While it’s no Berry Is On Top and Chuck Berry didn’t need this final album to establish his incredible legacy, it’s simply a great joy to listen to this record. Released today, Chuck is Berry’s first new record in 38 years and the first new album that appears following his death on March 18 this year.
When Berry announced Chuck on October 18, 2016, his 90th birthday, he obviously knew it was going to be his final record. He had stopped performing in 2014 due to his declining health. “This record is dedicated to my beloved Toddy,” said Berry in the above announcement, referring to Themetta Berry, his wife of 68 years. “My darlin’ I’m growing old! I’ve worked on this record for a long time. Now I can hang up my shoes!”
The songs on Chuck are mostly taken from tracks Berry recorded between 1991 and 2014. Released by Dualtone Records, the album was recorded in various studios around Berry’s hometown of St. Louis. All recording work was finished prior to his death.
The record features the Blueberry Hill Band, Berry’s longtime backing group, including Robert Lohr (piano), Jimmy Marsala (bass) and Keith Robinson (drums). Additional musicians include his son Charles Berry Jr. (guitar), his daughter Ingrid Berry (harmonica) and even his grandson Charles III (guitar on Wonderful Woman), as well as Tom Morello (guitar on Big Boys), Nathaniel Rateliff (guitar on Big Boys) and Gary Clark, Jr. (guitar on Wonderful Woman).
Chuck kicks off with Wonderful Woman, a song with a classic Berry groove, featuring his signature guitar sound. Clark Jr., together with Berry’s son and grandson chime in on their guitars as well, making it a tune that features three generations of Berrys, as NPR pointed out.
Big Boys kicks the beat up a notch. Initially released in March as the album’s lead single, the tune is a bit reminiscent of Roll Over Beethoven. Here’s the official video.
3/4 Time (Enchiladas) is a waltz that sounds like it could have been recorded live at Blueberry Hill, a restaurant and bar in St. Louis where Berry used to perform regularly from 1996 to 2014. The song illustrates his sense of humor about getting old: I like enchiladas/old Eldorados they’re shiny/old red guitars, rock & roll, nice girls and wine/that ain’t good for me but people I’m still feeling fine/I just hold on to my guitar and rock it out four, five times/sometimes it gets sideways/I stay up all night writing songs/I know it ain’t healthy/But somehow I keep going on.
Darlin’ is a sweet country ballad a father sings to his daughter, telling her he is getting older each year and that time is passing and getting shorter. Berry’s daughter Ingrid joins him on vocals, adding to the song’s emotional feel.
Another tune I’d like to call out is Lady B. Goode, a follow-up to Johnny B. Goode. The song pretty much has the same iconic guitar opening and a very similar groove driven by guitars and honky tonk-style piano. Like on Wonderful Woman, Berry’s son and grandson support him with their guitars. Lady B. Goode was also released as the album’s third single two weeks ago.
Initial reactions to Chuck are favorable. Rolling Stone calls the album “a classic as he always made them.” To Ultimate Classic Rock, “It’s a celebration of rock ‘n’ roll music — something Berry did better than almost anyone else.” Perhaps NPR sums it up best: “Your mind says “heard that before!” and your body cannot possibly care – because for that moment all that matters is Chuck Berry playing guitar like he’s ringing a bell, affirming the spirit of this music in ways that no performer, of any age, has done before.”
For more on Berry’s legacy read here.
Sources: Wikipedia, Ultimate Classic Rock, NPR, Chuck Berry web site, YouTube