Lost Classics! Chuck Berry
We all know Chuck Berry as that duck-walking, guitar-slinging rocker from the late 1950s-early 1960s, the guy who wrote and recorded classics like “Maybelline,” “Johnny B. Goode,” “Roll Over Beethoven” and many, many more. Berry did all of these for Chess Records, the seminal Chicago blues and rock label that was also home to Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.
But many people know little about Berry’s excursion away from Chess in the late 1960s: by 1966 Chuck wasn’t cranking out top-selling records any more. Berry thought if he left the small Chess label and signed with a bigger label, more money would be spent on getting his records onto the radio and back atop the charts. So in ’66 he signed with Mercury Records, much to Berry’s disappointment.
The more corporate label had ideas about making Chuck Berry more “relevant” to audiences starting to dig the crazy sounds coming out of San Francisco. Berry, on the other hand, wanted to make records like he did in the early 1960s. So it was a constant battle for Chuck Berry – with producers, with label bigwigs – and the four years he spent at Mercury were mostly aimless.
In 1967, Berry released a couple of live albums for Mercury, the second of which was Live at the Fillmore Auditorium. He was backed by the Steve Miller Blues Band, which would later become the Steve Miller Band and earn a number of its own hits in the 1970s. Looking back, this album isn’t bad – it focuses on the slow blues that was popular at the time and which Chuck Berry played in the first place.
It’s a pretty good showcase for Berry’s guitar prowess, which takes on a new dimension on “Driftin’ Blues” and “Feelin’ It.” Songs like “Flying Home,” an instrumental, may have sounded a little retro at the time but remember – this was also an era of newfound appreciation for rock’s masters, as Elvis Presley made his big comeback on TV (in 1968), Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis were killin’ in concert and people like Sha-Na-Na capitalized on the old sound. Still this is a pretty decent set, especially when Berry and Band hit the homestretch with the rockers “Reelin’ and Rockin’ ” and, of course, “Johnny B. Goode,” played with a sloppy looseness that characterized a lot of the music of the time.
We now jump to 1969, and Chuck gamely (desperately) tries to appeal to the psychedelic crowd with Concerto in B. Goode, probably Berry’s most “experimental” album. Cut in the studio with some cool cats, Concerto’s first side has only four songs, kicking off with the very Berry-sounding “Good Looking Woman,” which rocks along until the weird echo-ey guitar solos. “My Woman” and “Put Her Down” are both slow blues grinders that pretty much sound interchangeable.
Side Two of Concerto consists solely of the title song, an 18-minute instrumental “exploration” of the Chuck Berry sound. It has its moments, but it’s 18 minutes long and starts to get a bit old about two-thirds of the way through.
Although Berry was still a big draw on the concert circuit, these albums yielded no hits for him. By 1970 he was ready to re-sign with Chess, but he discovered even that label was no longer the little down-home label he was used to from before. Now owned by GRT, the big 8-track tape manufacturer, the label (now run by Marshall Chess) had an eye on the bottom line. Chuck Berry would struggle until 1972 when the label tightened up his potty-mouthed ditty “My Ding-A-Ling” (a version appears on the reissued Fillmore album) and sent that straight up the charts. “Ding-A-Ling” would be Chuck Berry’s first and only No. 1 hit record.