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Chuck Berry's impact on popular music is important enough not only to lead to Web sites describing his work and life. Also there are many books covering this subject. Here you'll find stuff to read when your computer is turned off. The book list is divided into texts about Chuck Berry's music, about Chuck Berry's records, about Chuck Berry's life, about Chuck Berry's musical partners, and about Chuck Berry's favorite record company, Chess Records. In addition I've listed some Chuck Berry songbooks.
As with the records and CDs in the discography section of this site, a "Grab CD" icon () guides you to a list of prominent Internet record shops which currently stock this item. If you want one of these books, just one more click takes you directly to the corresponding order page of your favorite shop.
Fred Rothwell's Long Distance Information: Chuck Berry's Recorded Legacy (Music Mentor Books, 2001 ) is the ultimate book for any serious Chuck Berry record collector. This is the book I always wanted to write - and stopped trying when I saw Fred's early manuscripts: All Berry sessions, all the songs, all the session musicians, where to find which song if ever released, and tons of additional stuff. Highly recommended!
First published in 2001 the book consists mainly of a 240 page commented "sessionography", a list of 93 recording sessions Chuck participated in between 1954 and 2000. For each session Fred lists the musicians and the songs recorded, whether released or not. For every song he shows a few main records containing it. He also fully describes and criticises every recording.
Long Distance Information additionally contains listings of Chuck Berry's main record releases, chart entries, TV, video and film appearances, as well as cover versions.
Chuck Berry's recorded legacy is not complete yet, though. Since 2001 there have surfaced some additional recordings. To read about those, but also for corrections and additions, see the Weblog (Blog) which goes along with this site. The Blog also provides a platform to discuss open questions and how you can help making the book even better.
While Fred Rothwell's book only shows the most important Chuck Berry records, collectors typically want to know more about the records they own, and the ones they don't. For all these, Morten Reff wrote the The Chuck Berry International Directory, Volume 1 (Music Mentor Books, 2008 ).
I am collecting Chuck Berry music for more than 30 years now, though I never had the money or the will to collect (all of) Chuck Berry's records. While I have more than 500 Chuck Berry records and approximately the same number of CDs, I never tried to find each and every pressing or version of a record. Often the ones in my collection are cheaper re-issues. So when readers ask me about a special label or cover variant, my typical reply was that I don't know.
That's no excuse any more. Morten Reff's book answers maybe not all, but most of your questions. Now we finally know that there are five different versions of the Dutch variant of Berry's On Stage album, just in case you try to collect all of them. I found it astonishing to see how much even I did not know about Berry's records.
Morten has documented Chuck Berry's released records world-wide to a much greater extend than anyone ever before. According to his writing, the listings for the US (more than 150 pages alone) and the UK are complete. The ones for most of Central and Northern Europe also look fairly complete to me. There's only one record documented to be published in Peru, so there may be room for extensions. If you know Chuck Berry records not yet listed in Morten's book, both Morten and I would be glad to hear from you.
Some details you may be looking for you will not find in Morten's book. For instance it seems to be impossible to document all the typeface and type size differences for those records pressed in millions. Too many pressing plants, too many printers, too many variants. Morten wisely choose not to go into details here.
But on the other hand you get many more details than you probably expect. For instance Morten has actually listened to all the records and therefore comments on sound quality, the use of mono, stereo, and electronically altered versions, and much more.
Many, yes: many of the records Morten shows I have never seen before. And this does not only cover the more obscure Korean, Taiwanese or Philippinian releases. Even some of the Dutch or English records I have not seen before. Where available Morten has listed year of release, track listing, correct and incorrect composer credits, song variants, and more. Often he shows cover and label, including variants such as promotional copies. Best reading are his comments on the worse records such as "Nobody wants or needs this record."
Where Volume 1 concentrates on all Chuck Berry records ever released commercially, The Chuck Berry International Directory, Volume 2 (Music Mentor Books, 2008 ) starts with the non-commercial records.
In this book you will find all the bootlegs, all the radio station albums, all the soundtracks. But this is only the start of it. In addition this second volume lists all of Berry's appearances in the movies and in TV, all concerts outside the U.S., and all his videos and DVDs. As in Volume 1, Morten Reff not only simply lists the collector's items. He always comments, recommends or criticises, thus telling you exactly what you need to have and what you can omit easily.
Additional chapters in Volume 2 cover Berry's chart listings and awards won, Berry's influence on other artists (where such exceeds simple cover versions), tribute songs and albums, as well as songs Berry covered himself.
70 pages alone contain an extended version of this bibliography listing books about Berry, songbooks, related books, and some 150 notable magazine articles.
The two final chapters are small books on their own covering pianist Johnnie Johnson and guitarist Eddy Clearwater. Each is a complete sessionography followed by a complete annotated discography and additional details.
