Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Chuck Berry

  • Back Home [Chess, 1970] B
  • San Francisco Dues [Chess, 1971] B-
  • The London Chuck Berry Sessions [Chess, 1972] C-
  • Chuck Berry's Golden Decade [Chess, 1972]  
  • Chuck Berry's Golden Decade Volume II [Chess, 1972]  
  • Bio [Chess, 1973] D+
  • Chuck Berry [Chess, 1975] B-
  • Rockit [Atco, 1979] B+
  • The Great Twenty-Eight [Chess, 1982]  
  • Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll [MCA, 1987] B+
  • The Chess Box [MCA/Big Yard, 1988] A
  • The Anthology [MCA, 2000] A-
  • The Definitive Collection [Geffen/Chess, 2006] A+
  • Chuck [Dualtone, 2017] A-
  • Live From Blueberry Hill [Dualtone, 2021] A

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Back Home [Chess, 1970]
Like the reconstructed "Reelin' and Rockin'" that opens side two, most of Berry's return to the label of his glory days is tasty, real rockin', and inessential. Also included, however, are two of his greatest songs ever: "Tulane," as canny a take on hippiedom (which Chuck has been struggling to comprehend since he first played the Fillmore) as "Sweet Little Sixteen" is on high school, and its sequel, "Have Mercy Judge," the first major blues this supposed bluesman has ever written. History, anyone? B

San Francisco Dues [Chess, 1971]
Chuck isn't specializing in filler this time out, but the memorable cuts aren't exactly models of craftsmanship. "Festival" is the man at his most endearingly crass, envisioning a rock and roll circus featuring "bad Bo Diddley and the Beatles and the Mothers" in one line and the Woolies (his Detroit backup band) and the Loading Zone (San Fran backup, rhymes with Stones) elsewhere. The other is six minutes of doggerel over bass-and-piano accompaniment that is a good bad poem the way Husbands is a good bad movie. B-

The London Chuck Berry Sessions [Chess, 1972]
Though his backup for this promotion was less than stellar, Chuck Berry finally has an LP on the charts, which is certainly overdue recognition for the number one genius in rock and roll history. Only trouble is, the record is lousy. The live side is Chuck at his hoarsest, and "My Ding-a-Ling" isn't even funny the first time. The studio side is pure filler. Buy Chuck Berry's Golden Decade, More Chuck Berry, Chuck Berry's on Top, St. Louis to Liverpool, even Back Home. This doesn't do him justice. C-

Chuck Berry's Golden Decade [Chess, 1972]
[CG70s: A Basic Record Library]  

Chuck Berry's Golden Decade Volume II [Chess, 1972]
[CG70s: A Basic Record Library]  

Bio [Chess, 1973]
Willie Mays was the greatest baseball player who ever lived, but he just can't cut it anymore. He reminds me more of Chuck Berry every time out. D+

Chuck Berry [Chess, 1975]
His style has always been undeniable, but not irresistible--cf. Bio. Here at least its entertainment value is reconfirmed, whether he's remaking "Hi Heel Sneakers" or "You Are My Sunshine," adding blue (notes and lyrics) to "South of the Border," duetting with his daughter, or writin' and rollin' his own. B-

Rockit [Atco, 1979]
Well I'll be. The inventor of rock and roll hasn't made an album this listenable in fifteen years--no great new songs, but he's never written better throwaways (or covered "Ozymandias," either). Both Berry and Johnny Johnson--the piano half of his sound for a quarter of a century--have tricked up their styles without vitiating or cheapening them, and the result is a groove for all decades. Minor for sure, but what a surprise. B+

The Great Twenty-Eight [Chess, 1982]
[CG80: Rock Library: Before 1980]  

Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll [MCA, 1987]
This wasn't the great Chuck Berry concert if only because his voice is half shot--all those cracks don't ruin the fun, but they don't expose unexpected nuances in it either. Though Julian Lennon and Linda Ronstadt are less obtrusive when you can't see them trying to look like they belong, most of the cameos are still only adequate-to-embarrassing: the sole triumph is Eric Clapton's "Wee Wee Hours," with a typically miraculous solo from the omnipresent Johnnie Johnson. And so what? It's still the best live album the man ever made. I mean, what do you want? B+

The Chess Box [MCA/Big Yard, 1988]
Starting at age 29 in 1955, Chuck Berry recorded plenty, mostly for Chess in Chicago, a spin in the Caddy from his St. Louis home. Many of these recordings were epochal, others pretty great. But quite a few fell short. In the golden age of Top 40, his albums were afterthought product, filled out with autopilot instrumentals, threadbare covers, wan novelties, and temperate lounge blues. So Chuck Berry's natural longform is the best-of, compelling fans to buy his classics over and over. This 71-track threefer from the innocent days when box sets meant something slackens slightly on the back half of disc two by indulging Berry's blues dreams. But disc three documents the renaissance that followed his release from an 18-month bid on a trumped-up prostitution charge in late 1963. The unsatisfied "No Particular Place to Go" and the pot-dealing action thriller "Tulane" aren't iconic like "Johnny B. Goode," but their artistry, invention, and humor are unsurpassed, and "Tulane" led directly to "Have Mercy Judge," the only important blues he ever wrote. A

