Best of Chuck Berry, Part I
If you want to credit anyone for “inventing” rock ‘n’ roll, Chuck Berry is as good as choice as any. He took the insouciant manner of Louis Jordan and modernized it for a teenage crowd using his fundamental building blocks of rock guitar licks and his eye winking wit. I wanted to dig deeper into the Berry catalogue, past the obvious hits, to get a better appreciation of his contributions to the form. Despite his often poor live performances and caustic personality, here are fifty reasons to admire the man.
50. “Our Little Rendezvous.” The b-side to the 1960 single “Jaguar and Thunderbird” starts innocently enough, Chuck wants to walk his love interest home and meet her parents. However, it quickly turns into an intergalactic travel romance, where the couple kiss the moon and transport news of a grandson from outer space. Yet, it all sounds so strangely matter of fact. Best cover – Danish garage rockers the Clidows in 1965.
49. “Almost Grown.” A 1959 #32 pop hit/#3 R&B hit that reached a successive generation through the “American Graffiti” soundtrack and includes typically superb chemistry between pianist Johnnie Johnson and Chuck. Best cover – David Bowie’s 1971 BBC version, just for ill- fitting pants weirdness.
48. “Back to Memphis.” The lead track to the 1967 “Chuck Berry in Memphis” album has Chuck running to his sweet mother’s arms back in the Bluff City, after unrewarding pilgrimages to New York and Chicago. The Memphis Soul Horns give this rocker a Stax/Volt feel and Chuck can’t wait to walk on Beale Street in his pajamas. Best cover – Levon Helm’s 2011 live take; where the Turkey Scratch, Arkansas boy dreams of the big city.
47. “Dear Dad.” This 1965 single from the “Chuck Berry in London” peaked at #95 on the pop charts. Chuck complains about his clunky Ford while begging his dead for Cadillac money. The money line is the closer, “Sincerely, your beloved son, Henry Junior Ford.” Best cover – Dave Edmunds’ 1982 faithful rendition.
46. “It Wasn’t Me.” The lead track to Berry’s 1965 “Fresh Berry’s” album includes guitarist Mike Bloomfield and harmonica player Paul Butterfield, while Berry escapes all kinds of authority figures on this chugging rocker. Best moment – Berry declaration of innocence regarding a Mississippi sorority dance. Best cover – Swedish retro rockers The Refreshments, sounding like “Supersnazz” era Flamin’ Groovies.
45. “Beautiful Delilah.” This 1958 single peaked at #82 on the pop charts. Like Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” Delilah could have any man she wanted. However, her source of power was not having any real interest in any of them. Best cover – The Kinks’ 1964 take for their amateurish enthusiasm.
44. “You Two.” From his 1964 “St. Louis to Liverpool” album, “You Two” is Chuck in his soft jazz Nat “King” Cole mood. He manages to make a double date of roasting hot dogs sound romantic.
43. “Ramona Say Yes.” On this 1966 non-charting single, Berry lusts after a woman wearing a short dress and wants her to do The Monkey dance. You can hear Berry leer on this number of sexual tension. Best cover by default – the Screws 2001 garage punk take.
42. “Soul Rockin’.” “Soul Rockin’” is off of Chuck’s 1968 “From St. Louis to Frisco” album, which included backing support from Doug Sahm and Augie Meyers. (How much Sir Douglas and his Quintet friend contributed is open to question; Chuck found Doug’s in studio drug use unacceptable). Berry tries to update his sound with a touch of the Frisco psychedelic flavor here, but the guitar licks remain in his tradition.
41. “Downbound Train.” “Downbound Train” is the b-side to the 1955 #8 R&B hit “No Money Down” (the latter song includes a riff that AC/DC used to write “Whole Lotta Rosie”). “Downbound Train” is a tale about a Satan engineered locomotive boarded by a sleeping alcoholic. The drinking man recovers in time to change his evil ways. Lyrically, the forbidding imagery shows another side of Berry’s skill as a writer. Best cover – Swedish rockers The Nomads managed to replicate Berry’s dark intensity on their 1983 version.
40. “Club Nitty Gritty.” This 1966 Mercury single is a tribute to the dance crazes of the era, Chuck name checks, the Mess Around, The Watusi, The Hully Gully, The Mashed Potato, The Twist, The Shimmy, The Jerk, etc., with a chord structure reminiscent of “Cool Jerk” by The Capitols. Still, one of his funkiest tracks, including a Ray Charles electric piano sound.
39. “Thirteen Question Method.” From the 1961 album “New Juke Box Hits,” Chuck uses a Latin beat while progressing through a date with hopes of a sexual conquest. The last question remains unanswered behind closed doors. Best cover – Ry Cooder’s chance to show he has a sense of humor.
38. “Nadine.” This 1964 #23 pop hit was Berry’s first time on Top 40 radio following 1959’s “Back in the U.S.A.” and following his imprisonment on a Mann Act violation. Musically, it’s simply an updated version of “Maybellene,” and we’ll learn later where that song came from, but it wins points for lines like, “I was campaign shouting like a southern diplomat.” Best cover – The Morells, the finest bar band in the history of southwest Missouri, nail the groove.
