The following is an excerpt from the liner notes to Chuck Berry‘s upcoming final album, CHUCK, out June 16th. Author Douglas Brinkley is a Professor of History at Rice University and CNN Presidential Historian.
Wearing his trademark white yachting cap hat and a black silk jacket with a bolo tie, Chuck Berry looked content when I arrived at a nondescript recording studio in St. Louis to watch him demo a set of original songs for CHUCK. Contrary to Berry’s bad-boy reputation, there was something patriarchal about his demeanor, something wise and attentively aware.
For 65 years, Berry had been in front of audiences, generations of fans who came to think of him as the indubitable face of the Mississippi River, of the Open Road, of rock & roll personified, of the enduring inspiration of genius. Few people beyond family members and friends were aware that Berry, nearing 90 years old, was recording his first studio album since Rock It in 1979. Through our mutual friend, Joe Edwards of St. Louis, I originally met Chuck in 1992. We’ve stayed in periodic touch ever since. On this occasion, during George W. Bush’s presidency, aside from the engineer, Berry and I were the only ones in the studio, as he recorded red-hot original songs.
Once Berry’s electric guitar was plugged into an amplifier, he smiled at me with an observant glance, rubbed his chin, and with a 1-2-3 foot-tap launched into “Big Boys,” a biting new rock & roll anthem for the ages. Scorching guitar riffs were married to ear-popping wordplay. The vibe was all gusto. “Big Boys” not only rattled the St. Louis studio, it could have sunk a few ships in the faraway Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Every note, gesture, contortion and burst of emotion I heard resonated with the raw ecstasy of wild-eyed joy. Something buried deep inside burst out of Berry when his Gibson guitar became part of his trim and muscular body and his riffs were pumped out to the outer limits of the stratosphere. There wasn’t anything nostalgic or bitter about these new songs; they were alive with the electricity of NOW.
Berry remains what he always was: the indisputable father of rock & roll. His pioneering music and take-no-prisoners persona are magically ageless. Nobody alive has tapped with so much joy into the vernacular of American youth with such style and scope. It was a long road with a lot of bumps but Berry never let his core audience down. Although he is a little worn by the years – wrinkles around the eyes, his hair touched by grey – his art is invincible, as ever. “I crave the feeling that I get from a performance when I hear the response of one or more to that which I have delivered,” Berry says. “The greatest highs I’ve ever had in my life have come from a mob of as many as 62,000 voices, and also from the moan of one.”
I’ve learned over the years that Chuck in an unvarnished storyteller and straight-talker. There is no artifice about him. The fact that his repertoire of songs paved the landscape of the British Invasion bands like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds doesn’t make him swell with pride, but secretly he’s pleased. Roots American music, however, is more to his taste. He’d prefer talking about the true pioneers of rhythm & blues like Ray Charles and Jackie Wilson than Eric Clapton. When I was writing a biography of Rosa Parks around Y2K I asked him over dinner about how he confronted Jim Crow segregation in the 1950s. He smiled and sang the last verse to his song, “Brown Eyed Handsome Man”:
Two-three the count, with nobody on
He hit a high-fly into the stands
Rounding third he was heading for home
It was a brown-eyed handsome man
That won the game; it was a brown-eyed handsome man
Then he paused and said sharply, “That’s Jackie Robinson, man.”
That spring afternoon, Chuck took a break from recording and treated me to a hamburger for lunch. With me sitting in the passenger seat, he drove a silver Toyota Avalon XL, with a string of purple Mardi Gras beads swaying from the rearview mirror, down the back roads. He spoke of St. Louis and why he loves the city so dearly – friendly people, four seasons, tree-lined streets and the Cardinals baseball team. When we arrived at the restaurant, two young fans approached him for autographs. Not only did Chuck oblige, he drew smiley faces next to his name. At the counter he betrayed a robust appetite, ordering a double cheeseburger, chili, fries and a milkshake. Millions of miles of globetrotting and Berry is still the St. Louis boy he was long ago. “Sometimes I’m only gone for an hour,” Berry confesses about his hometown, “and want to come right back.”
Once a month, from the late 1990s through 2014, Berry would play rock at his friend Joe Edwards’ restaurant and music club, Blueberry Hill, on Delmar Boulevard near Washington University in St. Louis. He ended up logging over 200 shows there. In 2011, the city of St. Louis erected a statue of Berry across from the venue. The arc of Berry’s career since his last Number One hit in 1972 – “My Ding-a-ling” – has been hitched to his hometown. From his home “Berry Park” in Wentzville, Missouri, he announced the upcoming release of CHUCK on his 90th birthday. For his final studio effort, he employs his ace Blueberry Hill back-up band: daughter Ingrid Berry (harmonica); Charles Berry Jr. (guitar); Jimmy Marsala (bass); Robert Lohr (piano); and Keith Robinson (drums). So it makes perfect sense that CHUCK is a meditation on his life and times in St. Louis and beyond.
