The long good­bye

‘Chuck’ took its own sweet time

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - By Randy Lewis

It wasn’t sup­posed to take four decades to make what turned out to be Chuck Berry’s fi­nal al­bum.

In fact, very soon af­ter the re­lease of his 1979 work “Rock It,” one of the pri­mary ar­chi­tects of the en­tire genre of rock ’n’ roll mu­sic started work­ing on a fol­low-up at his home stu­dio in his na­tive St. Louis.

Rock ’n’ roll’s first gui­tar hero and its orig­i­nal lyric poet, Berry chipped away for nearly a decade writ­ing songs. He de­moed much of the ar­range­ments him­self, play­ing not only gui­tar and singing the lead vo­cals but also pro­vid­ing pi­ano, bass and drum parts in an ef­fort to cre­ate a tem­plate for his band.

“Then the un­think­able hap-

pened,” Berry’s son, Charles Berry Jr., told The Times ear­lier this month. “His stu­dio burned down. It de­stroyed all the two-inch, 24track tapes, all his record­ing equip­ment — noth­ing was left but cin­ders and scorched pieces of metal.”

That 1989 stu­dio fire sent Berry back to Square One, and af­ter spend­ing two years re­build­ing the stu­dio, Berry se­nior started in again from scratch, slowly but surely try­ing to re-cre­ate what had been de­stroyed.

When he sat down back­stage be­fore a 2002 per­for­mance at the Uni­ver­sal Am­phithe­atre in Uni­ver­sal City, he told The Times that he was still work­ing steadily and that the world would see an­other new Chuck Berry al­bum one day.

“Now I’m writ­ing about the life I’m liv­ing, and the life my gen­er­a­tion is liv­ing,” he said at that time. “The gen­er­a­tion right be­hind me is close to [that life], so they can look for­ward to it.”

Now the world at long last can hear the fruit of that long-ma­tur­ing work in “Chuck,” an al­bum that was com­pleted last fall but wasn’t quite ready for re­lease be­fore Berry died on March 18 at 90.

“This was his next chap­ter,” said Charles Jr., who plays on the al­bum along with his el­der sis­ter, In­grid Berry, and his own son, Charles Berry III, Chuck’s grand­son. “He worked very, very, very long and hard to get it re­leased. He passed four or five days be­fore ‘Big Boys’ was sched­uled to be pre­sented to the world.”

The song pre­miered as the al­bum’s first sin­gle in March.

“That left us flat-footed,” he said. “This wasn’t sup­posed to hap­pen. He’s sup­posed to be here. Of course he would have wanted it to be suc­cess­ful, but he didn’t need to do an­other al­bum. His legacy is al­ready se­cure. But ob­vi­ously he still had some­thing to say and he wanted peo­ple to hear it.”

The four decades that went into “Chuck” re­sult in an em­i­nently wor­thy fi­nal state­ment from the artist of whom Leonard Co­hen once said, “All of us are foot­notes to the words of Chuck Berry” and Bob Dy­lan lauded as “the Shake­speare of rock ’n’ roll.”

Shortly af­ter Berry’s death, Rolling Stones gui­tarist and song­writer Keith Richards was asked whether it was Berry’s per­fectly ar­tic­u­lated vo­cals, his dis­tinc­tive gui­tar work, his lit­er­ate song­writ­ing or his an­i­mated per­for­mance style that first cap­tured his at­ten­tion.

“Yes, yes, yes and yes,” he told The Times with a laugh. “I guess it was the com­bi­na­tion of all of those things. To me, [Berry’s records] had sort of a crys­tal clear clar­ity of what I wanted to hear, and what I was aim­ing for.

“In ret­ro­spect, it was Chess Records,” he added, ref­er­enc­ing the Chicago la­bel that launched the ca­reers of Berry, Muddy Wa­ters, Wil­lie Dixon, Etta James, Bo Did­dley and more.

“It was an amaz­ing col­lec­tion of mu­si­cians. And they were hav­ing fun — that was the un­der­ly­ing as­pect of it all. There was an ex­u­ber­ance and they were not too se­ri­ous. What was se­ri­ous was what was go­ing down — [but] they weren’t se­ri­ous about it.”

The new “Chuck” al­bum opens with “Won­der­ful Wo­man,” in what sounds like a happy ref lec­tion on the day he and his wife of more than six decades, Themetta Berry, met: “Well I was stand­ing there trem­bling like a leaf on a wil­low tree/ Hop­ing them great big beau­ti­ful eyes would fall on me.”

