On his last album, the iconic rock ‘n’ roll star proves that he was rocking right until the very end
The chances are that if you’ve picked up an electric guitar within the last fifty years, held a plectrum between your thumb and forefinger and strummed a favourite rock song, you would have been influenced by Chuck Berry. Even if he didn’t invent rock ‘n’ roll, he embodied it and his influence on the genre is undisputed.
In later years, Chuck Berry was not the most prolific of artists: Chuck is his first new album since 1979’s Rock It. Even so, Berry sounds energetic. His guitar playing may not be as virtuosic as his early days, but does anyone really mind if the playing is a bit rough around the edges? To paraphrase Berry: this is not orchestral music, this is rock ‘n’ roll. It’s supposed to energise you, to put a smile on your face, to stir something up inside of you. Roll over Beethoven, indeed. Using this as a scorecard, Chuck scores highly.
Berry lays on his humour, which is an underrated quality of his. In the middle of the record is Lady B. Goode, a tale of Johnny B. Goode’s long suffering wife, who was with him right from the start: “till he got so popular they made him a star, then she could only see him on a TV screen.”
Chuck is a family record. Berry’s son Charles Jr. plays guitar throughout the album; his grandson Charles III adds guitar on Wonderful Woman and Lady B. Goode; Ingrid, his daughter, harmonises with his vocals on the heartfelt ballad Darlin’. Berry also finds support from outside his family. Tom Morello, Nathaniel Rateliff and Gary Clark Jr. appear elsewhere on the record.
Some of the songs were conceived in between tours in Berry’s home studio in St. Louis as early as the 1980’s. Health concerns forced him to stop touring and recording in 2015, but Berry continued to oversee production and planning for Chuck.
For those familiar with Chuck Berry’s work, Chuck echoes some of his earlier material. Jamaica Moon is a re-working of Berry’s 1956 single Havana Moon. Big Boys, the album’s highlight, opens with the powerful, ripping guitar solo with kicks off so many of Berry’s songs.
Prior to the release of Chuck, Berry issued a statement dedicating the album to his wife of 68 years, Themetta Berry: “My darlin’ I’m growing old! I’ve worked on this record for a long time. Now I can hang up my shoes!”
During the live recording 3/4 Time (Enchiladas), Berry shout-sings over the cheering audience: “I love what I’m doing, I hope it don’t end too soon.” Through Chuck we get to see a snapshot of one of rock ‘n’ roll’s defining stars, at times sounding vulnerable, but rocking right until the end.
Verdict: Long live rock ‘n’ roll!