Who would be better qualified to review Chuck Berry's latest and last album CHUCK (Dualtone/Decca) than our expert Fred Rothwell, author of "Long Distance information - Chuck Berry's Recorded Legacy". This review first appeared in the Juli 2017 edition of Now Dig This magazine, the most interesting British magazine on Rock and Roll music. Many thanks to Trevor Cajiao, publisher of NDT, to allow Fred and me to reprint this revised edition of Fred's review here. If your want to have the printed version, go to the NDT store here: https://www.nowdigthismagazine.co.uk/product/now-dig-this-magazine-no-412-201707. On this page you can also buy your subscription to the magazine. Highly recommended!
'Chuck' â€“ the last go-round from Chuck Berry.
Fred Rothwell performs a post-mortem on Chuck's posthumous album, dissects the disc and examines a platter that really matters.
Small miracles can and do happen, even in the jaded world of commercial music. Just a few months after his 90th birthday and untimely death, Chuck Berry's final contribution to rock and roll has arrived in the form of 'Chuck' a 'new' album on the Dualtone label (Decca in the UK). The album that his fans had been promised for many a year has finally surfaced. Its gestation has been elephantine. Back in 2001 I wrote in Long Distance Information
Chuck plans to release a new studio album consisting of thirteen new compositions including one tantalisingly called 'Lady B Goode' (no prizes for guessing the progenitor of this song) and another titled 'Loco Joe' (said to be 'Jo Jo Gunne' with new lyrics) in celebration of his 75th birthday. I for one can hardly wait!
Well wait I did, along with an army of Berry fans. 18th October 2001 came and went but the album was a no-show. Later, a little more information seeped into the public domain and several new songs were mentioned, a talking blues called 'Dutchman', a rocker titled 'The Big Boys' and a slow ballad called 'Darling'. 'Havana Moon' was slated for a rewrite as 'Jamaica Moon' and 'Down Bound Train' was to be updated as 'Hell Bound Train'. A Billboard Studio Monitor report from October 2001 said Chuck had spent 30 hours at Four Seasons Media Productions recording studio in St Louis, recording new material and transferring demos and rough tracks from two inch, two track magnetic analogue tape to a digital Pro Tools platform. Berry would soon record more guitar and vocal tracks it was reported. 'Since March I've put a lot of energy into it. I've done more since March than I have in the last 14,15 years,' Chuck said. 'I want this to be like no other record I've ever put out'. Some of the songs go even farther back to the 1980s, written during his spare time during breaks in touring. 'He always had a pad and a pencil with him,' said his long-time bass player and tour companion Jim Marsala. Jim said Chuck started working on his 'new' album right after he released his previous studio album 'Rockit' back in 1979. However, a March 1989 fire at Chuck's Berry Park studio put paid to embryonic versions of the songs. Chuck told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the fire had destroyed a master tape with thirteen songs he had completed off and on over the last seven years. It took until 1991 for the studio to be rebuilt and for Chuck to re-create his lost work. Chuck's son Butch, a member of his band since 2001, recalled, 'He had to go back to square one. It was him doing all the basics by himself, all his vocals, all his guitars, putting all the basics together and building from there'.
In the intervening period more recording, overdubs, digital splicing and other sonic jiggery-pokery has taken place. The album now has ten, not thirteen tracks and 'Loco Joe' and 'Hell Bound Train' have disappeared. More musicians have been drafted in, including Chuck's son Charles 'Butch' Berry Jr (guitar) and daughter Darlin Ingrid (harmonica and vocals) and 23 year old grandson (Butch's son) Charles Berry III (guitar) together with Bob Lohr (piano), Jim Marsala (bass) and Keith Robinson (drums). Collectively named by Chuck as The Blueberry Hill Band due to their association with the St Louis club of that name at which they had played each month for twenty years. There are also some other 'guests' but thankfully there has been no overload of musical 'stars'. This had already been done at Chuck's sixtieth birthday bash. There are three young guitarists, Gary Clark Jr., Tom Morello and Nathaniel Rateliff who are on one track each. Clark had been recruited by Butch while Dualtone had suggested to other two, along with a bunch of other names that Chuck rejected. In addition to the base tracks being laid down at Berry Park and Four Seasons the album was the product of St. Louis studios, Casa Del Torretta and Electropolis plus additional recording work in Nashville.
So let's examine the individual tracks in the order that they trip off the disc.
