Sound — 7
Think about Chuck Berry and what immediately comes to mind is his Gibson ES-335 churning out the two-string riff for Johnny B. Goode, that infectious R&B groove that has been copied by everyone from the Rolling Stones and the Beatles to Johnny Winter and Stevie Ray Vaughan. In fact, that's just about all you think of when conjuring up the image of the duckwalking and pompadoured guitar player ambling across the stage. But on this new 4-CD set the third in a series that began with the 2008 release Johnny B. Goode: His Complete 50s Chess Recordings 4-CD Set 1955 1960 and continued a year later with You Never Can Tell/The Complete Chess Recordings 1960 1966 you'll come to understand just how prolific an artist Berry really was. Though this new boxset presents songs that Chuck wrote after what many consider his Golden Decade in the mid-50s and early 60s, there are some key tracks here. Sound: Berry's music has always been about guitar and vocal and these 71 songs here are no different. Recorded at the legendary Chess Studios, the material essentially built around a simple guitar riff, an unadulterated vocal, and a solid rhythm section of drums and bass. There are really no effects to speak of, no big reverbs or echoes. Everything is cut fairly dry and it is the immediacy of the sound the way every little guitar strum and cymbal crash seems to find its own little spot coming out of the speakers that makes you connect with the music. On songs like Tulane, the first song he recorded upon his return to Chess after jumping ship in April 1966 and signing with Mercury Records, there is a fine little harmonica solo to break things up. Organs and pianos bring in new textures.
Lyrics — 7
Berry has never been considered a great singer but the vocals here convey an artist completely at ease behind the microphone. Whether he's performing a perfect unison performance (double-tracking his vocal) on Tulane or adopting the tone of an innocent man unjustly convicted on Have Mercy Judge, he manages to convey the sense and meaning of his words in an economical and emotional fashion. Lyrics have always been Berry's bread and butter. When other R&B and blues artists were content nay, afraid to venture out into unexplored and even taboo areas Chuck was breaking new ground by singing about stuff no one else would. My Ding-a-Ling, Berry's best-selling single and a #1 in America and the U.K., is about, well, self-pleasure. In a very sing-song manner and sounding like some schoolboy alone in his room, Mr. Berry takes a humorous look at some one-on-one time. When momma took me to Sunday school/Tried to teach me the golden rule/Every time the choir would sing/I'd sit there and play with my ding-a-ling, he sings in the song's second verse, crossing into the forbidden zone [this song was written in 1952 and lyrics like these simply didn't exist] of poking fun at organized religion.
Overall Impression — 6
Though many of Chuck Berry's songs tend to follow the same I-IV-V blues changes, the inventive and highly original performer has managed to become one of the most influential guitar players on the planet. When he went to England in 1972, everybody from Blind Faith, the Small Faces, and Argent lined up to work with him on album that would become The London Chuck Berry Sessions. That music is contained here and reveals how his legend had crossed the Atlantic to hold sway over some of the best musicians of the day. This is a fun collection of music. For guitar players, you'll be able to figure out every lick on these four CDs within minutes. And you'll come to understand that all you need are three chords and a sweet melody to rule the world.