The inexhaustible energy of Berry, with his hard-edged Americanism, burst out of his new album like an amplified Sousa-band. While there is a remember-the-good-old days hint in CHUCK, it is not an oldies album, but an enduring monument to Berry as an unrelenting musical prodigy. Nothing about CHUCK is dialed-in or easy. This is a fireworks display of guitar, vocal and songwriting talent unleashed one last time to yet another chorus of ooh-and-ahs. Full of sentimentality, he dedicated CHUCK to Toddy, 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 opening song of CHUCK, “Wonderful Woman,” jets upward like a “looky-hear-now” rocket of sound, scudding across the sky, before exploding into a fountain of boogie-woogie sparklers. It is classic shock-and-awe Berry. His guitar stylings and riffs lurch, bump, groan and rock the house down with reckless abandon on “Wonderful Woman.” Hearing him sing about a girl “rockin’ him from the second row,” his trademark guitar romp full of rank seduction and blues shuffle, is delightful. Here is the ancient story of a woman stealing a man’s heart and then shattering it to pieces. But Berry knows instinctively that the blues is an affirmation of life’s absurdities, a curative to a life of hard knocks.
The degree to which CHUCK is a family affair becomes evident from the get-go. On “Wonderful Woman,” three generations of Berry men contribute guitar licks in a feverish tempo – father, son and grandson Charles Berry III. Also joining the clan is Gary Clark Jr. of Austin, a 33-year-old bluesman, influenced by both Chuck Berry and Stevie Ray Vaughan. There is an insane excess of locomotion in “Wonderful Woman;” it’s as if Berry were jamming on a train traveling 90 miles an hour straight off of a cliff.
The exultant force of “Big Boys,” the album’s second song and lead single, is Chuck’s cock-of-the walk guitar and insatiate chants of “Yes-Yes,” as he recounts his journey from being “a little bitty boy” to a full-grown man. This is a Horatio Alger tale of the poor boy making good. Like many of his theatrical songs, “Big Boys” takes issue with pecking orders, reminding us that today’s teen nerd may someday be the King of the Hill. “I was participating in the Las Vegas lifestyle when I wrote it,” Berry told me, “and thinking about winners and losers, how John Gotti’s power went up and down. Nathaniel Rateliff (backup vocals) and Tom Morello (guitar) join in on the “Big Boys” extravaganza, which, at 2:33 seconds long, is nothing short of a guitar players’ National Anthem.
Unlike “Big Boys” there is a sweet and sorrowful quality to Berry’s sensual decanting of “You Go to My Head,” the third song. Full of heartfelt warmth for a woman with “intoxicating eyes,” Berry’s sensual side is on fine display. This 1938 popular song composed by J. Fred Coots with lyrics by Haven Gillespie is arranged with smooth perfection, animated by pianist Robert Lohr’s fanciful New Orleans–style playing. Berry’s expressive cooing that a love-interested woman is like “a summer with a thousand Julys” conjures memories of Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby.
“3/4 Time (Enchiladas)” showcases Chuck’s conversational style of singing and his love of country & western music. There is a happy-go-lucky sway on this live cut that belongs at a West Texas or Minnesota line dance. Tony Joe White is the author of this ditty, giving it lyrics that call out Eldorado cars, red guitars, nice girls and wine – altogether, a ready-made Chuck Berry song. “Sometimes I get sideways and stay up all night writin’ songs/I know it ain’t healthy but somehow I keep goin’ on/I write what I feel and I don’t care if the damn thing don’t rhyme/Just give me a C chord and play in 3/4 time.” I picture Willie Nelson smiling beatifically when he hears the economy of Berry’s guitar licks and the offbeat comedic delivery that makes “Enchilada” irresistible. At his Blueberry Hill gigs, Berry would sometimes play the song the way Ray Charles once did. He considers the Louisiana swamp rocker “vastly underrated,” especially such songs as “Polk Salad Annie,” “Rainy Night in Georgia,” and “The Train I’m On.”
My eyes welled with tears when I first heard Berry record “Darlin'” in that St. Louis studio. “Darlin'” is a poignant ballad about mortality, described by a father, singing to his daughter. It will break your heart. “The good times come but do not stay,” he tells the apple-of-his-eye about life’s highs-and-lows. Ingrid Berry, Chuck’s daughter, sings with him on “Darlin’,” giving this brooding hug of a song its emotional resonance. It’s a country-tinged ballad full of farewell: “Darlin’, your father’s growing older, I fear/Strains of gray are showing bolder each year/Lay your head upon my shoulder, my dear/Time is fading fast away.” There is to Chuck’s voice a profound beauty and bitter sweetness as he laments of death soon-to-come. One is reminded that Berry, when he wants to, has a voice that cuts-to-the-heart like Sam Cooke did.
