Chuck Berry is 90 – and you need to listen to his Great 28. Hail! Hail! For he isn’t just the true king of rock’n’roll. He is rock’n’roll. I’m not for a second excusing the behaviour of musicians at their worst but I kinda like knowing that Little Richard (about to turn 84) and Jerry Lee Lewis (just turned 81) and Chuck Berry – he was 90 yesterday – are still alive. Still kicking. If rock’n’roll is the devil’s music there’s something prophetic and comforting about these old souls still working, turning up. Chuck plays clubs. Chuck ducks and dives. Chuck rolls out the hits. And what a run of hits.
There are many ways to dip into the catalogue but your best bet is to grab yourself a copy of The Great Twenty-Eight. It is as it says – 28 killer-good songs. And though it doesn’t feature every single well known Chuck Berry song it features all the ones you need. It gives you the essence. Listening to Chuck’s great Chess Records sides is like checking in with Elvis Presley’s Sun sessions.
When I was eight years old I became aware of Chuck Berry. And he’s been top of the list since.
And as I grew up with music it was Chuck Berry’s sound everywhere. It was The Beatles covering Roll Over Beethoven and The Rolling Stones doing Around and Around. It was The Beach Boys’ Surfin’ USA which sounded so much like at least one other Chuck Berry song. It was Jimi Hendrix tearing apart Johnny B. Goode. And then it was the movie Back to The Future. Elvis Presley covered Chuck Berry. Emmylou Harris covered Chuck Berry. Hell even George bloody Thorogood gave him a nod.
My folks’ record collection was full of Chuck Berry songs. Some by him. But hundreds of covers too. And then when they switched to buying CDs it was a Chuck Berry collection that told the real story. Here were all these songs I knew – the original versions.
Chuck Berry was a black artist but he knew country music. That might not seem weird at all now. But that’s because of Chuck Berry. He knew R’n’B too. He knew gospel and he took from the church and delivered it to evil. His rock’n’roll became the sound of white America. And without it you wouldn’t have a record collection. There would be no Beatles, Kinks, Animals, Stones. And so none of the bands that formed due to hearing those guys…
Chuck Berry was a guitar hero. Chuck Berry was a mover. A groover. A singer.
But Chuck Berry’s cleverest thing was the way he made rock’n’roll poems built to last. Sneaking clever innuendo up inside the lines. And then ramming in downright filth. His lyrics are sexy and funny and naughty. They’re wise and curious and they often tell more than one story.
He is the great poet of rock’n’roll. The economy of language – he should be taught not just in music classes. He should be taught to English literature students.
So if you do nothing more please check out The Great Twenty-Eight. Or if you already know it give it a birthday whirl in honour of the architect of it all. You’ll hear songs with the right amount of space in them. You’ll hear that voice and guitar and those lyrics. You’ll hear great musicians in support – Willie Dixon on bass, Otis Spann and the great Johnnie Johnson tinkling the ivories. Master blues drummers Jasper Thomas and Fred Below, the backing vocals of The Moonglows. You’ll hear the blueprint for the careers of hundreds and then thousands of musicians. And you’ll hear something no one else was ever able to quite put their finger on: the mercurial magic of Chuck Berry. Twenty-eight songs. Each a perfect short story, morality tale told in under three minutes. Hail! Hail! Rock’n’Roll.
And for a great piece of writing about Chuck Berry’s worth check out Peter Guralnick’s essay here. I’ve lined up The Great Twenty-Eight for you to listen to while you read it.