April 9th, 2008
Title: Johnny B. Goode: His Complete ‘50s Chess Recordings
Artist: Chuck Berry
Label: Hip-O Select/Geffen Records
Catalog No.: B0009473-02
Looking backward from 2008, it is possible to believe for an instant that Chuck Berry’s recordings were standard rock and roll fare. When “Maybellene” hit the airwaves in July of 1955, however, it marked a defining moment in the evolution of rock, a point that would so dramatically shape its course that music from that time can seem self-evident today – as if to say, “yes, rock does this and rock does that, just as it always has.” But when Berry began recording, the guitar did not so completely dominate the genre – it was only through the work of seminal figures like Berry that it would eventually come to replace the roles formerly filled by the piano and saxophone. Not only did Berry invent a distinctive guitar style that would become standard rock technique, however – he was also an expressive singer, a songwriter whose lyrics captured the ambitions and desires of 1950s middle-class America, and a consummate showman. In the early days of rock, when these tasks might be divided among many people, Chuck Berry did it all.
We can listen to the beginnings of this story on Hip-O Select’s recent 4-CD box set Johnny B. Goode: His Complete ‘50s Chess Recordings, produced by Andy McKaie, compiled by Andy McKaie and Fred Rothwell, and digitally remastered by Erick Labson. McKaie and Rothwell dove deep into the Chess vault to unearth 103 Berry tracks that span the years 1955-59, and in addition to immortal hits like “Maybellene,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” and “Johnny B. Goode,” the 4-CD set includes B-sides of singles, alternate recordings that originally appeared on foreign releases, and even 15 previously unreleased tracks. But when Berry’s stint with Chess stretched through 1974, why stop at 1959? Well, according to Rothwell, the original plan was to compile a 14 CD box set of all of Berry’s Chess and Mercury recordings from the mid-fifties until he finally left Chess in 1974. Unfortunately, however, that project was vetoed by the bigwigs at Universal and the present set was devised as an acceptable compromise. Johnny B. Goode was apparently released in a limited edition set of 5000, and if it sells well the plan is to compile a follow-up set of ’60s recordings up to Berry’s departure from Chess to Mercury in 1966.
Despite its oddly generic title, the documentation and format of Johnny B. Goode is clearly intended to appeal to a collectors/aficionados market. All tunes are arranged in chronological order on the set, leading to such juxtapositions as 5 back-to-back versions of “Sweet Little Sixteen” (out of 13 that Rothwell reviewed) and sets of 2 or 3 takes of many others. This makes listening to the set more than a little overwhelming for anyone but the most hardcore collectors. Collectors will eat it up, however, and will appreciate the insert booklet as well. Fred Rothwell, who is also the author of Long Distance Information: Chuck Berry’s Recorded Legacy, wrote 13 pages of liner notes highlighting the significance of Berry’s innovative work and this is followed by a complete track listing with accompanying musicians, songwriter, and Chess catalog numbers provided for each. The booklet ends with a singles discography detailing release dates and Billboard chart information for each tune.
The chronological arrangement overall is an effective way to organize these tunes, because it takes the ear on a musical journey into and through the 1940s swing; boogie woogie piano; the blues of T-Bone Walker, Muddy Waters, and Elmore James; and the country music Chuck Berry listened to growing up in St. Louis. These influences came together to form the high-energy, guitar-driven, blues-based bedrock of Berry’s individual style, which, in turn, became recognizably and fundamentally rock and roll. Beginning with the T-Bone Walker-derived riff that opens the driving Maybellene, with its characteristic solo guitar bends and quick-fire diads, we are lead through all the chart hits and well-known favorites as well as those of a different hue, including the dark and spooky “Down Bound Train” on disk 1; instrumentals like Berry’s hoppin’ rendition of “How High the Moon” from disk 2; the extended (about 11′ apiece) “Long Fast Jam” and “Long Slow Jam” from disk 3; and the Latin-inflected “That’s My Desire” from disk 4. A special mention goes to Johnnie Johnson, whose brilliantly complementary piano playing appears on most of these recordings.
Check out Johnny B. Goode: His Complete ‘50s Chess Recordings for a comprehensive Chuck Berry introductory experience and a widely-ranging glimpse into the roots of Rock, or buy a greatest-hits compilation if all the multiple takes turn you off.
Posted by Anthony Guest-Scott