A third volume was issued in 2012. This book concentrates on Chuck Berry's music as performed by other artists. For more details read this site's chapter on cover versions.
The fourth and final volume (Music Mentor Books, 2013 ) of this series went to the book stores in 2013. It completes Volume 3's coverage of Berry cover versions and Soundalikes plus some obscure stuff such as Karaoke CDs. More than 200 supplemental pages contain additions and corrections to the original contents of Volumes 1 and 2 with newly found or newly released records plus helpful cross-referencing of all Chuck Berry records and CDs.
These four books contain a ton of information never published anywhere else. So if you are collecting Chuck Berry records, this is THE SOURCE. For corrections and additions discovered after 2014, read Morten's contributions to the Weblog (Blog) which goes along with this site.
Chuck's very own Autobiography (Harmony Books, 1987 ) is of course the most important book about his personal and musical life. Chuck wrote most of the book in 1979 when he once again was in prison.
According to his writing he started working on this autobiography in 1959.
"The urge to proceed always came back whenever a boost in my career prompted new interviews. Usually it was not the 'boost' that was elaborated on in the articles resulting from the interviews, but instead the naughty-naughties I would commit from time to time. Every fifteen years, in fact, it seems I make a big mistake." Therefore the book mostly covers the various mistakes. Music and recording play a lesser role in this book.
On some 350 pages you'll find private photos and poems, as well as a rudimentary list of recorded songs and records. As with every autobiography, the contents are biased, of course. For a more critical view and maybe for more truth, have a look at the other biographies here, especially the one by Bruce Pegg. Besides the original English version of the autobiography there also are various translations available: a German translation (Verlag Arthur Moewig, 1987 ), a French translation (Ed. Michel Lafon, 1988, cover identical to US release), an Italian translation (Sperling & Kupfer, 1989), Scandinavian versions and more.
The very first book on Chuck Berry was published by the Chuck Berry Fan Club of France and written by a team headed by Jean-Pierre Ravelli in 1969. Despite its English-language title, The Story of the Brown Eyed Handsome Man - Chuck Berry (Publication Let It Rock) is written in French. The stapled booklet is 36 pages thick and contains a chapter on Berry's life, a list of all his recordings including session musicians (as far as known then), a French discography and concert review, some lyrics and nice photos.
Most of the contents was repeated in a book by Jean-Jacques Jelot-Blanc a few years later. Simply titled Chuck Berry, this French language book was published in 1980 (Editions Horus). 48 magazine-size pages contain more than 50 rare b/w photographs, Chuck's story, a list of recording sessions, and a huge discography. Jean-Jacques often concentrates on the French aspects of Chuck's work, such as records published solely in France, a list of concerts in France and comments from French newspapers.
The oldest English-language book completely dedicated to Chuck Berry was Howard DeWitt's Chuck Berry: Rock 'n' Roll Music (Horizon Books, 1981 , left image below). This was a book written by a fan and targeting the fan. The whole text is written with a typewriter, layout is non-existent and the print quality is low, especially on the few images. But this book is written by heart. Howard concentrates on the Chuck Berry music and their influences.
The most important part of Howard's book was his annotated album discography where he comments on the importance and contents of each Chuck Berry album. Also included is a brief list of Chuck's recording sessions at CHESS and a list of famous cover versions. A second printing of this book called "CHUCK BERRY - ROCK 'N' ROLL MUSIC, Second Edition, by Howard A. DeWitt with research assistance and a discography by Morten Reff" (Pierian Press, 1985, right image shows one of several covers used) is almost a complete new book. The whole text was rewritten and typeset, many photos were added. Half of the second printing consumes a very detailed discography written by Morten Reff, something which finally became the Chuck Berry International Directory.
One year after Howard's book Krista Reese published Chuck Berry - Mr. Rock n' Roll (Proteus Books, 1982 ). This book was not written for the Chuck Berry fan, but instead for the bookstores. It has a fancy layout, lots of full-page photos (some in color) and little text in between.
Krista mainly combines quotes about Chuck (less from Chuck) taken from newspaper coverage, interviews, and personal talks. In the most part this creates a quite negative personal image of Mr. Berry. The appendices list the main album and single releases.
Then for almost 20 years no other book on Chuck Berry's life was published. But 2002 saw the release of three new biographies published within a few weeks!
In England, John Collis wrote Chuck Berry - The Biography (Aurum Press, 2002 , French translation at Camion Blanc, 2008 ). Collis, who also authored a nice book about Chess Records (see below), intended to make his book an addition to Fred Rothwell's Long Distance Information (see above), but then as he wrote encountered himself quoting from Fred's book over and over. And yes, Collis chronologically runs through Berry's sessions commenting on each and every track recorded, repeating Fred's extensive research. But hey, what is left from Chuck Berry when you omit his musical work? In between Collis tries to list other details from Berry's life, but given the few and poor sources that exist he is mostly left with quotes from other books listed here, most importantly Berry's own Autobiography and Fitzpatrick's book on Johnnie Johnson. While Collis book is nice to read and pretty complete, you'll often find yourself reading things you already read elsewhere. Only a few chapters stand out: on one hand his personal reports about several Berry concerts held in the UK, on the other hand a detailed description of Berry's work, life and law suits after the publication of the Autobiography. These chapters alone make the book worth buying.