'Oh well looky here now, this just makes my day,' Chuck exclaims at the start of 'Wonderful Woman', a rockin' shuffle with more than a hint of 'Back In The USA' to the melody. It's a tale of a beautiful woman with long brown wavy hair and a form fitting dress that is too hard to bear. In an earlier age this might have been 'Beautiful Delilah' or 'Little Queenie' but as it turns out the lady in question is Chuck's wife, the equally enchanting Toddy. The track is chock full of guitarists, son Charles Jr., grandson Charles lll and young Texan blues buck Gary Clark Jr. They are all in the mix along with Chuck himself. However, the cut isn't cluttered as they each queue up to play their own versions of Chuck Berry licks. There is even room for Ingrid's harp. She ain't no Little Walter but her contribution adds to the texture. With intricate couplets like 'Have you ever seen a woman to whom your heart you'd give? Who would betray you twice and you know you'd still forgive', you know Chuck's poetic prowess is still present. A great opening track that was selected as the second album taster issued as a digital single.
This is a cracker. If the song had been recorded at Chess it would be up there with Berry's best. 'Big Boys' is a rampant rocker which kicks off with Chuck's signature 'Johnny B Goode' opening riff but with a coda added that ricochets violently from the guitar fretboard. This is a coming of age saga where the wean-year Chuck finds out the 'where, what, and why' that the big boys do with the big girls. Great lyrics with even a touch of second grade French thrown in, 'Mademoiselle, je vous aime, voulez-vous?'. There are scorching guitar solos after each chorus, not necessarily played by Chuck, as again he is joined by his son and Tom Morello on guitars plus Nathaniel Rateliff helping out on the 'yes yes' choruses and on one of the verses, just before the French bit. Such are the vagaries of modern recording that Rateliff, the bearded front-man of the Night Sweats, never even met Chuck but mailed in his contribution from Denver. I suspect the same goes for Tom Morello and Gary Clark (on 'Wonderful Woman') who both recorded their bits in Los Angeles studios. Morello, who contributes a solo, is well known (by some - not me) from his days in the band Rage In The Machine. Chuck's voice shows its age but he articulates his lyrics with ease. Subtle vocal changes occur between verses which makes one wonder if there has been some judicial splicing in creating this minor classic. Not surprisingly this cut was the first we heard as a digital download single. Very recently the song was promoted on the US TV Tonight Show, sung totally by Rateliff, with the two younger Berrys on guitars. It's a pretty good version â€“ check it out on YouTube.
You Go To My Head
This is the first of only two songs not written by our man and stems way back to 1938, a time of big band sounds and classic ballads that so influenced him. The 'You Go To My Head' song has a long history of recordings, most frequently associated with Billie Holiday. My guess, however, is Chuck's interest in the song comes from Frank Sinatraâ€™s 1945 version. I've never seen any mention of Chuck being influenced by Billie Holiday but he certainly was a big fan of Ol' Blue Eyes' citing him frequently in interviews. Chuck doesn't attempt to emulate Sinatra's smooth balladry but applies a slow blues shuffle to the tune. Bob Lohr's piano to this point has provided sterling back-up but here it takes centre stage, rippling the keys in true Johnnie Johnson fashion over the solid bass and drums of Messrs Marsala and Robinson. But the most effective element of the recording is the father and daughter duet. Ingrid sings slightly behind her father's lead and this out of synch approach, reminiscent of soul and gospel styles, is extraordinarily effective. Chuck sings this song during the Berry park rehearsals of 'Hail Hail Rock And Roll' and it is featured in the video out-takes. If you dug Chuck's quieter moments during these rehearsals then you will surely appreciate this cut.
3/4 Time (Enchiladas)
Surprisingly for a so called studio album, this track is a live recording. This was caught in the small venue, Blueberry Hill, in 2008 according to bassist Jim Marsala, during one of the two hundred or so monthly performances Chuck and his Blueberry Hill Band played at his friend Joe Edwards' St Louis club of the same name. The song is pure country, in waltz time, hence the 'Â¾ Time' title. Written by Tony Joe White but never recorded by him, its main custodian was Ray Charles who released it as a Columbia single in 1983 and also placed it on his album 'Wish You Where Here Tonight'. This was a winning combination for Chuck who dug Ray a lot and loved country music so how could he resist, especially as the song promotes cars, guitars and women who like to love in Â¾ time? Chuck updates the song with a touch of his own humour, 'All of my life, thereâ€™s one thing Iâ€™ve been hoping to find, a woman like you, honey, whose software matches this hard drive of mine.' The song had been in Chuck's repertoire for many years although never officially released on disc. It is a nice relaxed performance by Berry and his band who are clearly at ease with the audience and the environment.
