With the recent passing of Chuck Berry, my dad and I thought it would be good to cover “The Great 28” in all of its glory. This album is made up of his best tracks from 1955 to 1965. It’s very cool to see the ways Chuck changed as a musician and at the same time stayed consistent to his origins over the many years.
I’ve done some reading about Mr. Berry and learned that when he was younger he was a difficult character to be around. He always demanded his appearance fee upfront in cash before each gig. He was often a complete jerk to people he was working with, which was well documented by the producers of the movie “Hail! Hail! Rock N’ Roll”. I’d like to think that as he got older, Chuck became a more level headed and considerate guy, but I’m not sure if that’s true. Still, it’s sad to see a legend like him go.
As a performer, I’ve learned a lot from Chuck Berry; how fun it is to dance around, onstage and be larger than life. I’ve even spent time trying to learn his signature duck walk, but failed miserably. Mine looks more like the duck hobble.
Chuck Berry was truly a great R&B artist. His rhythmic guitar riffs and progressions are loyal to the blues standards. But when they are played along side quick and fun solos it makes for a cool listening experience. He also has a laid back vocal style which is a nice contrast to his usually quick paced songs.
When you listen to the album you realize that many of the songs sound like exact copies of others with different words substituted in. For example, ” No particular place to go” was released in 1964, and is very similar to “School Days” which was released in 1957. Since blues guitar is at heart usually very simple, this makes sense. However, it occurs in many tracks which makes me question just how good of a musical writer Chuck Berry was. But as they say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
The first Chuck Berry song I learned to play was “Johnny B. Goode”, so that track has always been one of my favorites. Some of the other top tunes for me would be “Back in the USA” with the really prominent piano and backup vocals, and “Roll over Beethoven” (which after some listening I realized has the same progression as “Johnny B. Goode” in the same key!). Overall, this was a cool album and it was nice to hear some classic rhythm and blues from the father of rock and roll.
We pay our respects to this legend and pioneer of rock, with a listen to the “Great 28” compilation album. Thanks to iTunes this out of print album, which was originally released by Chess Records in 1982, is available for us to experience. Here, Berry is alive singing and playing his music from his most prolific song writing period, where he delivered no less than 10 top 40 hits.
Mostly recorded before I was born, this music has always been part of my life. Artists like Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis and Little Richard were all fixtures on variety TV shows of my early youth. Each a unique character with their own style and swagger, painted vivid (albeit black and white), bigger than life images of what Rock and Roll stars were supposed to be. Later I learned of the struggles each of these artists faced in navigating the music industry and their personal lives. They not only defined a new music genre, but were the earliest embodiment of the phrase “Sex, Drugs, Rock and Roll”.
When I listen to my favorites on this album I still see the showman Chuck Berry moving across the stage with pure energy and confidence singing out “Johnny B. Goode”, “Reelin’ and Rockin”, “Sweet Little Sixteen” and “School Days”. Other tunes like “Roll Over Beethoven”, “Back in the USA” and “Rock And Roll Music” remind me of the impact he had on future generation of artists like The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones, Linda Ronstadt and even The Ramones.
I like the rawness of the recordings, the twists on familiar blues guitar riffs, the driving boogie woogie of Johnnie Johnson’s piano playing and the kind of country twang in the vocals. These songs of youth, fun, dancing and promiscuity, set the stage for the next period of expression that would become 60’s peace, love & rebellion. You cannot mistake that Chuck Berry’s music helped get this rolling.
The Great 28 is #21 on the Rolling Stone Magazine 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list
Hail! Hail! Rock N’ Roll