Release Date: Jun 9, 2017
Record label: Dualtone Music
Erupting in the mid-'50s, the rambunctious music known as rock'n'roll was a diverse beast, with major talents like Elvis Presley, Little Richard and others offering their own idiosyncratic versions of the sound that changed the world. While no single person could embody this unstoppable revolution, Chuck Berry came closer than anyone else. His adrenalized fusion of R&B, blues, country and even easy listening created a vital template that continues to resonate today.
Chuck Berry didn't hang up his rock & roll shoes after releasing Rock It in 1979, but he did stop writing and recording new songs. The next few decades were filled with performances as he traveled across the country with guitar in hand, settling down in his hometown of St. Louis for a residency at the local restaurant Blueberry Hill in 1996. He wasn't a recluse but he was indifferent to a recording career, consenting to be the subject of Taylor Hackford's 1987 documentary Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll (and proceeding to drive the director mad) but adding no new songs to the film.
As far as storylines go, the one surrounding Chuck Berry’s posthumous final album could make your mouth water. Chuck isn’t just the pioneering rock hero's first album since 1978; it arrives three months after his death. As such, it’s much more than the comeback album it appears to be on the surface. The 10-song collection also stands as the final will and testament of one of rock music’s most influential and enduring figures.
Released just under three months since his death at the age of 90, Chuck Berry recorded Chuck in his hometown of St. Louis, bringing in family members and longtime co-players to assure his final album exuded the sound and personality of this rock'n'roll architect's heyday. Hitting the streets 38 years since his last album, the painfully dated Rock It, Chuck acts as a simple love letter to his career, as "Darlin," his touching duet with his daughter Ingrid Berry (and stand-out track on the album), proves.
John Lennon famously said, "If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’". Indeed, the recently deceased Berry was the first rocker with staying power both as a singer, writer, and performer whose classics such as "Johnny B Goode", "Roll Over Beethoven", "Maybellene", "Sweet Little Sixteen" and many others form the core of the rock cannon. Berry's influence and importance cannot be overstated.
With each year that passed after 1980, it seemed more and more likely that Chuck Berry had moved into the "strictly live performances" phase of his career. He stopped making records after 1979's Rock It--an album where prototypical Berry songwriting is marred by dated late '70s production like tinny drums and cornball keyboards. From then on, he performed countless one-nighters with a different backing band in every town.
Perhaps oddly recalling David Bowie and Leonard Cohen recording final albums before the Grim Reaper descended, Chuck Berry took his final duck-walk three months before the new album he announced on his 90th birthday was due to be released. While not exactly his concisely conceived Blackstar due to its 25-year gestation, Chuck is a robust parting shot and touching concession to mortality from rock's original gunslinger. It's almost hard to believe the little old man in the accompanying photo is the architect of modern rock'n'roll, its first flash guitar hero who captivated teenagers of all races with his universal lyrics, but tarnished his standing with mercenary gigging and was branded a dirty old man through his mistreatment of women.
Being released just three months after his death, Chuck Berry's first album since 1979 includes songs that originate as far back as the 1980s. There are three generations of Berry guitarists and guest appearances from the likes of Nathaniel Rateliff and Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello. Perhaps this explains why it doesn't sound anything like the work of a 90-year-old man.
It took 38 years and sounds like it could have been knocked off last Sunday in the time it takes Dominos to deliver. Good, bad and otherwise, Chuck Berry's first album since 1979 is a classic as he always made them, with knockoffs of his own inventions ("Wonderful Woman" updates "Little Queenie" for his long suffering wife of 68 years, Themetta, with guest riffs from Gary Clark Jr.; "Big Boys" retrofits "Roll Over Beethoven" with Tom Morello adding some motorvation), blues filler, even a live goof delivered with one of those raised-eyebrow vocals. All of rock & roll would have crawled on its hands and knees to St.
Sadly passing just a few months before its release, the simply titled 'Chuck' sees one of the most important musicians of the 20th century offering a swaggering and sweet swan song. Incredibly his first set a fresh material since 1979's 'Rock It', Chuck Berry goes out doing what he did best, namely discussing woman, woes, and wonder - all with a mischievous grin. As opposed to Johnny Cash's twilight work, 'Chuck' sounds far more youthful then you'd imagine, its production simple, ballsy and effectively basic.
Chuck Berry's surprise announcement last October that he would release his final studio album this year was made all the more poignant by his death March 18 at age 90. "Chuck" (Dualtone/Decca) very much sounds like a career capstone, a thank-you to the people who mattered most to him -- from his wife of 68 years, Themetta "Toddy" Suggs to the fan in the second row at one of his concerts. Berry's last studio album came out in 1979, and the guitarist makes no attempt to update his sound.