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Johnny B. Goode: His Complete `50s Chess Recordings

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Album Review

John Lennon once said that if you were going to give another name to rock & roll you might as well call it Chuck Berry — a phrase that has been repeated to exhaustion precisely because it is no exaggeration. More than any other single musician, Berry defined the sound, style, and attitude of what rock & roll is, pushing guitars and cars to the forefront, constructing a world of soda shops and jukeboxes that resided just down the road a piece, finding an endless world within three chords. Fats Domino may have started the big wheel rolling, the Everly Brothers invented the power chord, Buddy Holly married pop with tough rockabilly, Little Richard had the manic energy, and Elvis Presley broke down the barriers, but Chuck Berry was the one that created the culture. How he did it is at long last chronicled in detail on Hip-O Select's Johnny B. Goode: His Complete '50s Chess Recordings, a four-CD set containing all his singles from the '50s (which include most of his biggest hits), album tracks, and rarities, including demos and unreleased recordings. Berry, of course, had another decade of vital recordings on Chess ahead of him (and an often-overlooked series of worthy recordings for the label in the '70s), but within these '50s sessions is where the heart of his legacy lies, as this is when he created rock & roll out of jump blues, country boogie, juke joint R&B, Harry Belafonte calypso, and Nat King Cole crooning.

Listening to Johnny B. Goode: His Complete '50s Chess Recordings is an entirely different experience than The Great 28 or any other hit-heavy compilation where all the brilliant singles sound so much of a piece that they give the impression that they were all cut at roughly the same time. Those who learned Berry's music through these compilations — and there are generations of listeners who did — may be surprised that certain hits like "No Particular Place to Go" or "You Never Can Tell" arrived well into the '60s and so are absent here, perhaps jarringly so. What "Johnny B. Goode" does a superb job of is putting Berry's music in context, illustrating what happened when by methodically going through every existing recording in the Chess vaults, including alternate takes, instrumental jams, a few live tracks, a single by the Ecuadors featuring Chuck on guitar, and a handful of unreleased cuts. Unlike Hip-O Select's similar Bo Diddley I'm a Man: The Chess Masters 1955-1958 there are no major unreleased songs (I'm a Man had Bo's original "Love Is Strange"); instead, this has a plethora of alternates, all sequenced in succession, which would give this the feel of an excavation if the music itself wasn't so energetic and enjoyable.

Many of the alternate takes here have seen the light of day elsewhere, usually on the Rock 'N' Roll Rarities or Missing Berries series (a heavy dose of these were also first unearthed on the 1974 LP Chuck Berry's Golden Decade, Vol. 3), but the value of "Johnny B. Goode" is in having all of this music in one place — not just for the sake of completists who need to have everything an artist cut, but to hear how the artist developed. That is true here, as Berry gets more confident as the years pass, but the remarkable thing about "Johnny B. Goode" is that it shows how Chuck emerged almost fully formed with "Maybellene" and then continued to mine that same vein of blues, hillbilly, jazz, and R&B for years. His wit sharpened quickly, while his music jelled so the boundaries between his influences evaporated, but the only major introduction to come later in the set is his signature opening guitar riff, debuting on "Johnny B. Goode." Indeed, it's a bit of a shock to realize that it took him so long to nail this defining musical turnaround, but that may be the biggest revelation on this set. Instead of being filled surprises, Johnny B. Goode engenders a deeper appreciation of Berry's art.

Hearing the successive alternate takes pile up after each other, it's easy to appreciate Chuck's verbal dexterity, how he spins from one scenario to another on "Reelin' and Rockin'," suggesting just how quickly the words came to him. This, in turn, makes it easier to appreciate the potency of his poetry, but comparing this rapid-fire humor to the finely crafted details of "Memphis Tennessee," "Brown Eyed Handsome Man," and "No Money Down," or the vivid teenage renderings of "School Day" and "Sweet Little Sixteen" and "Almost Grown" demonstrate just how carefully crafted his lyrics were. Similarly, Johnny B. Goode: His Complete '50s Chess Recordings also offers an understanding of how rich and varied his musical gifts were. Listening to all the recordings in a row emphasizes how deep the blues ran within his music, and nowhere is that truer than on lengthy unreleased instrumentals, simply titled "Long Fast Jam" and "Long Slow Jam," where Chuck, longtime pianist Johnnie Johnson, bassist Willie Dixon, and drummer Jasper Thomas lay back and play for over 11 minutes for each cut. As Berry's brevity always seemed key to his brilliance — his singles always were succinct, never lasting longer than they should — it might seem that such prolonged jams would be flabby, but they're mesmerizing, particularly in how they showcase Johnson's fluid, rolling piano. The blues is at the core of Berry's rock & roll and he never abandoned it, even if he enthusiastically turned it inside out.

As Johnny B. Goode shows, Berry hit upon his formula early — the first disc alone contains "Thirty Days," "You Can't Catch Me," "Brown Eyed Handsome Man," "Roll Over Beethoven," "Too Much Monkey Business," and "School Day," while the second has "Rock & Roll Music," "Sweet Little Sixteen," "Reelin' and Rockin'," "Johnny B. Goode," and "Around and Around," classics and standards one and all — and he was savvy enough to know not to fix something that wasn't broken and so he didn't. He continued to refurbish and ever so slightly expand his formula into the '60s, creating some of his greatest music in the years to come — — and with any luck, Hip-O Select will document that in future releases — but Berry's '50s recordings for Chess prove one of the greatest bursts of creativity in American music. This is not only the foundation of Chuck's music, but rock & roll and pop culture of the 20th century, and it's thrilling to finally have it all as a complete box set.


Born: 18 October 1926 in St. Louis, MO

Genre: Rock

Years Active: '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s, '00s, '10s

Of all the early breakthrough rock & roll artists, none is more important to the development of the music than Chuck Berry. He is its greatest songwriter, the main shaper of its instrumental voice, one of its greatest guitarists, and one of its greatest performers. Quite simply, without him there would be no Beatles, Rolling Stones, Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, nor a myriad others. There would be no standard "Chuck Berry guitar intro," the instrument's clarion call to get the joint rockin' in any setting....
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