote the song “Tulane” in jail, which seems possible (people doubt it because they assume the novelties are drugs and that drugs are a 1960s phenomonon. But there’s more than one kind of forbidden fruit in this world; and anyway-- drugs have been around a long time.) But I wouldn't be surprised to learn he wrote this one there.
Chuck Berry’s toughest blues is "London Session’s" “Mean Old World.” (Chuck Berry must have liked Little Walter’s music a lot.) It starts with a similar riff to “I Got a Booking” then goes into some wonderful riffing on open E and A chords. The London Sessions album (and the Rocking Horse show taped a few weeks or months later) both show Chuck Berry playing some of his best guitar. The stuff on this song just kills me. Wild runs of triplets that just don’t stop, and the rest of it deceptively simple. There’s some great rock and roll drumming on the song.
Then there’s the one that got away-- my favorite of the moment, "Annie Lou," from the "Have Mercy" collection. It’s just Chuck Berry and a guitar. There’s a bit more static than you’d want-- but what a beautiful record. Fred Rothwell called it an “intimate” blues. That’s it exactly. You feel like you’re in Chuck Berry’s living room on a night when he’s playing something for a friend. I wish it had been released back in the early 1970s when it was recorded. It would have blown minds and shaken preconceptions about who Chuck Berry is.
He once told some magazine or another: “Look I ain’t no big shit." Then he compared himself unfavorably to Muddy Waters.