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May
01
2017

Chuck Berry RIP – Some Chuck Berry Songs You May Not Know

Years ago I decided to focus my blog writing exclusively on comics-centric subjects. With the recent death of Chuck Berry, though, I’m making an exception.

If you knew me in my pre-comics days, you know that I spent some time as a musician–and more to the point: I’ve always been passionate about music. Like everyone interested in music I’ve had fluctuating musical interests. My tastes have grown and matured over the years. When I look (or, more accurately, listen) back on things I liked when I was younger, I often cringe. There are, though, a few musicians I have loved unequivocally my whole life. One of them is Chuck Berry.

I was first introduced to Chuck Berry’s music by my mother–albeit in a sideways fashion. My mom’s a huge Beatles fan and so we had Beatles records around the house when I was growing up.  My favorite songs on these records were tracks like “Rock and Roll Music,” Honey Don’t,” “Everybody’s Trying to be my Baby,” “Matchbox,” and “Roll Over Beethoven.” Only years later did I realize these weren’t Beatles tunes at all, but covers.

Digging into the sources of these recordings, I wound up purchasing The Great Twenty-Eight, a best of Chuck Berry record. It’s (as best as I can recall) the first record I bought with my own money and (for sure) one I still own and listen to today some thirty years later.

My appreciation of Chuck Berry only deepened as I delved more intensely into music in my 20s while playing in bands in the 1990s. I’m fairly certain my old band, Come on Thunderchild, played more than one Chuck Berry cover, but the only one I can specifically remember now is “Round and Round.” I got this tattoo around this time:

chuckChuck Berry died a few weeks ago on March 18th, and Sound Opinions–the great public radio music review/criticism show out of Chicago–did a fantastic appreciation of Chuck Berry’s life and legacy, along with a top ten list of his best songs. Their list is hard to argue with, but it’s definitely skewed toward his best-known and most recognizable tunes: Maybelline, Johnny B. Goode, You Never Can Tell, etc. I’d like to, though, post my own quick list here–as kind of an addendum to that list–of a few great Chuck Berry songs that aren’t necessarily the ones you may be most familiar with:

 

The Things I Used to Do

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Chuck Berry didn’t do a ton of straight blues songs, but when he did–as here with his version of Guitar Slim’s “The Things I Used to Do”–the results could be pretty great. The studio version of this song appeared on his 1964 LP St. Louis to Liverpool (my personal pick for best single Chuck Berry LP) and it’s a great recording. This version, filmed for Belgian TV in 1965, is maybe even better. Check out both of the jaw-dropping guitar solos here. (Check also “The Love I Lost,” another great Chuck Berry straight blues performance.)

 

Oh Louisana

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If you gave credence to most of the appreciations of Chuck Berry that appeared after his death, you’d get the impression he stopped writing original music in 1964. His original output post 60s was for sure pretty hit-or-miss, but there are absolutely some amazing Chuck Berry songs from the 70s if you’re willing to dig for them. By far my favorite post-60s Chuck Berry tune is this one, “Oh Louisiana,” from his 1971 record, San Francisco Dues. It’s part blues, kinda funky, and has a great vocal from Berry.

 

Reelin’ and Rockin’ (American Hot Wax version)

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So, “Reelin’ and Rockin'” is of course one of Chuck Berry’s biggest hits and you’ve probably heard it a million times. This version, though, is from the 1978 Alan Freed biopic, American Hot Wax. In addition to featuring more explicitly lurid lyrics than the recorded version, it’s a pretty great live performance by Berry who at this point is in his early 50s.

 

I Love Her, I Love Her

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This great track is from the hard-to-find 1968 LP From St. Louie to Frisco. It’s got a fantastic, grinding groove and big Stax-style horns. Check out those piano riffs at the end, courtesy of August “Augie” Meyers of the Sir Douglas Quintet.

 

Brown Eyed Handsome Man (Mercury version)

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Here’s another Chuck Berry song you’ve heard a million times before… but not this particular version. Berry left Chess Records and recorded for Mercury between ’66 and ’69. One of the oddest moves during this period was the ’67 Mercury release Chuck Berry’s Golden Hits, which consisted mostly of newly-recorded versions of the original Chess hits. These recordings are contentious among Chuck Berry fans, but I think there’re some interesting nuggets here. My favorite is this re-recorded version of “Brown Eyed Handsome Man.” Unlike most of the other Mercury versions which are sped up, this one’s maybe even slowed down a bit? I loses a bit of its “chugga chugga” rhythm in favor of a mellower grove. I love all the great Johnnie Johnson organ and electric piano.

 

Drifting Heart

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“Drifting Heart” is an early Chuck Berry (1956) oddity. It was the flip side of “Roll Over Beethoven” and later was the last track on the LP After School Session. Here Berry’s squarely in ballad mode with perennial secret weapon Johnnie Johnson supplying a simple pentatonic piano figure that–along with a snakey tenor sax–gives the track a vaguely mid-eastern vibe. This is Chuck Berry at his most Nat Cole.

 

Fish and Chips

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“Fish and Chips” appeared on the 1970 LP Back Home, Chuck Berry’s first record after he left Mercury and returned to Chess. This great little tune has an almost country-ish vibe (not surprising from the guy who wrote “Maybelline”) that’s accentuated by an accompanying harmonica part from “Boogie Bob” Baldori.

1 comment

  1. Mark Sullivan says:

    I played several Chuck Berry songs during my rock and roll days, too. At one point I had a cover band that played 50s and 60s covers (this was in the late 70s). I had never thought much about Berry’s music before, but his tunes really impressed me. Not complicated, but each one was distinctive, and they all rocked like crazy.

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