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Ten More Berrys: Chuck
For over half of his adult life, Chuck Berry hinted he had new studio material on the way, but nothing came of all of his talk. Even if he had never released another note following the release of his 1979 studio album Rock It, Berry would have left quite a musical legacy. While not known primarily as an album artist, Berry made a mark on the singles charts with songs like "Maybelline," "Roll Over Beethoven," and "Johnny B. Goode." Those songs and others are considered among the earliest classics of rock. He combined great guitar riffs with lyrics filled with subjects that appealed to a young audience. When he turned ninety, Berry announced the completion of an album that he wouldn't live to see released. Thankfully, that release, simply entitled Chuck, does not tarnish his reputation in the slightest.
Chuck is light on tracks - just ten of them. However, they show both a man still in love with the music that made him famous, as well as one facing old age with dignity. While some of the tracks are slow blues, Berry still rocks on the others. Eight of them were written by Berry, including the opening track, "Wonderful Woman." This song still has the sort of guitar riff associated with many of Berry's songs, but it has a sound more reminiscent of his Mercury recordings of the 1960s, as well as efforts after that. It's a story of a brief encounter with a fan at a show that everyone knows will be over by the next day. It's one of two Chuck tracks that feature three generations of the Berry family. In addition to Chuck, daughter Ingrid plays harmonica, while son Charles Jr. and grandson Charles III add their guitars to the track. Ingrid Berry also contributes backing vocals on other tracks, such as the poignant "Darlin'," about a father knowing age is not his ally as his days grow shorter.
Berry revisits other classic Berry songs in other places. "Jamaica Moon" simply changes the location of his old song Havana Moon, which he first recorded in the 1950s, and included on his debut album After School Session (A different version appears on Rock It). The track shows that the third time still has a charm and an exotic feel. The adventures of Johnny B. Goode have been chronicled in the 1958 rock classic, the 1960 success sequel "Bye Bye Johnny", and a 1969 track (and album) entitled "Concerto In B Goode." On Chuck, Berry presents Lady B. Goode, a song about turning Johnny's life into a movie, and giving a prominent role to the woman who supported him and made sure he had a place to call home. The bluesy "Dutchman" tells an alternate reality of Johnny's tale, where success had long gone, and he lived a drifter's life, scorned by most. Berry tells the tale of a man who sells a story for a drink.
Chuck also shows the playful side of the artist that has always been on display. On "3/4 Time (Enchiladas)," Berry covers a song written by Tony Joe White, who's best known for his 1969 hit "Pork Salad Annie." This is the one non-studio track on the album, recorded in the presence of Berry's wildly appreciative fans. The song is a bit silly, but not nearly as juvenile as Berry's biggest chart success, "My Ding-A-Ling," which topped the charts in 1972. It's a song about enjoying the small pleasures of life, with elements of country and waltz on the track. The track that most sounds like the classic Berry song is "Big Boys," a nostalgic tune about a boy who wants to emulate the older boys, for he has the same interests as they do. The songs sings to a boy who was where the singer found himself in his youth, and tells him not to worry about the older boys. Fun can still be had, whether they care or not. The classic guitar riff is still there, even though it scarcely sounds different the famed opening of "Johnny B. Goode."
The release of Chuck should make Berry's most hardcore fans very pleased that he finally delivered on a promise of new material. Nothing on this release will likely become a classic, but that doesn't matter. Even before Berry died, he seemed to hint that Chuck would be his final album. Chuck shows that Berry had a formula for his sound, and he deviated little from it in a career that lasted some 65 years. The formula still works, possibly because that Berry wasn't that prolific of an artist, releasing just twenty studio albums in six decades. Chuck is a fitting final bow to a man who helped to shape rock 'n roll and will serve as an inspiration to every rocker who has lived, as well as those who wish to follow in his footsteps in the future.
On a scale of zero to four stars, I give Chuck 3.5 stars. For anyone who will always be almost grown.