In Italy, Carmelo Genovese wrote a booklet called Chuck Berry (Editori Riuniti, 2002) as part of a series covering many music legends. The main part of the book is an annotated chronological discography (not as complete as the one on this site, though) where Genovese comments each and every song Berry ever recorded. Additional chapters describe Berry's life, a Berry self-portrait collected from interview snippets, and Genovese's personal meetings with Berry. Appendices as usual list films, cover versions, and important re-issues. The book is written in Italian.
The last but not least of the three new biographies was written in the U.S. by Bruce Pegg: Brown Eyed Handsome Man - The Life and Hard Times of Chuck Berry (Routledge, 2002 ). Pegg has spend a lot of time researching Berry's life and therefore this book really adds something to the well-known story. The author tries to straighten out the "facts" from Berry's autobiography and other sources. He corrects many errors, fills in the (deliberate) omissions, and tries to put the happenings in their correct context of 1950's segregation. To do so, Pegg studied all the old court documents as well as the contemporary newspapers. His list of quoted sources is over 30 small-print pages alone. In addition he interviewed many persons who were directly involved with segments of Chuck's life: bandmates, engineers, lawyers. This 300 page book contains a lot of text! It is not always easy to read and lengthy quotes from court proceedings will be boring to some readers. But everyone interested in the true story needs to read this self-titled Unauthorized Biography!
In addition to these dedicated biographies, chapters on Chuck Berry have been published in many books covering 1950's Rock 'n' Roll music.
The Chuck Berry sound is not just the sound of Chuck's guitar and voice. In his most important recording era Chuck was usually accompanied by a fixed set of musicians, which also contributed to the Berry sound. Two of them have books on their own.
Travis Fitzpatrick wrote Father of Rock & Roll - The Story of Johnnie "B. Goode" Johnson (Thomas, Cooke & Company, 1999 ). This book describes the work and life of Johnnie Johnson. And since Johnnie was the partner and piano player on almost every Chuck Berry recording, this is also a book about the work and life of Chuck Berry, though through a very different perspective.
Again we get a much more negative image of Chuck Berry through this book. Travis concentrates on his opinion that most of the Chuck Berry sound and even most of the Chuck Berry compositions were created by Chuck and Johnnie as a team. This opinion even lead to a lawsuit in which Johnnie tried to get writers' credits on Chuck Berry songs, which Johnnie lost in 2002.
Along with the book comes a CD with Johnnie performing 14 songs, including some Berry numbers: Maybellene, Wee Wee Hours, School Days (sic), Carol, and Johnny B. Goode.
Another musician who often played on Chuck Berry's CHESS records was the leader of the record company's house band, Willie Dixon. The bass player contributed to hundreds of Blues, Rhythm & Blues, and Rock 'n' Roll records. He wrote some of the masterpieces which have been covered as much as Chuck's work, e.g. I'm Your Hoochie Coochie Man, I Just Wanna Make Love to You, or Little Red Rooster.
Don Snowden helped writing Willie Dixon's autobiography named I am the Blues (Da Capo Press, 1989 ). The book only has some brief comments on Willie's work with Chuck Berry (and even those are questionable), but it presents an in-depth look into the recording business at CHESS during the 1950's and 1960's.
Like the Snowden/Dixon book there are at least three more books which cover the history of the legendary CHESS recording label.
Spinning Blues into Gold by Nadine Cohodas (St. Martin's Press, 2000 ) is a very detailed documentation about Lejzor and Fiszel Czyz who became Leonard and Phil Chess when they immigrated to the U.S. The Chess brothers formed one of the most influential recording companies of the 1950's.
On more than 350 pages Nadine gives a historical description of the Chess'es work in Chicago. She covers all the important stars made by the two including Chuck Berry. But she also describes the later problems of the company including the various lawsuits regarding writer's royalties and credits.
Much more colorful and much more fun to read is John Collis' The Story of Chess Records (Bloomsbury Publishing, 1998 ). It also has a complete chapter dedicated to Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, thus presenting their importance for the label's success.
John's book is only 200 pages and as a big disadvantage does not contain an index. But he does not concentrate on the Chess brothers' biography. Instead he purely concentrates on the music, even though sometimes from a very British perspective.
