23 October 2007

Essential Albums: "The Chess Box: Chuck Berry"

In the Saturday Night Live broadcast of April 22, 1978, Steve Martin appeared as a psychic in a mock news show entitled "Next Week in Review." His psychic character revealed that next week, Earth will receive the first official message from extraterrestrials (responding to the [NASA deep space probe containing the] Voyager Golden Records). The message: "Send more Chuck Berry." (Source: Wikipedia.)

Chuck Berry. Just the mere mention of his name fills the mind with vivid, indelible images -- images from the very heart of of rock n' roll. (Source: The Chess Box: Chuck Berry liner notes.)
I must lay out certain of my preferences to begin:

1. Keith Richards is my favorite guitar player.

2. After Robert Johnson and Woody Guthrie, the next new thing in rock and roll was Chuck Berry.

3. Then came Dylan. And then the man Dylan called "America's best living songwriter", Smokey Robinson. Regarding Smokey, first among his stellar contributions is the the Robinson / Pete Moore / Marv Tarplin composition Tracks of My Tears.

3. Sam Cooke, Patsie Cline, Roy Orbison, Hank Williams, Sr., and David Ruffin were popular vocalists without equal.

Now on to acknowledgement of the many artists who I have left unmentioned in order to focus on the importance of Chuck Berry's innovations and recordings. But that is a separate post I'm planning on Motown, F.A.M.E., STAX, and Chess Records.

That said, The Chess Box is Chuck Berry's most important catalogue of recordings. Of the work chronologically catalogued in this box set, I would say 1956 -- 1964 was this "brown-eyed handsome man['s]" golden era. At that time, Berry recorded in Chicago for Chess Records, primarily with Chuck's own piano player from his native St. Louis, Johnnie Johnson, and the Chess Studios house rhythm section -- bassist/songwriter Willie Dixon and the incomparable Fred Below on drums (for Below on fire check out Little Walter's Confessin' the Blues). With songs such as Roll Over Beethoven and Johnny B. Goode, Berry reinvented rock and roll for the last time. So far.

Berry's Impact on Popular Music

What made the early Rolling Stones' career was Keith Richards trying to copy Chuck Berry and Mick Jagger singin' the vocals and sounding so black. When the young Mick and Keith met by chance at a railway station many years after they had known each other in school, Keith wasn't so much interested in Mick, but rather the American delta blues, Buddy Holly, and Chuck Berry records he appeared to have under his arm. The rest is history, with the final chapter on the Stones yet to be written. But without Chuck Berry, there would be no Keith, and hence, no Stones. Berry's Johnny B. Goode, Mabelliene, Roll Over Beethoven, and Little Queenie (via the Stones), quite simply, changed the world.

I can go on and on but Steve Martin's SNL joke says it best: the first thing advanced alien civilizations want from us is "More Chuck Berry". I would send them The Chess Box: Chuck Berry and declare "Mission Accomplished".

"It's got a backbeat, you can't lose it!"


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