Wednesday, September 30, 2009

September 30: Chuck Berry, "Chuck Berry Is On Top"

Artist: Chuck Berry
Album: Chuck Berry Is On Top
Year: 1959
Label: Chess

Everything that exists, whether in a physical or more theoretical sense must have a point of origin. These beginning points are often moments of explosion or great disruption within the status quo. Much like languages, philosophies, and even life itself, rock and roll has a very distinctive start point, and that landmark moment in history has a name, Chuck Berry. Though there were many artists treading the same path at the same time, the truth of the matter is, with his performance style and amazing writing ability, there is simply no other artist in history who has had as much impact on the overall sound and shape of rock music as Chuck Berry. Pulling influence from blues and soul masters like Muddy Waters and Ray Charles, Berry fused them together with an attitude that was entirely new. As Waters sang, "...the blues had a baby, and they called it rock and roll." In this case, the Father was Berry, and there would simply not be any rock music (or any of the offshoot genres) in the form we know it without his presence. Over the years, Berry's songs have been covered by everyone from The Beatles to The Sex Pistols to Elvis Presley to Motörhead to LL Cool J. With his fantastic songwriting ability and knack for playing some of the greatest and most recognizable musical hooks in history, it's no surprise that the recorded catalog of Berry is one of the greatest ever, as it spans more than five decades. However, for the best understanding of everything that makes Chuck Berry so extraordinary, one need look no further then his monumental 1959 release, Chuck Berry Is On Top.

While at first glance, the song listing on Chuck Berry Is On Top may appear to be a "greatest hits" collection, it was actually a small collection of Berry's singles for Chess that had been released here and there throughout the previous few years. The fact that nearly every song on the album is instantly recognizable perfectly captures just how amazing and timeless a sound there is within the music of Chuck Berry. Among a host of rock and roll gems is Berry's first single, and arguably the greatest and most influential song ever written, "Maybellene." Based off of a late 1930's country song of the same name, "Maybellene" truly represents the change into rock music, as it was the first recording where the electric guitar moved from the backing role and was clearly the featured instrument on the song. Berry's lyrics are as universal as any ever written, as it is a simple song about unfaithful women and fast cars. The uncommonly aggressive guitar is the "rock," while the swing on the song is the epitome of the "roll." "Maybellene" remains a song in a class all its own, and the music and lyrics are just as enjoyable and relevant today as they were more than fifty years ago. The song represents one of five top ten singles (three of which, including "Maybellene" were number one hits) found on Chuck Berry Is On Top. Though Chuck Berry is undoubtedly the star throughout the album, his backing band simply cannot be overlooked.

The songs found on Chuck Berry Is On Top are truly American classics, and the band that plays behind Berry throughout the album also represent many of the finest musicians in rock history. Since the album is a collection of singles, there are a number of different musicians scattered throughout the various songs. If you inspect the liner notes, you will see that there is, in fact, a second guitarist on a majority of the songs. The fact that Berry himself was a fantastic guitarist makes it even more mind blowing that the other guitarist on Chuck Berry Is On Top was a man by the name of Bo Diddley. If you listen carefully, you can hear the two guitars, and Diddley's signature tone is as present as ever. Though there are three or four different drummers found on Chuck Berry Is On Top, featured on many of the songs is blues legend, Fred Below. Having made his name as the drummer for Little Walter, Below transitions perfectly to Berry's sound, and he is truly brilliant on every track on which he is featured. Also standing out among the names found on the various recordings is that of one of the most influential bass players ever, Willie Dixon. Finding these three names on any single record, then finding Chuck Berry was well makes the overall amazing quality of every song a bit less surprising, as one would be hard pressed to find a better collection of iconic musicians.

Even with these phenomenal backing musicians, at the end of the day, it all comes down to the extraordinary, visionary song writing of Chuck Berry. Berry's amazing voice shines on every song, as he nails every note perfectly, whether he is singing or almost growling with emotion at times. It is this swagger and style in his voice that further set Berry apart from his contemporaries, as he was not afraid of letting his excitement carry over into the songs. Along with this voice, Berry is responsible for penning many of the most time-honored songs in music history. From "Roll Over Beethoven" to "Sweet Little Rock And Roller" to "Carol," it is truly stunning to think that so many absolutely phenomenal songs came from one man. The impact of these songs can be found in the caliber of artists who covered them over the years, as well as the fact that the songs are still played and covered to this day. Along with "Maybellene," there is a second song on Chuck Berry Is On Top that goes beyond the term "iconic." Perhaps the greatest song ever written about a down and out kid from nowhere, dreaming of rock and roll fame, "Johnny B Goode" truly represents a special moment in music history. Everything about the song, from the music to the lyrics to the spirit are famous across the world, though the song itself was loosely based around the childhood of Berry, and moreso his friend and piano player, Johnnie Johnson. Ironically, Johnson does NOT play the piano on this version, and it is instead played by Lafaytte Leake. The opening riff may very well be the most famous in music history, and in reality, it is almost an exact copy of the solo found on Louis Jordan's 1948 song, "Ain't That Just Like a Woman." Standing as one of the few songs that can instantly light up any room in the world, "Johnny B Goode," as well as every track found on Chuck Berry Is On Top serve as a testament to the absolutely unprecedented writing and performance ability of the first rock and roll star, Chuck Berry.

In the realm of iconic musicians in the overall history of recorded music, few stand as tall as the founder of rock and roll music, Chuck Berry. Surrounding himself with some of the finest musicians of the day, Berry fused together blues, r&b, and soul and truly gave birth to the sound that would dominate the next half of the century. Making a conscious choice to move the electric guitar to the front of the music, Berry's amazing playing and singing were perhaps only overshadowed by the sensational lyrics he wrote. Nearly every song on Chuck Berry Is On Top is instantly recognizable, and later re-releases of the album tack on a handful of additional, equally influential songs. Whether it is the fast paced mood of "Maybellene," the swing of "Sweet Little Rock And Roller," or the timeless mood of "Roll Over Beethoven," there is simply no other artist in music history who so singlehandedly influenced so many others after him then Chuck Berry. For more than fifty years, Berry has been performing rock and roll in its purest form, and even after all the years, few play as honestly and emotionally as Berry. A true icon of music, Berry's sound and style have been copied countless times over the decades, yet his original takes on songs remain the finest to date, proving that though imitated, Berry remains unrivaled in musical talent and prestige. Collecting many of his singles to date, Chuck Berry's 1959 album, Chuck Berry Is On Top, is easily one of the greatest collections of the early days of rock and roll, and is just as extraordinary and enjoyable today as it was more then fifty years ago.

Standout tracks: "Maybellene," "Johnny B Goode," and "Roll Over Beethoven."

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