Yet another book on "Chess Records and the Business of Rock & Roll" was published in 2005: Rich Cohen's Machers and Rockers (W. W. Norton & Comp., 2005 ), published also under the title "The Record Men". Again this is a book on the people behind Chess Records. Cohen concentrates on the life of Leonard Chess from his immigration in 1928 to his death in 1968. And he concentrates on the relationship between Leonard, his Jewish education and surroundings, and Muddy Waters as his prime musician.
Machers and Rockers is difficult to read and full of errors. Especially the few pages that cover Chuck Berry's work at Chess are very incomplete and incorrect. Cohen even manages to mis-spell Bo Diddley. So if you can't get Nadine Cohodas' book, you may want to read this one. But only then.
For a reason unclear to me, Machers and Rockers also seems to be the basis of a motion picture on Chess Records. Cadillac Records was released in 2008 and is available on DVD.
A completely different book about CHESS records is The CHESS Labels - A Discography by Michel Ruppli (Greenwood Press, 1983 ). This two-volume book is simply a list of all the recording sessions managed by CHESS Records. Each session is listed with date and place, musicians, recorded songs, and the first record the song appeared on. Appendices include a complete listing of all records ever published by the CHESS labels.
If you are only interested in the Chuck Berry sessions, go for the much more detailed book by Fred Rothwell (see above).
Anyone who can hold an electric guitar has tried to play like Chuck Berry. Therefore there are many songbooks either providing the lyrics and notes to the main Chuck Berry hits or otherwise teaching to play guitar like Chuck. Here's just a few of them.
In the 1950's you got Chuck Berry's hits in form of Sheet Music with just one song on a folded sheet. In the 1960's the first Chuck Berry songbooks appeared which included a collection of sheet music. The songbook Chuck Berry's Greatest Hits was published by Arc Music Corp. in 1964. This New York publishing company still controls some parts of Chuck Berry's work and is, by the way, lead by Marshall Chess, son of Leonard. This songbook contains a one-page biography along with words and music of 18 songs from Mabellene (sic) and other 1950's hits to his then latest and greatest such as Nadine and You Never Can Tell.
The songbook The King of Rhythm and Blues is also from 1964. This was published by Jewel Music in London, England. It contains 13 songs and photos. It contains nice photos taken during Berry's 1964 tour in the UK as well as a two-page "letter" in which Berry describes his tour experiences. Almost the same cover shows The Chuck Berry Song Book (Arc Music) from 1965. This one contains a couple of quite unknown songs such as The Man and the Donkey or Trick or Treat, however.
A typical example from the 1970's is Chuck Berry - Easy Guitar (Arc Music, 1974). It contains 48 songs in words and music, including some very rare ones like The Man and the Donkey. It even includes a Chuck Berry song he never recorded by himself: Hey, Hey, Good Lookin' was exclusively performed by Bo Diddley. Some years later Arc Music's The Golden Decade offered almost the same contents.
The best Chuck Berry songbook is Rock 'n' Roll Poet (Isalee Music Publishing, 1979). This book was published by Chuck's very own company as a result of finally getting the full rights in his early hits. Not only contains the book 45 songs in words and music, most of them from Chuck's Mercury and Back-at-Chess eras. It also contains the lyrics of 32 more songs, three of them were recorded in the 1970's but never released until today. And as a special bonus the book contains pretty photos and personal comments by Chuck about some of the songs.
In 1994 Wise Publications published Chuck Berry's Greatest Hits For Guitar Tab . This songbook contains words and music to 16 Berry songs including tablature instructions for guitar players.
A more recent Chuck Berry songbook is Guitar Recorded Versions by Fred Sokolow (Hal Leonard ). This book contains transcriptions, which means these are the notes Chuck really played on the record. The book lists only 17 songs but includes an introduction to each song plus a description of typical elements of Chuck's guitar playing.
One step even further goes Guitar Masterclass 7 - Play in the Style of Chuck Berry by Potsch Potschka and Michael Morenga (KDM Verlag, 1999 ). This 48 page booklet contains not a single Chuck Berry song. Instead it contains many samples on how to play the licks, riffs, and rhythms of the Chuck Berry style. Contrary to the English-language title the textual descriptions in this book are in German language. There is a short Chuck Berry biography and some interesting details about the equipment Chuck used to create his sound. The booklet should come with a CD containing 54 samples played by Potsch Potschka (former guitar player of the Nina Hagen Band and Spliff). Note however that there is also a cheaper version of this booklet for sale which omits the CD. A very nice addition to this book are high-quality photos of Chuck Berry embedded in the text.
As a last sample of a Chuck Berry songbook there is Play Guitar with Chuck Berry (Wise Publications, 1998 ). It contains no text, no photos, and only 6 songs in words and music. The only thing of interest is the included CD on which Arthur Dick plays just the backing tracks of the hits (so you can sing along instead of Chuck). And there's a second version of each song on the CD with the lead guitar omitted as well.
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Last modified: 05.09.2016