37. “Havana Moon.” Inspired by, or stolen from, Nat “King” Cole’s “Calypso Blues,” this 1956 b-side foray into Latin rhythms expanded Berry’s musical palette. Berry later expressed regret for not titling the song “Jamaica Moon,” feeling that anti-Castro sentiment kept him from “making a dime” with “Havana Moon.” Best cover – Carlos Santana, who comes to Latin rhythms a bit more naturally than Chuck.
36. “Ain’t That Just Like a Woman.” It’s fitting that Berry covered this 1946 Louis Jordan recording, because Carl Hogan’s guitar intro is the first definitive example of the Chuck Berry guitar lick sound. From the 1965 “Fresh Berry’s” album, the song demonstrates also how seamlessly Jordan’s lyrical insights on male/female relationships integrated into Berry’s work. One of 54 Top Ten R&B hits that Jordan had from 1942 to 1951.
35. “I Want to Be Your Driver.” Chuck returned to his themes of automobiles and sex on this 1965 track from the “Chuck Berry in London” album. Replacing “drive” with “ride” as in “I would love to ride you” with an aim to please, makes the lascivious intent unquestionable. Best cover – The Blues Project in 1966, a band that included future Blood, Sweat & Tears members Al Kooper and Steve Katz.
34. “Louie to Frisco.” The lead track to the 1968 “From St. Louis to Frisco” album fines Chuck as free as a bird and ready to rock the cradle. As snappy as the tune is, Berry never seemed like the footloose and fancy free type. That album also includes “My Tambourine,” a novelty number that evolved into the embarrassing #1 single “My Ding-A-Ling.”
33. “Have Mercy Judge.” Chuck returned to Chess Records in 1970 for the “Back Home” album. The blues number “Have Mercy Judge” specifically references his Mann Act violation (“I am charged with traffic of the forbidden”) and Berry quickly gives up hope for preferential judicial treatment. He’s already missing the woman he hasn’t yet left behind. Best cover – the drunken shouting take by Eric Burden and Jimmy Witherspoon in 1971.
32. “Around and Around.” The 1959 b-side to “Johnny B. Goode” describes all night party so wild that even police intervention couldn’t stop it. Perhaps a tribute to how elemental the song is, it’s been covered over two dozen times to include major acts such as The Rolling Stones, The Animals, David Bowie, and The Grateful Dead. Best cover – The Stones, with non-member Ian Stewart showing off his boogie-woogie chops.
31. “Shake, Rattle and Roll.” Berry wasn’t showing many signs of life, artistically, during the mid-1970s and his 1975 effort, creatively titled “Chuck Berry,” didn’t change that trend. Still, he went back to his classic mode on his cover of Big Joe Turner’s 1954 #1 R&B hit. Changing the lyrics for the times, he includes the head scratching, “You ain’t been wearing no bra/You just let them boogie choogie bop” and notes that he enjoys espying bikini suits. The guitar solos are as fluid as his best work.
30. “Thirty Days (To Come Back Home).” “Thirty Days” was Berry’s second single and a #2 R&B hit in 1955. Replicating a formula, “Thirty Days” is in the style of “Maybellene.” Lyrically, Berry’s efforts to get his woman back include gypsy woman hoodoo and a request to the United Nations. It’s been said that “Thirty Days” was written as a tribute to Hank Williams and it’s been covered in country music by Ernest Tubb, The Tractors, and June Carter. The line “If I don’t get no satisfaction from the judge” may have been rewritten by Keith Richards as “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” Best Cover – Ronnie Hawkins and The Hawks transforming the song to “Forty Days” as a rockabilly rave-up.
29. “My Mustang Ford.” Chuck is delighted with his 1966 cherry red automobile on “My Mustang Ford,” a testimonial to the appeal of a fast car. How fast does he go: “It’s getting to be a big problem trying out to figure out the possible route/I tried to stop in Indianapolis once and had to back up from Terry Haute.” He discovered how to stop his vehicle – with a windbreaker parachute.
28. “Too Much Monkey Business.” On this 1956 #4 R&B hit, Berry notes how powerless we are in many situations, but reduces his “botheration” by withdrawing from monkey business. This simple concept, about trying to avoid hassles from The Man, had an amazing impact with covers by The Kinks, The Hollies, the Yardbirds, Elvis Presley, Leon Russell, and The Beatles, among others. Also, Bob Dylan admittedly drew inspiration from “Too Much Monkey Business” for “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” Best cover – Sleepy LaBeef. He sounds like a lion playing with a kitten before eating it.
27. “Wonderful Woman.” Chuck Berry’s 2017 album “Chuck” was dedicated to his wife Themetta “Toddy” Berry, who must have been an incredibly patient lady. Gary Clark Jr. performed on “Wonderful Woman,” the most obvious tribute to Berry’s wife of 68 years. Berry, “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!” Berry passed away on March 18, 2017, three months before his final album was released, giving poignancy to the lyric, “Well it broke my heart when she told me it’s time to go.”
26. “Wee Wee Hours.” “Wee Wee Hours” was the b-side to Berry’s first single, “Maybellene,” and became a Top Ten R&B hit in its own right. A concert staple, I recommend the 1987 version, recorded live with Eric Clapton for the documentary film/album “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll!” Johnnie Johnson’s piano work on this project helped change his life from being a bus driver to being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.