1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die
"If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry." This quote from John Lennon is overused, but indisputably true, so I feel no shame in repeating it. There are arguments about who best encapsulates the genre, from Buddy Holly to Jerry Lee Lewis, but none do so more completely than Chuck Berry. Every rock historian will put Berry among a select few in the foremost chapter in the annals of modern music, but this is the only recording in either of the two books (shame on you, 1001 Albums). "The Anthology" does Berry justice however.
Where to start with this guy? He contributed plenty to rock 'n' roll, but his guitar playing has to be at the fore. Berry came to the recording industry looking to join Muddy Waters in the blues department, but his opening single "Maybellene" showed what the world was in for: the swagger and solos of the blues, coupled with upbeat rockabilly rhythms, which turned into pop gold. There are plenty of back-tracks on this compilation, but few match hits like "Johnny B. Goode" for Berry's freewheeling guitar style, and the high riff of "No Particular Place To Go" is iconic. Berry is the guitarist most often credited for introducing a track with a hot lick (as he does on songs like "Roll Over Beethoven"), and the move is repeated so often on this compilation that you may get tired of it. Some less appreciated tunes should merit the same attention as his hits, so don't forget about the more obscure "30 Days (To Come Back Home)."
For all of Berry's punch on the guitar, his vocal style and lyrics are perhaps better recognized. His swagger, between vocal delivery and duck-walking around the stage, set a high bar for followers like Lewis. He wasn't the first artist to slip a sexual innuendo into his work (bluesmen had been at it for years), but he sure made it mainstream. It's easy to point at his later works as obvious examples (The unfortunate "My Ding-A-Ling") but more subtle approaches, like trying to loosen a girl's "seat belt" in "No Particular Place to Go" really got parents in a huff. Berry's guitar was a blessing to Joe Perry, and his words a blessing to Steven Tyler.
"Anthology" is nice because it lets the listener hear the aspects of Berry's work that didn't feature in his hits. His early blues leanings on "Wee Wee Hours," or his more R&B tinged work like "Childhood Sweetheart." It's a shame that he didn't produce more instrumental tracks like "Guitar Boogie," and those who wonder if Berry could jam, there's a seven-minute live version of "Reelin' and Rockin'."
One additional note that all listeners should pay attention for is how blessed Berry was to have the array of pianists that he did. Lafayette Leake tears it up on "Johnny B. Goode," a song that was possibly named after Berry's first pianist, Johnnie Johnson, who provides equal firepower throughout. Berry was a heck of a music personality, but he did have help in making his songs rock.
I said it once, but it seems like a shame that Berry only gets one look in the 2000ish albums to be considered on this blog, when his followers like The Beatles get seven. So enjoy it now while you get the chance.
INTERESTING FACT: "Maybellene" was a cover of the country song "Ida Red" by Bob Wills. Leonard Chess, the owner of Chess Records where Berry spent most of his professional career, thought the original title to be "too rural" so he opted for "Maybellene" when he saw a mascara box from the makeup company at the studio.