Analyzing Chuck Berry's Recorded Legacy
by Adrian R. Carter
I don't remember much about the year I turned seven, but I do remember Christmas morning that year, when I received my first Chuck Berry album. Santa Claus, in his infinitely wise and generous spirit, had included Chuck Berry: His Best, Vol. 1 as a companion to my other big present-my very first stereo. While my dad hooked up the web of wires and cables, I sat fascinated by the jewel case in my hands. What set my new CD apart was the shrink wrap. In our house, CDs were typically borrowed, fished down from a massive wall of my parents' albums and dusted off. But this one was different. It was brand new and it was mine.
Until I acquired a few more albums of my own a year later, I existed in a kind of Chuck Berry vacuum. Sure, Backstreet Boys "I Want It That Way" was ironed into my brain during a beach trip with the cousins that summer, as was the entirety of Linkin Park's Hybrid Theory that blared from my 11-year-old brother's room every afternoon of 2001 until the moment he found "The Real Slim Shady." But Chuck Berry's was the only music that I took personal ownership of. It was my music and as far as I knew, it was mine alone; the secret soundtrack that looped in my head at school and the joyous outburst waiting in my room when I got home.
Chuck Berry: His Best, Vol. 1 (1997) documents just four years of Chuck Berry's recorded output, from 1955's "Maybellene" to his 1958 B-side "Memphis." In a mere twenty songs and 53 minutes, the compilation fully documents the evolution of a contagiously enthused and inspired master artist. The most striking element of Berry's artistry revealed in these recordings is his command of voice. Despite his lack of range and control, Berry reportedly longed to follow in the footsteps of his vocal hero Nat King Cole. In his 1987 autobiography, Berry recounts his most glaring attempt at crooning with "Together (We Will Always Be)," recorded during his third-ever session for Chess Records in September 1955. "Unfortunately, after recording it, I tried to find and collect all the copies on the market after it was released. No way did I feel it could compare with the songs of the geniuses who inspired it." Where the elongated melody and painfully prominent vocal of "Together (We Will Always Be)" dashed Berry's crooner dreams, he was already well on his way to successfully developing an alternative yet equally nuanced method of emoting and articulating. By deploying two voices simultaneously, one using lungs and oxygen and the other using his Gibson ES-350, Berry put his songs across with an unprecedented array of colors, moods, and inflections. This technique was readily apparent by 1957 when he produced his most impactful string of hits.
In "School Days," Berry's guitar acts as a playful foil to his voice by responding to each lyrical scenario with a well-matched statement of its own. The endless frustration of "You study 'em hard and hopin' to pass" is mimicked by the momentary, dissonant agony of two bent notes that achieve harmony only by a hair at the end of the phrase. If there was ever a musical depiction of passing a class by the seat of your pants, this is it. For "workin' your fingers right down to the bone," Berry moves the instrumental rejoinder down an octave, artfully mirroring the lyric's downward motion through peeling layers of skin. He completes the verse with an uncanny impression of "the guy behind you [who] won't leave you alone" by moving the echoing phrase down yet another octave. Perfectly portrayed by the lowest octave, we instantly recognize the overweight, crew-cut bully whose voice dropped before everyone else's and who has been haunting fourth-grade classrooms since the beginning of time. For the millions of us who could never develop a proper comeback line in time, Berry creates a wonderfully relatable fantasy populated with his guitar and vocal-shaped characters for us to relate to.
Wielding his one-man call-and-response, Berry's ability to tell stories between 1955 and 1958 was matched only by his ability to craft them. Listening through His Best: Volume 1, it's not hard to comprehend why it took over a year for me to even speculate that the entirety of my personal music collection should probably include more than 20 songs by Chuck Berry. If I challenged the seven-year-old me to broaden my horizons, he might say, "Why bother? Chuck Berry has everything already." Kids being some of the best judges of popular music, I'd like to think that in my own primitive way, I was onto something.
