This set covers Chuck Berry’s second go-round at
Chess records, from 1969 to 1974. By that time Buddy Holly was dead, Elvis
Presley was on a commercial upswing but in fatal personal decline and the
surviving rock and roll greats of the 1950’s had all been relegated to Golden
Oldie status. Chuck Berry though, was having his greatest commercial success. In
1972, with a bawdy energy-filled live resurrection of an old number, “Reelin’
and Rockin'” he cracked the Top 40 for only the second time since 1964, the
first time being the year before when the (just barely) double-entendre “My
Ding-a-Ling”, another live one, became his first and only #1 pop hit though he
had hit #1 on the R&B charts several times.
The last time he’d cracked the charts was with
“You Never Can Tell,” not only one of his finest compositions but also an
indicator that rock and roll music could mature along with its audience. Chuck
was never averse to playing it for laughs but before “My Ding-a-Ling” he was
always the wit, not the clown. Was this the proper legacy for early rock and
roll’s pre-eminent wordsmith and first true guitar hero? There are three
versions of that tune in this set – the 11:25 live version, the four minute
single edit and a previously unreleased studio take. That’s not the reason to
buy or avoid this collection.
In contrast with the sloppy carelessness that
characterized his live shows during the period Berry’s in studio guitar playing
is confident, creative, clean and vibrant; witness “Too Late”, “Tulane” and the
back and forth with Ernest W. Hayes’ piano on “Turn The Houselights On.” And
the live versions of early hits are particularly well-executed.
Snooty revisionist critics have portrayed Berry as having
amalgamated country music influences into his music at the expense of his blues
roots. In fact Berry never abandoned blues. On Elmore James’ “Dust My Broom,” Willie
Dixon’s “I Just Want To Make Love To You” his own “Blues #1” and a spectacular
version of “Hi Heel Sneakers” (quoting instrumentally from “Good Morning Little
Schoolgirl” and simply called “Heel Sneakers” here) he knows exactly what he’s
doing and how to do it. For better or worse (here’s it’s overwhelmingly for
better) he’s the one and only Chuck Berry and here he shows you most certainly can tell.
Tracks: “Heel Sneakers”; “Tulane” RICK ALLEN