When Chuck Berry died last March at age 90, there was some speculation over whether he had in fact completed the long-rumored album he had been referring to in interviews for the last few years. Berry had not released an album of original material in nearly 40 years (“Rock It,” released in 1979, was his most recent). So when “Chuck” was released in June, many Berry fans breathed a sigh of relief: The Father of Rock and Roll would have one final statement. But would it be any good?
Not that Berry’s legacy was in any danger of diminishing. His iconic guitar riffs and stage presence alone have cemented his legend. He is even one of a very few human beings whose recorded voice was encoded on golden records on board the two Voyager spacecraft currently making their way out of the solar system. And most of the obituaries and remembrances written after his death noted that without Berry, rock and roll as we know it would not exist.
In addition to his distinctive guitar playing, Berry’s songs have always contained a kind of sly wit. The words of “Memphis,” from 1959, are a transcript of a desperate man trying to reach the girl who called him but did not leave a number. The girl turns out to be the singer’s six-year-old daughter. In “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” from 1956, Berry subtly addresses discrimination in America in a way that would allow the song to get airplay on the kinds of radio stations that would play the music of African American men but never allow them in the studio. And in “Back in the U.S.A.,” also from 1959, Berry celebrates returning to his homeland while also acknowledging that he still has to look hard for a drive-in that will serve him.
Berry’s accomplishments loom large. He’s influenced everyone from the Beatles to the Rolling Stones to the Beach Boys, who infamously stole the music from Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” for the song “Surfin’ U.S.A.” And one gets the impression that Berry himself was less than eager to release any new songs that would immediately be compared with his classic repertoire. Berry also expressed a high degree of paranoia about other musicians potentially stealing his songs from him before he had a chance to officially release them.
Needless to say, a new Chuck Berry album comes with a fair share of baggage, even before the needle drops on the vinyl. It is my pleasure to report that the album is a delight with many of the elements that made Berry so important.
A quality of Berry’s not often displayed on his famous oldies is his ability to make a guitar sound however he wants, but this album offers a number of songs in which Berry exercises different styles of playing. Listen to the high, sweet sound of “Jamaica Moon,” or the spare, concise chords of “3/4 Time (Enchiladas).” Similarly, Berry offers vocal performances that are different than anything we’ve heard in the past. He comes close to crooning on “You Go to My Head,” and “Dutchman” presents a hypnotic kind of talking blues. This album is not just a rehash of the old days, and neither Berry’s guitar playing nor his singing has been affected by age. He is amazingly adroit and playful. His band, largely composed of family members, is up to the challenge he presents. There’s some wonderful New Orleans-style piano on “You Go to My Head” and a touch of boogie-woogie on the opener, “Wonderful Woman.” Berry even achieves moments of poignancy in “Darlin’” as he reflects on his long life to the chimes of a gospel choir.
This album is everything we could have asked for from an icon like Chuck Berry. It shows that he was playing and performing with passion and flair right up until the end. According to the rules of rock and roll, it may be better to burn out than to fade away, but there’s something to be said for a flame that burns hot for 90 years.