As His Best: Vol. 1 documents it, Berry's narrative flexibility stretches far beyond his immediate present and place. His is a high-speed world dotted with "swingin' joints where we can jump and shout," where for 3000 years women have been tearing each other's arms off over "a brown eyed handsome man," and "meddlesome monkeys" stir up fights between elephants and lions. It was certainly enough to capture the imagination of a seven-year-old and make him wonder, make him laugh, and sometimes even scare the shit out of him. To this day I find something unsettling about that arm tearing line! As I age, the songs have only been enhanced and contextualized by my own education and experience, their racial and socioeconomic undertones adding depth to what was already a damn good story. Chuck Berry's ability to synthesize and poeticize American culture is often offered up (in what usually proves a fool's errand) as a worthy competitor against Bob Dylan's own unique vision. Though Dylan's songbook is home to a number of universal anthems, I doubt one could scrounge together twenty Dylan songs that relate with equal gravity to seven-year-olds and 70-year-olds alike as readily as "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" or "Johnny B. Goode."
With material as fertile and diverse as that of his early Chess output, how can one make sense of the undeniably fallow, recycled, and dull efforts that have epitomized the rest of Chuck Berry's recording career? Or rather, in terms better suited to rock fandom, "What the fuck happened to Chuck?" As songwriter-historian Billy Vera and critic Dave Marsh both warn in their forewords to 1992's What Was the First Rock 'N' Roll Record?, one must take subjectivity heavily into account when approaching rock and roll. What could be more subjective than the affection one feels for the first album he ever owned? Does my emotional bond with Chuck Berry's early catalog inhibit any attempt I could make at impartially analyzing the rest of his roughly two decade's worth of original studio material? Personal bias undoubtedly accounts somewhat for the relatively early single, 1960's "Bye Bye Johnny," I mark as the beginning of the end of Berry's songwriting streak. But with the notable exception his brief post-imprisonment renaissance of 1963-1964, one is hard-pressed to find a Chuck Berry compilation that doesn't come to a grinding halt somewhere during the early 1960's. Outside the microcosmic circles of hardcore music aficionados, Chuck Berry might as well have never written another song after 1964.
Why complicate a perfect legacy-make human again a titan from a lost era? Unlike his contemporary Johnny Cash, who embraced vulnerability and experimentation late in his career, Berry has never shown interest in re-engaging with his audience on a level any deeper than that of nostalgia trips and idol worship. Even today, in spite of the health problems that have rendered his stage act barely recognizable, Berry continues to capitalize on his audience's desire to engage with his early legacy. Sometimes he flies to them (he toured Russia briefly in 2014) but mostly, at 88 years old, he lets them fly to him. I myself have considered road-tripping to St. Louis just to watch him play one of his weekly sets at the Blueberry Grill. Blurry YouTube footage of his sloppy, at times bizarre set paints a mostly sad picture, but every so often flashes of pure Chuck Berry only the man himself can produce leap forward. I've stood through hours of razor-throated Bob Dylan concerts just to catch those few moments when he forgets he's supposed to be pissing off the 8000 people who paid to see him and lets slip a line of "Visions of Johanna" that sings forth as if its 1966 and we're all seated in Royal Albert Hall. At that rate, I'd gladly watch crowd-pleasing Chuck do his best to re-create some of the magic in spite of his frailty. Which leads me to the question: Did Chuck Berry need to stay creative? Do we need someone to come along and scrape off the cobwebs and light a fire under his ass as Rick Rubin did for Johnny Cash in his final years? An admiring Keith Richards tried in vain to do just that in 1986 when he assembled the Hail! Hail! Rock n' Roll special, where Berry acted like a pouty teenager and all but self-destructed for the taping. Perhaps, in his own twisted way, Berry decided to protect the greatness of his creative legacy by disengaging altogether. You can't lose if you don't play. Equally cliché and possibly more fitting, you can't win either.
Save for the banal fluke hit "My Ding-A-Ling" in 1972-since any moron can score a novelty hit, the belief that "My-Ding-A-Ling" was more than a whimsical accident serves only to discredit Berry's intelligence--a silent agreement has seemingly existed between Berry, Chess, Mercury, and the millions who consume his music: Chuck Berry the great American bard is dead in the ground. With so many holes dug and monuments springing up in his honor, can we really blame Chuck the creative force for crawling into the grave so readily?
