Why, it seems like only yesterday [cue harp and wavy, out-of-focus visuals] when you could pore over an album's liner notes and not have to squint to garner an embarrassment of riches and a treasure trove of tidbits…
“Dance! says Chuck Berry, reel and rock, around and around! ‘Move on up and try for further.’ This rock ‘n’ roll that’s blowing fuses around the world would set Beethoven spinning in his grave and ‘deliver us from the days of old.’”
The duck walk may not be quite as smooth these days, but having just celebrated his 80th birthday, Chuck Berry is still a smooth “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man.”
Chess Record’s The Great Twenty-Eight double-album from 1982 is not only a fantastic best-of collection in quantity and quality of tracks, it also matches that excellence in its liner notes. Straightforwardly no-nonsense yet poetically celebratory — reflecting Berry's songs' musical accessibility in rhythm and rhyme-scheme — the insightful commentary fulfills the commemorative need for a matter-of-fact overview combined with an expressive tribute befitting rock ‘n’ roll royalty.
The all-embracing yet cohesive notes by Michael Lydon start out simply enough: “Charles Edward Anderson Berry grew up a bright kid in black St. Louis, Missouri.” Lydon then briefly sketches out Berry’s influences in Louis Jordan and Nat “King” Cole, and his introduction by an impressed Muddy Waters to Leonard Chess. Hearing a dub of “Maybellene,” Chess signs up Berry for his label and guides him to the themes of “the big beat, cars, and young love.”
Lydon, as much as anyone can convey a sonic sensation, deftly encapsulates the appeal and the immediacy of a Chuck Berry song:
- Ah, the triumph of Chuck’s Ford catching Maybellene at the top of the hill! The poor coup de ville left behind like a ton of lead! The fast lane tempo, the clanging chorded guitar with its howling break, the wild piano, slamming drums and bass — ‘the highway sound’ — urged on the listener a mood flamboyantly dramatic, rebellious, and free.
Onstage, Berry was a bit rebellious and free himself, as Lydon describes this charismatic marvel – good looks, duck walk and all. And though Berry "had no kick against modern jazz," he quickly proved to be a prolific songwriter and record maker of catchy and clever rock 'n' roll gems, able to capture the “teen feel” again and again in such smashes as “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Johnny B. Goode,” “Carol,” “Memphis,” “Back in the USA”…
Putting Berry in historical perspective, up there with Elvis Presley and above Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, Lydon concisely explains what Berry did with the subject matter — youthful turbulence and yearning — shared with these other artists:
- No one touched on these feelings with more humor and empathy than Chuck Berry. Wallets filled with pictures, waiting for that three o’ clock bell to ring, hamburgers on the snack shop grill, joy riding with your buddies, and parking by the river with those girls ‘too cute to be a minute over seventeen’ – Chuck got it all.
No wonder he went on to influence the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, the Beach Boys, the Who, the Kinks, T. Rex and “every group of kids who’ve gotten together in somebody’s basement to bang out rock ‘n’ roll.” After all, Lydon continues, Berry’s “been the outside voice that’s awakened the inner voice of all these hopeful young artists and given them that indispensable ‘you can do it’ shove.”
In addition, there’s a timelessness to that sense of awakening and discovery as Lydon stirringly affirms, “These are twenty-eight great records, as crisp and tangy as the day Chuck laid them down.
"It still amazes me how good they make me feel… Rock on, Chuck Berry!”
And Hail! Hail! Happy Birthday!