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+

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]
Greatest Hits. Golden Decade. The Great Twenty-Eight. Fans bought each vinyl comp as its predecessor wore out, but in the uncharted swamp of CD-era Universal reissues they may have missed the best best-of of all. Starting with the motorvating 1955 game-changer "Maybellene" and then fleshing out Berry's double persona--sly brown-eyed handsome man, a projection, and happy-go-lucky lil' 16, an invention--it adds two of Berry's very greatest songs to the formerly definitive Great Twenty-Eight: the completely grown "You Never Can Tell" and the sub rosa history of the Freedom Rides "Promised Land." Half of its 30-tracks-in-75-minutes--terse fellow, Chuck Berry--are pop songs as monumental as "Alexander's Ragtime Band" and "Smells Like Teen Spirit." The rest are various shades of excellent. Long-suffering Johnnie Johnson on piano and big boss man Willie Dixon on bass provide essential support. Every song here except the worthy "I Wanna Be Your Driver" is on The Chess Box. But this one's so intense. A+

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