Nostalgia rules on this beautifully poignant ballad sung with the help of Darlin' Ingrid. Chuck is in reflective mood as he croons the lines 'Darlin' your father's growing old', and 'There has been many sundowns that I have seen - since you were sweet sixteen' and 'The good times come but not to stay, you'll find time will take them all away'. The song, said to have been written 25 to 30 years ago, is a postscript of the equally moving slow version of 'His Daughter Caroline' where the father bemoans the loss of the daughter to marriage. His vocals are intimate, wistful and emotional all at the same time and the deep feeling of his own mortality is heightened by Ingrid's touching interjections. Chuck and Ingrid's best recorded performance has got to be the Spanish language, Mercury version of 'The Song Of My Love' but the two duet cuts on this disc run it pretty close. Something very rare on a Chuck Berry recording happens at the close when he is joined by The New Respects, a young black Nashville based group, sweetly cooing in the background. The song and its performance is a bitter-sweet lament of Chuck's fast approaching exit from this world. Am I moved, you bet.
Lady B. Goode
With a title like 'Lady B Goode' how could it be anything other than a gene clone of the Chuckster's signature song? It has been said that the song is a sequel to 'Johnny B Goode' but unlike 'Bye Bye Johnny', 'Go Go Go' and 'Tulane' the song doesn't mention Johnny directly. What it is, in fact, is a fictional biography as seen from Lady's point of view. 'Fell then a lassie in love with a lad; 'till it took him to vindicate the feelin' she had.' For 'vindicate' read 'consummate', as left behind, when fame and fortune befalls our hero, she's led on by the promise of a part in his movie. However, she has to be content with watching him on the silver screen with little Baby B Goode, Johnny junior, bouncing on her knee. Musically it's JBG all over with guitar contributions from the two younger Chucks, as well as the old man himself, supported by the best hard driving rhythm of the album. 'Lady B Goode' is to 'Johnny B Goode' what 'Little Marie' was to 'Memphis Tennessee', good but not quite 'Goode', but still good enough to be the third cut to be 'singled' out from the album.
She Still Loves You
'She Still Loves You' is a floating poignant ballad in which Chuck adopts a sad, 'Lonely Schooldays' lilt in his vocals. It's a sorrowful tale of the love he had, then lost. A story told directly to his rival who has beaten him to the beautiful lady he so desires, but who did not reciprocate. Its convoluted lyrics are as complex as ever a Chuck Berry song got with a modulating rhythm to match. Resigned to reality Chuck finally laments, 'But I gave up on her as much as we were both lonely and blue; She still loves you so, I thought you ought to know she's true to you'. This is another song stretching back to the pre-fire days which passed through several iterations, once titled 'She's True To You' with radically different lyrics, before coming to fruition on this album. Guitar-wise, this seems very much like a Chuck Berry solo effort in which he adopts a laid-back 'San Francisco Dues'- like feel, wonderfully supported by Bob Lohr's New Orleanian piano.
'Jamaica Moon' seems to have haunted Chuck for many moons. He first cut it as 'Havana Moon' way back in October 1956 and then again in a terrible disco style in February 1979 for his 'Rockit' album. It seems he was disappointed with the sales when it was first released in tandem with 'You Can't Catch Me' (Chess 1645) but it did hit #7 on the Cashbox R&B charts in 1966 with 'Ramona Say Yes' on the lower deck (Chess 1963). Nevertheless he must have felt their was still some potential in the composition. This time however it is a fairly radical departure from the original and not just its relocation from Cuba to Jamaica. The storyline remains the same, a sad little tale of unrequited love caused by the demon drink, but both the lyrics are updated and the melody changed from the delicate rhythms of the original to a more funky reggae feel. The vocals are double tracked, a trait I disliked on the 'Rockit' LP, and include a touch of rapping complete with a 'ting ting ting' thing. I think I would like this cut a lot more if I didn't just love the original so much.