The ceaseless stream of master series, greatest hits, essentials, and singles collections began as early as 1964, with no end in sight. Wrapping your head around how many Chuck Berry compilations actually exist is like counting the M&Ms in a giant jar. Clocking in at well over the 200 mark, Geffen-Universal's aptly-titled 2010 Have Mercy leads one to assume that someone, somewhere in the music business still has a sense of humor, and one to dream that it's the artist himself. The speed and intensity with which Berry's catalog was canonized could begin to explain why the artist failed to ever exceed or even match his "golden decade."
Though a common enough ploy, and practical from a label standpoint-like all of his peers in the 1950's, Berry was a singles-driven artist-there remains something strangely mummifying about issuing a greatest hits package barely 10 years into a recording artist's career. It's as if to say, "These are the only songs you will be needing in the afterlife and like a pharaoh's tomb, your legacy is now sealed." Research fails to unearth any record of Berry's views on the deluge of compilations that began with Chess's 1964 release Chuck Berry's Greatest Hits. Though I'd wager he'd transform his answer into a discussion of royalty checks with the same kind of breathtaking sleight of hand that filtered a normal statement like, "Don't bother us. Leave us alone." into classic Berry-ism, "Daooownbothussleevussloan!" Though he would never admit it, it's possible that Berry was creatively paralyzed by his early-onset legacy as a hit-maker. Further complicating the issue, the notoriously money-conscious musician always recognized an easy payday when it materialized. As long as he could keep it filled with gas and girls who wanted to take a ride, why bother upgrading his '55 Coupe Deville?
The prophetically titled August 1960 "Bye Bye Johnny" marks the first time Chuck Berry truly started spinning his wheels. Not that it was the first time Berry had recycled a song. "Thirty Days," the follow-up single to Berry's debut "Maybellene," relied heavily on its predecessor's opening riff and shuffling backbeat, and 1958's "Little Queenie" copied the Christmas single "Run Run Rudolph" almost exactly. Contrastingly however, these four songs each bristle with individuality-kittens of the same litter more than copy cats. "Thirty Days"'s resemblance to "Maybellene" can be understood as a reflection of novice's entrepreneurial insecurity rather than artistic laziness. As a fresh-faced recording artist, Berry had scored a bona fide hit with "Maybellene" and he desperately wanted another. Would the fans dig his new courtroom drama faster if he framed it within the car-chase song they had kept at #1 R&B for 11 weeks solid? But though "Thirty Days" shares "Maybellene's" aabb rhyme scheme, its lyrical content and vocal delivery places considerable distance between the two songs. Practically overflowing with creative energy on the two tracks, Berry pulls off what could have been a dirty trick with dignity. Lyrical reimagination would prove to be one of Berry's signature strengths.
As Fred Rothwell outlines in his exhaustive survey of Berry's recorded legacy, Long Distance Information, "Little Queenie" and "Run Run Rudolph" were tracked within hours of each other during a November 1958 Chess session. As Rothwell speculates, Berry "[recognized] a great groove when he created it and [didn't] want to squander it on a mere Christmas disc." Showcasing his ability to instantly reinterpret himself, both songs are brimming with signature Berry-isms. "All I want for Christmas is a rock and roll 'lectric guitar" foretells a generation's worth of pawn shops stocked with barely used cherry red Stratocasters, while the playful, half-spoken musings of "Little Queenie" provided Berry with one of his most memorable live moments through the 1970's and 1980's in addition to heavily influencing the vocal delivery of Mick Jagger, whose 1972 live version with the Stones is one of more than a dozen official covers of the song, each paying points to Berry. Not just good business, Berry's ability to breathe fresh life into virtually identical songs was a hallmark of his artistry, making the moment he started dialing in his songs all the more painful.
