One thing I loved about the new album “Chuck” even before I opened it was the cover: a beautiful drawing of an iconic photo and the name “Chuck” up top in block letters that look, to me, like the most common Black Lives Matter poster around Seattle. I’m reasonably sure the resemblance isn’t deliberate, but I like it.And I like the picture— Chuck Berry in his early 1970s prime doing a thoughtful split in full rock and roll regalia.It was a picture I first saw back in 1972 when I opened the new London Sessions album, and one I stared out for many hours as a teenager.
Opening the cover is just as rewarding, with two beautiful black and white photos of the elder chuck, one in a prayerful or just tired looking pose in front of a mirror in what looks like a restaurant booth, and another with Chuck embracing his banged up, scratched up, doctored up old Gibson.
Below the photos something important: credits showing that the Berry family and the musicians who backed Chuck Berry for decades in St. Louis and internationally are the main performers on the album. This made me instantly glad. I remember back in 1973 purchasing T-Bone Walker’s last studio album, a massive and polished thing produced by Lieber and Stoller featuring Lieber and Stoller songs and dozens of great jazz and blues musicians. They used T-Bone Walker’s voice. It was sweet, I still like it. I loved where for a moment he spoke, saying “Thibaud! Thibaud! It’s a French name!” But the record didn’t match the man.
This record, on the other hand, is pure Chuck Berry, but treated with all the love and dignity his band and family and Dualtone records could provide him.There are a few “stars” (notably Gary Clarke, Jr. and singer Nathaniel Radcliffe) but the real stars are the songs, Chuck himself, and the production.What stunned me right off the bat was the sound— strong, deep, with a ton of bass, great drumming, a touch of reverb, and the sort of rippling, rollicking piano you heard on early Chuck Berry.It’s a record I like to turn up loud enough that the neighbors probably hear it, and every crank on the volume just makes it sound better.
Which is a miracle considering how it evidently was made, from Berry’s tapes, with other most musicians filling in their parts later.
I love all Chuck Berry records one way or another, and grew up on the “new” Chuck Berry records of the 1970s, but I also always felt that some of those had a flat feel, or showed inconsistencies when a single album drew from different sessions with different bands and different studios. Here there’s a consistent whole. It’s an album— the best Chuck made since 1970’s Back Home. The sound is consistent, modern, but with the feel of his early stuff. And there’s a little of everything you think of when you think of Chuck Berry: the well written boogie rockers, a few blues, a bluesy standard, some country, a funny live performance, a poem, female harmonies, and one wonderful bit of 1950s style country choir. A perfect ending.
It starts with Wonderful Woman, which starts with a vibrato chord on the keyboard and then an exuberant shout from Chuck: “Oh well, lookie here now, this just makes my day!” And of course, it’s a woman, or some combination of his wife Themetta and every wonderful woman Chuck Berry ogled from stage.
Big Boys comes next— a song about a little kid figuring out what the big boys (and girls) do. It’s the catchiest song on the album with a descending double string guitar lick that works its way into your ear quickly and excited cries of “Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!” from Chuck and backup singer Nathaniel Radcliffe.
The next two, although covers and not Chuck Berry songs, are my favorites. You Go To My Head is a jazz standard done Chuck Berry style. It reminds me of the standards he played during rehearsals for Hail! Hail! Rock & Roll, but with a thumping blues beat. Love in 3/4 Time (Enchiladas) was a crowd favorite at Blueberry Hill, a funny waltz with what I assume are some new added lyrics. Its images are nearly perfect for Chuck, with red guitars and El Dorados and a funny line about software and hardware.
Darlin’ is another favorite of mine. I first read about it years ago in The New Yorker. (The writer was visiting Chuck while Chuck made quick phone arrangements for his last Seattle show— a quickie visit to replace the ailing Jerry Lee Lewis at the EMP. I was there!) It’s a great song sung to (and with) his daughter about growing older to a loping, western beat.
The rest, for me, are a little like the minor characters on Gilligan’s Island in the show’s original theme song (“and the rest”) but I like them all well enough. Lady B. Goode be pretty goode. She Still Loves you sounds great, but the lyrics don’t quite cut it for me. Jamaica Moon is cute but Havana Moon was better. Dutchman’s chief value for me is that Chuck Berry acknowledges he wrote music that some consider superb. And Eyes of a Man is chiefly wonderful to me for that voice, but when I heard Charles, Jr. discuss it in a television interview I began to understand it better (men's work crumbles, women's work endures). But they are all good, and I’m happy to let the CD play on. (I haven’t played the LP yet, but I’d wear out Side A several times before I put a crackle on Side B.)
Jimmy Marsala, who played more shows with Chuck Berry than anyone, plays great bass throughout; Keith Robinson supplies the best drums for Chuck since the days of Odie Payne and Fred Below; and Robert Lohr on piano resurrects the spirits he learned from: Otis Spann, Lafayette Leake, Johnnie Johnson and Professor Longhair. Berry family members Ingrid, Charles and Charlie all add their parts, which are especially perfect because Chuck Berry’s music was always a family affair, on stage, and often, with his sister and daughter, in the recording studio.
As a lifelong fan I could hardly have hoped for a better ending— an honest, adult, great sounding record with a couple of first rate new Chuck Berry songs and a lot of good ones, a summing up, in a beautiful package. Thank you Mr. Berry! Hail! Hail! Grammy time!