Chuck once stated that poetry was his life-blood and he proved this not only by his superb mastery of meter and scansion in his song lyrics but also in a number of poems he recorded. These were freely adapted versions of existing poems such as 'My Dream', based on Donald Benson Blanding's 1928 poem 'Vagabond's House', and 'Pass Away' from 'Even This Shall Pass Away', a long 1867 poem by Theodore Tilton which Chuck had learned by heart in his formative years. 'Dutchman', however, is an entirely original composition, a cautionary tale of love lost and its effect. The scene is a bar-room full of drinkers including the enigmatic Dutchman who are interrupted by a tall dark dude who the patrons initially wish to see off, siccing a Great Dane on the guy. However, for the price of drink offered by the Dutchman the stranger imparts his story of fame and fortune now lost all because of his unrequited love for a femme fatale. A Cleopatra with luxurious hair who, when she allowed him to kiss her, near petrified his heart. The tension of the tale is intensified by the sparse grungy blues rhythm, just guitar, bass and drums, that accompanies Chuck's perfectly enunciated narration. A great vignette beautifully told.
Eyes Of Man
In 'Eyes Of Man' Chuck's deep love of poetry is evident again in this philosophical manifesto to the innate power of woman which he declares 'is seldom seen in the eyes of man'. Over the course of six rather obscure verses he opines that 'many a man has built his own temple' but eventually they are 'doomed to decay and turn to dust' but 'Oh! the temple borne by woman - they have withstood while ages roll; Because that beautiful unseen temple - is a child's immortal soul'. Deep stuff indeed for a sweet little rock and roller, taken even deeper by the insertion of chorus lines between the verses from an ancient Persian proverb collected by Sir Richard Burton (he of the Kama Sutra, The Perfumed Garden and other saucy works and not the husband of Cleopatra) and published by his wife Isabel in 1893 in 'The Life Of Captain Sir Richd. F Burton'. Chuck freely adapts the lines to suit his style but the meaning of the original stanza is maintained.
Men Are Four
He who knows not and knows not he knows not: he is a fool; shun him;
He who knows not and knows he knows not: he is simple; teach him;
He who knows and knows not he knows: he is asleep; wake him;
He who knows and knows he knows: he is wise; follow him.
As a counterpoint to all this philosophical pontification the half sung, half spoken words are supported by an easy loping bluesy melody containing some fine Berry guitarisation. 19th century romantic poetry. What strange paths we take in the search for the source of our hero's music!
His Latest And Greatest - and last?
The indie record label Dualtone have done the man proud. The album boasts an attractive, digitised action photo of Berry, albeit from an earlier age. The booklet notes by history professor Douglas Brinkley are unfortunately excessively ostentatious, I don't think the man understands rock and roll. However, the intimate photos and full lyrics more than compensate. In addition, booklet ephemera illustrations provide a tantalising glimpse at other song titles recorded at the sessions. 'Loco Joe' is there plus a cover of the jazz standard 'Lover Man (Oh Where Can You Be)'. There are instrumentals 'Once In The Past' and 'Open Up' and original songs 'Let Us Come Together', 'Temples Of Time', 'Hail Hail Rock And Roll', 'Think About It' and 'I Want To Love You', almost another album full. In line with modern marketing methods, 'Chuck' is available in ten packages from the ultimate bundle (limited red vinyl LP, tee shirt, photo book, tote bag and poster) at $130 to the digital MP3 download at $10. Dualtone have also pushed the promotion of the 'Big Boys' single by issuing Chuck Berry's first musical video which unfortunately is a real bummer. The scene is a squeaky clean fifties sock hop ball full of guys and gals in make-believe fifties gear, all primary colours and full skirts. Add to this a counterfeit Chuck Berry circa mid-sixties with a band about as authentic as The Blues Brothers and a little midget-like guy leading the dancers in a pseudo Michael Jackson routine. What a total mish-mash. Can this be the last of the Chuckster? Hopefully not, as in addition to the unissued titles above, there are loads of Chess out-takes which didn't make the Bear Family box-set and, believe it or not, some pre-fire, Berry Park tapes do exist.
'Chuck' is Chuck Berry's first studio recording for 38 years since the 'Rockit' album (barring the reggae-cum-rap dancehall aberration 'Go Shabba Go' from 1994) and it is one Chuck wanted to see issued in his lifetime. He wanted fans to know, 'I'm still here, I'm still kicking ass and I'm still taking names.' His son Charles Jr said his dad has put out something a lot of people are going to like and he didnâ€™t care if it sells or not. He just wanted his record out. Well I'm not so sure hard line rockers will take to the album, firm fans have already said to me they thought the world wouldn't have missed much if it had remained in the vault. For me it seems like an allegory of his musical life, his work in microcosm, containing rock and roll, blues, ballads and poetry. On his 90th birthday Chuck devoted the album to Themetta, his wife of 68 years, so lets give him the last word: 'This record is dedicated to my beloved Toddy. My darlin' I'm growing old! I've worked on this record for a long time. Now I can hang up my shoes!'
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