On its surface, 1960's "Bye Bye Johnny" appears to be a largely inoffensive sequel that suffers more than anything from its close relationship with Berry's most durable creation, "Johnny B. Goode." A close listen to its chorus, however, reveals a subtle harbinger of Berry's steady withdrawal from creative songwriting. With just the slightest edge of vocal fatigue, Berry repeatedly drags across the redundant chorus line, "Byeeee byeee byeee byee byee byee byee byee byee yee / Bye bye Johnny / Bye bye Johnny B. Goode." It's hard to make sense of a Chuck Berry who would waste 14 syllables on the same word. After all, this was a lyricist as well known for his syllable-cramming tongue-twisters as Gilbert and Sullivan. Where vocal powerhouses like James Brown or Sam Cooke were using their wide-ranging voices to sophisticate and sell famously redundant hooks like "Please Please Please" or "You Send Me," on "Bye Bye Johnny" Berry delivers only a half-hearted holler lacking his signature playful gusto as if each coming note bores him more than the next. Missing too from "Bye Bye Johnny" is Berry's singing guitar foil. The lack of guitar combined with the dirge-like chorus of "Bye Bye Johnny" emit a defeated sound and mark the end of an era.
For a brief moment following his incarceration, Chuck Berry appeared to be making a comeback. "Nadine," "No Particular Place to Go," "You Never Can Tell," and "Promised Land" had all the qualities of Berry's finest work and some exciting new developments. "No Particular Place to Go" was of course "School Days," but its reworking was in the same spirit as his skillful reinterpretations of "Run Run Rudolph" and "Little Queenie." Teased up for an increasingly raucous teen audience and delivered with on-the-prowl energy, "No Particular Place to Go" is riskier, hornier, and hilariously centered around an unnegotiable seatbelt clasp. Even the growling frustration that colors the refrain, "Riiiiiiiiidin along in my auto-mo-beeeel" comes across with gleeful exuberance. This is Berry in his element, behind the wheel of a fast car in hot pursuit of his heart's desire. Sadly, the hopeful revving strutted on "No Particular Place to Go" was apparently the last sputter of a dying engine. A penchant for quick cash inspired an ill-advised move from Chess to Mercury, who demanded a re-recorded compilation of Berry's finest compositions. Carelessly thrown into a stereo mix, the cheesy, loosely assembled effort is notable only as it is the first of Berry's compilation albums to include the term "golden." Unfortunately, 1967's Golden Hits could not have been more poorly titled. Not until 1987's The Great Twenty Eight would we have a definitive representation of Chuck Berry at his best. Immersion into the earlier compilations inspires a singular ambivalence. One is at once excited and infatuated with the artist who lives in these tracks while simultaneously one feels oddly betrayed by Berry's exhausting determination to rest on his laurels. For a living artist, he plays a convincing dead man.
On a recent cross-country van ride, a much older musician friend of mine told me about the one gig he played as Chuck Berry's rhythm guitarist. The pickup band he was a part of had been organized the day of the show and had yet to rehearse when Chuck strode in less than an hour before show time. My friend tentatively asked "What songs are we playing?" "CHUCK BERRY SONGS DAMMIT!" snapped Chuck. The fact that he could enter any town in America on a given night and find a group of musicians who could readily perform his songs is a testament to the sheer power and influence of his catalog. An audacious and innovative artist in his early years, Chuck Berry shaped and solidified a genre of his own. Though his inability or lack of desire to break from that mold has proved disappointing at best and offensive at worst, it will never truly threaten the legacy of his "golden years" as a wily, joyous poet and musician. In their own cash-grabbing way, decades' worth of compilation albums have kept watch over Berry's greatest achievements, insuring they remain front and center-provided we keep listening to them. I know I will. And if physical releases still exist in 2030, I'll certainly be dropping a copy of Chuck Berry's brand new Greatest Hits Volume 6 Billion down the chimney for my kids. I can't think of a better gift. Unless of course, they ask for a little baby doll that can cry, sleep, drink, and wet.
Also see our other articles about and tribute to Chuck Berry
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