Played right, the guitar isn't just an instrumental accompaniment to a song. It serves as another voice – speaking, hollering, sighing, laughing, crying, or what-have-you. In such context, emotion is just as important as technical prowess or musicality. Few embodied this approach at the outset of rock n' roll like Chuck Berry, the legendary Midwestern artist who died this month at 90. See the coy playfulness he brings to the instrument in "No Particular Place to Go" or on-the-run furor of "Johnny B. Goode." It continued up to his death. Days after he passed, the Berry estate released a new song, "Big Boys," from the forthcoming Chuck Berry. Berry had been promising the work for decades and revealed late last year it would appear in 2017. The tune acts as a reminder that Berry, despite the personal travails that dogged him throughout his career, lives on via his music. Here's a much-deserved look back at five must-own Berry albums.
Chuck Berry Is On Top
The place to start. This singles collection boasts one unmistakable hit after another, including the aforementioned "Johnny B. Goode." On "Roll Over Beethoven," Berry demands respect for the budding rock n' roll genre by essentially declaring that the classical composer should shake in his grave at the new sound. Perhaps no cut makes the case for Berry's genius better than "Maybellene," a 1955 hit that brings the blues into the modern era. Fast and lascivious, the song survives as one of the first major examples of rock n' roll. Berry obliterates what came before with curvaceous guitar work aimed at mimicking the open road. A rolling piano stays hot on his tail and the groove never lets up. He also shows off his skills as a poet, inventing words ("motorvatin'") and zeroing in on youth and car culture.
St. Louis to Liverpool
Released as Beatlemania sprang to the fore, St. Louis to Liverpool serves as a comeback album of sorts. Berry had just completed a stint in prison due to his relationship with a minor, and acts such as the Beatles, Beach Boys, and Rolling Stones were finding success with their own takes on Berry originals. Rather than try to one-up his peers, the work shows Berry honing his songwriting chops. See the mystifying wedded bliss of "You Never Can Tell," where the "coolerator was crammed with TV dinners and ginger ale." A mini-orchestral piece of sorts, the song boasts a swinging horn section and some of Berry's most relaxed guitar work. And the immortal "Promised Land" presents a make-believe travelogue with colorful imagery in which Berry imagines a road trip across the U.S.A. and heralds California as an escape from poverty.
San Francisco Dues
An often-overlooked work, this album was reissued a few years ago and presents a more serious side of Berry. Though it suffers from some overly synthetic 70s funk production, tracks like "Oh Louisiana" and "My Dream (Poem)" emphasize the piano and introspection. While Berry is rightfully pegged as a rock n' roll innovator, San Francisco Dues confirms that Berry never stopped challenging himself. See the title track, where Berry works a slow-moving groove with maximum swagger. It's a blues song, more or less, but also subtly hypnotic, as lightly struck guitars intertwine with one another and shadow assured yet relaxed 88s. Berry remains apt to let loose, but even when he does, as on "Viva Rock & Roll," he comes across with a reserved patience, letting the guitar strut rather than wail.
After School Session
"Hail! Hail! Rock & Roll!" So sings Berry in the final moments of "School Day," a two-and-a-half-minute celebration of teenaged life. The guitar mimics a ringing bell, and Berry's clear, direct delivery and keen lyrics cut to the heart of adolescence. Long days in a classroom, followed by afternoons spent dancing around a jukebox: Berry turns the mundane and the everyday into riveting drama by emphasizing little details. "You studying hard and hoping to pass...the guy behind you won't leave you alone," he sings. Elsewhere, Berry's first proper release shows his zeal for genre hopping, from the bluesy stroll of "Deep Feeling" to the prancing rhythm of "Too Much Monkey Business," on which the guitar feels surprisingly effortless and loose. There's just a hint of a snarl in Berry's vocals, and he wields the six-stringed instrument like a lasso. And that's saying nothing about the ornate slow dance "Together (We'll Always Be)."
The Great Twenty-Eight
One of the finest compilations ever released, The Great Twenty-Eight chronicles Berry's first decade. In these 28 tunes – and in a little over an hour – one hears rock n' roll's foundations and the blueprint for the next six-plus decades. Berry swings from country to R&B with ease. But it's his lyrics, which course with modernity – the jets of "Carol" and the obsession with cars that dominate several tracks – that set the tone for what would follow. "Beautiful daughter couldn't make up her mind, between a doctor and a lawyer man," Berry sings in "Carol," displaying an innate ability to capture the thoughts and read the minds of his fanbase. The words are plainspoken, but brazenly sharp in specifics – the phone number written on the wall in "Memphis, Tennessee" or little kid dressed up like a Christmas tree in "Sweet Little Rock ‘N Roller" – and unique chronicles of the American experience.
Photo credit: Danny Clinch