“Big Boys” is a clas­sic­sound­ing Berry rocker about a kid who yearns to up his game and fall in with the hip crowd.

“It kind of came out of the blue last fall,” Nathaniel Rateliff, one of the al­bum’s guest artists, said in a sep­a­rate in­ter­view of par­tic­i­pat­ing on the record. “It’s an honor and a priv­i­lege to col­lab­o­rate with the guy who in­vented rock ’n’ roll, es­sen­tially. It’s funny the way Chuck uses words; John Prine does the same thing — he says things in a sim­ple way that con­nects with every­one.

“Oddly enough,” Rateliff added, “my par­ents and other fam­ily grew up in Wentzville, Mo., [where Berry lived] and they used to hang out and party with a lot of those folks. It’s strange the way things work out.”

Among the songs on the al­bum that Berry didn’t write is one from the Great Amer­i­can Song­book, which greatly in­flu­enced him as a young mu­sic hound who lived through the De­pres­sion and World War II.

J. Fred Coots and Haven Gille­spie’s “You Go to My Head” al­lows Berry to chan­nel his in­ner crooner and ex­hibit some of the im­pact such pre-rock singers as Frank Si­na­tra and Bing Crosby had on him.

In­grid Berry joins her father, singing and play­ing har­mon­ica, on the poignant “Dar­lin,’ ” an ag­ing par­ent’s twi­light love let­ter to his child: “Lay your head upon my shoul­der, my dear/ The time is pass­ing fast away.”

“I’m go­ing to brag about my big sis,” Charles Jr. said. “My sis was in­cred­i­ble on that one. I thought she was go­ing to cry while she was singing it. Yes, I’m bi­ased, but she’s fan­tas­tic. I’ll put her up against any of them, vo­cally or on har­mon­ica.”

Fif­teen years ago Berry spoke to The Times about one of the newer songs he was work­ing on, quot­ing a metaphor­i­cally rich cou­plet: “A builder built a tem­ple/ He wrought it with grace and skill.”

“Now that has noth­ing to do with ‘Come back, baby!’ ” he said with a lit­tle smile, in­di­cat­ing he’d moved well be­yond the youth­ful ex­u­ber­ance, lusty ro­man­ti­cism and whim­si­cal­ity that of­ten sur­faced in hits such as “School Days,” “Johnny B. Goode,” “Sweet Lit­tle Six­teen,” “Roll Over Beethoven” and “You Never Can Tell.”

The lyric he quoted in 2002 has evolved slightly in the al­bum’s deeply philo­soph­i­cal clos­ing track, “Eyes of a Man,” in which he vir­tu­ally writes his own epi­taph as the ref­er­enced tem­ple ap­pears to rep­re­sent his life’s work: “When other men ob­serve its beauty/ They stand and see and sigh and sing/ Great is your work, oh yes, old builder/ Your fame shall never fade away.”

As Charles Jr. sees it, that sen­ti­ment has been borne out in the con­tin­u­ing life span of Berry’s mu­sic.

“He was in the game for 60 years, he toured for 60 years,” Charles Jr. said. “Did he ever think his legacy was go­ing to fade? I don’t think so. Nei­ther do I.

“Al­most 40 years ago, NASA put ‘Johnny B. Goode’ on that record they sent out into space on Voyager. It’s some­thing like 5 or 6 bil­lion miles out there now,” he said.

In fact, the Voyager 1 probe is more than 11 bil­lion miles out in space. “His mu­sic has al­ready tran­scended the bar­rier of fad, and has taken its place in his­tor­i­cal pos­ter­ity,” said Charles Jr.

James A. Fin­ley As­so­ci­ated Press

CHUCK BERRY, above in 1986, spent the last four decades work­ing on “Chuck,” his first al­bum since 1979. He died March 18 at 90.

Jeff Rober­son As­so­ci­ated Press

CHARLES BERRY JR. plays gui­tar on “Chuck,” his father’s last al­bum. “This was his next chap­ter,” the son says.

Pablo Por­ci­un­cula AFP/Getty Im­ages

ROCK ’N’ ROLL leg­end Chuck Berry in con­cert in 2013. He de­fined rock with his smart song­writ­ing, dis­tinc­tive play­ing and high en­ergy.

Dual­tone

COVER of “Chuck,” al­most 40 years in the mak­ing by Chuck Berry.

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