Another journey down memory lane on CHUCK is the driving “Lady B. Goode,” destined to join “Johnny B. Goode” as a kind of bookend. Once again, Berry’s primal guitar propels a 180-watt blinder of a song – a clarion call to set any room rockin.’ Much of this instant classic, in fact, illuminates the life of the archetype rock & roll character, “Johnny B. Goode.” Berry confessed that Johnny B. was “more or less myself.” The first time I heard “Lady B. Goode,” I felt like screaming “yeah, yeah, yeah” at the top of my lungs. While it is bursting with rhythmic excitement and an exuberant backbeat, the song has something even better in store: a Berry vocal that makes “Lady B. Goode” thump. Clearly this is the most autobiographical song on CHUCK. Just hearing him sing of “New Ore-leans” and “shrimp and red beans and rice” is a real kick. Once again the combination of Lohr’s barrelhouse piano and Berry’s lightning-quick guitar rocks the roof off. And the two younger Berrys – son Charles, Jr. and Charles Berry III – blaze away on their magic guitars having learned well from the master.
“She Still Loves You,” on the other hand, moves to another mood, with a steamy Fillmore West flavor. Jerry Garcia or Jimi Hendrix could have played this irresistible song in a haze of strobe lights, marijuana and psychedelic mushrooms. The slow tempo is deceiving, for the lyrics wander with an introspective sense of wonder that conveys the full weight of high-stakes romance. The backbeat to “She Still Loves You” allows Berry to make this hymn a Catholic-style confession. Once again the theme is love gone wrong. In a Hemingway-like twist Berry eventually concedes to another man that the beautiful woman they both desire doesn’t desire him.
The trade winds of the Caribbean can be inhaled in “Jamaica Moon” (a successful remake of his 1956 hit “Havana Moon.”) With a twangy calypso beat Berry recounts wandering a sandy beach, rum bottle opened, waiting for his lover to arrive by boat to paradise. Hours pass on a dock but she doesn’t arrive. Much like Dylan’s “Simple Twist of Fate,” this is a love story that goes AWOL. Cupid is on strike. The lovers never get to embrace again. The glorious glowing moon becomes the hot blazing sun of another day marooned in sun-soaked Jamaica.
“The Dutchman” is a surreal lament that haunts the listener with woe-begotten suspense, as Berry leans in close and showcases the scars and bruises of a hardened traveling man. This is a whiskey, rum and gin tale, made for a blue-hazed juke joint. Told with razor-sharp enunciation, “The Dutchman” reminds us that Berry is one of the great vocalists of all time – his words are like knives. “I used to be an artist, not one who sat and fiddled on the curb,” he sings, “But in my day my music was considered superb.” Written in the vein of a Tom Waits ballad or Charles Bukowski poem, “The Dutchman” is Berry’s finest ever offering on abject lostness.
The album closes with “Eyes of Man” – nothing short of Berry’s philosophical manifesto on life. Biblical imagery abounds with razor-blade sharpness. The vanities of men and women are exposed. Warnings about worshiping false idols and building temples of pride are unleashed with soothsayer calm. This is Berry as advice-giving prophet, asking us to inoculate ourselves from “Those who do not know what they do not know.” They’re “foolish,” Berry preaches, “avoid them.” All of us in the end will rot to dust and be reduced to rubble. True wisdom, Berry offers as a parting salutation, comes from not erecting statues of gold or building skyscrapers of power but of caretaking the human soul from the seeds of corruption.
Every song Berry has ever written resounds to this day; as will these newly-minted gems. The blunt truth, however, is that he doesn’t give a damn whether CHUCK ultimately wins a Grammy or gets five stars in Rolling Stone. As an explorer, he is intrinsically disdainful of critics or anyone on the sidelines passing judgment. After all, Berry has earned every bit of the respect he has received, above and beyond music reviews. “Johnny B. Goode” was the only rock & roll song included on the Voyager “Golden Record,” which was launched into outer space in 1977 as a representation for extraterrestrial beings of life and culture on Earth – try to beat that. He loves the idea that “Johnny B. Goode” is now past Jupiter and Saturn and even Neptune, over 4 billion miles away, out of our solar system. When I asked Berry if he ever looked up at the stars and wondered where precisely “Johnny B. Goode” is tumbling in space, he turned somber. “Sure,” he said softly. “It’s somewhere in the heavens.” And then he offered a smile of full self-confidence. “That’s as good as is it gets, Jack.”
Chuck Berry has won so many awards that someday it will take a tractor-trailer to move all his plaques to a museum. Last year, Berry’s 1973 red Cadillac Eldorado was placed on permanent display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American Culture and History. That was a smart acquisition. Through allusions to cars and Greyhound busses in such songs as “No Particular Place to Go” and “Promised Land,” Berry had created an artistic commentary on American life, its fluidity, its mobility and the restlessness beneath the surface. But, in the end, that red Cadillac Eldorado is just a trinket or an artifact. CHUCK, by contrast, is the real cause for eternal spirit-lifting celebration. It is blow-torch medicine for the soul. Any old way you chose it, you’ll find yourself rocking to the most vigorous and jubilant music brewed and distilled so far in the 21st Century.
I remember thinking in that St. Louis studio that Chuck has cooked up this storehouse of songs as an act of defiance and goodbye. In an America that is deeply divided over politics there is one thing we can surely all agree on: Chuck Berry is the original morning star of that hillbilly and blues music collision we all proudly call rock & roll.