Chuck Berry's Final Recordings Are Fresh And Forward-Looking

Jun 23, 2017
Originally published on June 28, 2017 7:40 am
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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Chuck Berry, who died this past March at the age of 90, left behind an album of new material, his first such collection since "Rock It" in 1979. Our rock critic Ken Tucker says this new album, called "Chuck," contains some surprisingly energetic and interesting music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WONDERFUL WOMAN")

CHUCK BERRY: (Singing) Oh, well, looky here now. This just makes my day. There's a wonderful woman. She just walked by my way. Well, I was standing there, trembling like a leaf on a willow tree, hoping her great, big, beautiful eyes would follow me. Ah, it was wishful thinking, but I hope that it still might be. Man, she's so beautiful...

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: As one of the principal architects of rock and roll, Chuck Berry might have been content to spend his final recordings doing remakes or reworkings of his hits. But he always rejected the concept of contentment. Restless, witty and proud, Berry found time during his final two decades to get off the road and into a studio to record the fully realized bits and pieces that cohere to form this collection, titled "Chuck." It includes some wonderful music, such as this bluesy version of the 1930s ballad "You Go To My Head" with backup vocals by Berry's daughter Ingrid.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU GO TO MY HEAD")

CHUCK BERRY AND INGRID BERRY: (Singing) You go to my head, and you linger like a haunting refrain. And I find you spinning around in my brain like the bubbles in a glass of champagne. You go to my head like the sparkle in a burgundy brew, and I find the very mention of you is like the kicker in a julep or two.

TUCKER: Other aging artists have been willing to let strong, younger producers guide them into the final chapters of their recording careers. I'm thinking of the showcases that Rick Rubin built for Johnny Cash and that Jack White did for Loretta Lynn. Chuck Berry would have none of this. Berry was not preparing for death the way Leonard Cohen was with his final album, "You Want It Darker." Consistently autodidactic since the 1950s, Chuck Berry rings fresh changes here from familiar chords, riffs and subject matter, maintaining a fierce independence from current trends or fads.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHE STILL LOVES YOU")

BERRY: (Singing) She came to me when my own heart was in much need of hers. Sometime we'll try and reach for things we know we each want and don't deserve. I felt I was wrong. It seems she belongs to someone else. She hurt my words and trust, but in her arms I just could not help myself.

TUCKER: That's "She Still Loves You," the song that most clearly demonstrates how vitally interested Berry remained in cataloguing the endless variations of flirtation, horniness and romance. People have spent so many years talking about his lyrics, which were and remain among the most vivid, concise and artfully phrased. But they often neglect or underrate his guitar playing, at which he was every bit as groundbreaking. Listen to a solo that glows at the end of "She Still Loves You."

(SOUNDBITE OF CHUCK BERRY SONG, "SHE STILL LOVES YOU")

TUCKER: On "Darling," Berry sings about the facts of his life - that he's grown old, that he often feels tired or as though he's done all this before and now finds a mixture of comfort, sadness and ease in coming to the end of a career. He sings to his daughter Ingrid, life can pass so fast away.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DARLING")

BERRY: (Singing) Darling, your father's growing older each year. Strands of gray are showing bolder. Come here, and lay your head upon my shoulder, my dear. The time is passing fast away.

TUCKER: There's so much good music on "Chuck's" half-hour-plus length, I haven't even bothered to play its first single, "Big Boys," a variation on "Johnny B. Goode" featuring guitarist Tom Morello from Rage Against The Machine. That's because Chuck Berry really didn't need a guest star or an echo of an earlier hit to prove he still had something to offer you. Rejecting the nostalgia that grows to smother passion, he spent his final recordings remaining in touch with his most youthful motivations.

BIANCULLI: Ken Tucker is critic-at-large for Yahoo TV. He reviewed "Chuck," Chuck Berry's album of new material which was released earlier this month after his death in March at the age of 90.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BIG BOYS")

BERRY: (Singing) When I was just a little boy like you, I wanted to do things the big boys do. Wherever they went, you know they wouldn't let me go. And I got suspicious, and I wanted to know. I was bright in school, but my future looked dim because the big boys wouldn't let me party with them. Yes, yes, I didn't cry. Yes, yes, and you know why. Yes, yes, I knew when and what - yes, yes. No if, and or but. I was looking for joy - yes, yes, yes, yes - when I was a little bitty boy.

BIANCULLI: Coming up, film critic David Edelstein reviews "Beguiled," the new movie directed by Sofia Coppola. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ROLLING STONES SONG, "NOW I'VE GOT A WITNESS - LIKE UNCLE PHIL AND UNCLE GENE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.