The Anthology [MCA, 2000]
You remember him. He invented rock and roll--in 40 or so utterly indelible songs, with another couple dozen on the cusp. His CD-era standard has been the three-disc, 71-track Chess Box, which sticks a lot of questionable stuff toward the end and retails for around $50. On sale for $20 less and squeezing a 50-song double-CD into the shelf space of one, this is more consumer-friendly. Except that in a typical completist-baiting maneuver, it adds seven forgettable previously uncompileds (OK, "Don't You Lie to Me" is good) and to make room axes unquestionable stuff that only begins with "Anthony Boy," and "Have Mercy Judge." Still ace music, of course--at least the instrumentals are under control. But dock it two notches for profiteering anyway--and avoid the similarly misbegotten new Louis Jordan package altogether. A-

The Definitive Collection [Geffen/Chess, 2006]
I hope a few young folks out there are aware that the inventor of rock and roll made his bones with six genre- and generation-defining '50s hits: "Maybellene," "Roll Over Beethoven," "School Day," "Rock and Roll Music," "Sweet Little Sixteen," and "Johnny B. Goode." I also hope they'll believe that he later wrote three equally titanic songs: "Almost Grown" and "You Never Can Tell," in which his patented American teenager goes out on his own and gets married, and the sub rosa celebration of the Freedom Rides "Promised Land." And I hope they won't be surprised to learn that those nine titles are only the cream of a 10-buck, 30-tracks-in-75-minutes collection whose most dubious selection both the Kinks and the Rolling Stones thought choice enough to cover. ("Beautiful Delilah," to be precise--I've come around on Berry's sole #1, the naughty 1972 sing-along "My Ding-a-Ling.") Bo Diddley excepted, Berry was the most spectacular guitarist of the rock and roll era, and every '60s band learned his licks. His bassist-producer was the capo of Chicago blues, his pianist entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on his own recognizance, and his drummers were huge. Yet though the size of his sound was unprecedented, the penetrating lightness of his unslurred vocals was as boyish as the young Eminem's because the crystalline words meant even more than the irresistible music. In the hall of mirrors that is Chuck Berry's catalogue, this is where to get oriented. But be forewarned that there's also a 71-track three-CD box that slightly overplays his blues pretensions and Nat King Cole dreams, and that this one could tempt a person to covet that consumable too. I dare you to find out. A+

Chuck [Dualtone, 2017]
In the first 89 years of his life, Chuck Berry recorded two full-length albums worthy of the name, neither currently available for under a C-note although one is set for reissue: 1964's St. Louis to Liverpool, three comeback classics plus seven keepers that include the atypically companionable "You Two" and the atypically familial "Little Marie" as well as two atypically engaging instrumentals. The other is the 1979 groove album Rockit, sharpened by two back-end songs skewering the racist society he'd striven so audaciously to integrate and enlighten. That was his last record for 38 years, when he generated this de facto farewell, which stands as both a summation he put his all into and a little something he might have followed up if he hadn't up and died at 90. Mischievous and horny and locked in, he plays undiminished guitar as a few subtle guest shots add texture. His timbre has deepened--on the recitative "Dutchman," he's a relaxed near-bass. But he's hale vocally and acute verbally on eight well-crafted new ones and two savvy covers that indicate he's learned a few things--the warm songs to the long-suffering wife he married in 1948 and the progeny who chime in like they've earned it have the kind of detail he always reserved for his fictions, musical and otherwise. I've never stopped loving Chuck Berry as an artist, but it's been a while since I thought the old reprobate was anything but a fucked up human being. This miracle gives me second thoughts. A-

Live From Blueberry Hill [Dualtone, 2021]
This surprising album was culled from around when the man who invented teenagers was 80: the 2005-2006 run of the 209 monthly shows Berry played between 1996 and 2014 in St. Louis's sold-out 340-capacity Blueberry Hill. True, there are scads of live Chuck Berry albums. But most of them are bootlegs or close to it, and the legit likes of the 1967 Fillmore one, the 1969 Toronto one, and the 1972 London one are haphazard and raggedy-ass except for the soundtrack to the valiant 1987 Keith Richards-Taylor Hackford concert documentary Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll, with Etta James and Robert Cray right at home and Linda Ronstadt and Julian Lennon sincerely overwhelmed. But where back then he was still playing the sly bad boy, and making it work for him too, two decades later he's become something new and arresting: a puissant old man whose voice has roughened without a hint of frailty singing teen songs he devised when he was a much more puissant young man. Having never stopped loving his art whatever his personal failings, I rate this a crucial addition to what I damn well call his oeuvre. His son Charles Jr. plays creditable second guitar, his daughter Ingrid adds harmonica, and while the locals on piano and drums obviously aren't Johnny Johnson or Fred Belew, they've clearly lived this music. Sure the album reprises some obvious classics, but it also revives the campaign-shouting "Nadine" and elevates the minor "Little Queenie" and juices the payday anthem "Let It Rock" and, how about that, justifies 1973's premature "Bio": "Can't help it but I love it/Stand here, sing to you/Brings back so many memories/Many things we used to do." A

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