“If you tried to give rock and roll another name,” John Lennon once said. “You might call it ‘Chuck Berry.’” True enough, perhaps, but though Berry is a huge part of rock and roll, rock and roll is not a huge part of Berry. As thoroughly worshipped as he has been by rock insurrectionists from the Stones to the MC5, the man himself thinks relatively little of his music and even less of his status as a rebel. What came out of him when he filled in as the guitarist in pianist Johnnie Johnson’s band for a night was just the combination of the styles that he could do passably well: blues, jazz, pop, and some rockabilly thrown in to please the crowd. The alchemy was so striking that Berry became the new leader of the band, and what started out as a one-night gig turned into a decades-long collaboration between Johnson and Berry, one that would forever change the face of popular music.
The story of Berry’s first night with the band is emblematic. Like most other first-generation rockers, he didn’t see rock as a revolutionary force—that would be applied retroactively by historians and more self-conscious musicians—but as a good way to please a lot of folks and make a lot of money. If Berry had had his druthers, he would have followed in the footsteps of his idol, Nat King Cole, or perhaps concentrated on one of the other genres he loved more than the one he would eventually help found, but even if he preferred his blues B-side “Wee Wee Hours” to its smash rockabilly A-side “Maybellene”, the success of the latter couldn’t be ignored. That’s where the massive audiences were accumulating, and Berry, ever the shrewd businessman, wanted in no matter what.
Remarking on his exit from vernacular music to rock and roll, he explained, “I was trying to shoot for the whole population instead of just, shall we say, the neighborhood?” But what if the man had had different priorities? The thought would surely seem alien to Berry himself, but a musician with enough dedication to a particular idiom might forsake fame and riches to concentrate on the music he loves. Blues, a new collection of Berry’s work for Chess that focuses on the titular form, offers a glimpse into an alternate universe, one where Berry followed “Wee Wee Hours” through to its conclusion rather than “Maybellene”. As a historical exercise, it’s fascinating. All but the most dedicated collector can hardly imagine anything other than “Johnny B. Goode”, “Roll Over, Beethoven”, and a few fistfuls of others when it comes to Berry, so hearing an artist with such a firmly established identity tackling anything else can be a startling experience. “Deep Feeling”, an instrumental heavy with steel guitar, surprises more than anything else here or on just about any other CD you can buy. Odder still is the fact that these recordings date from the dawn of Berry’s career all the way through 1965. Rather than just capturing an artist before he hit upon the style that made him immortal, Blues tells a secret story running concurrent with the official version that no one has been willing or able to tell before now.
As great as that sounds, however, Blues also hints why no one has told it. Quite frankly, Berry is at best a competent bluesman, and though his excellent band (particularly Johnson) always keep things lively, his vocals compare badly with any other blues singer worth mentioning. He had a bright, clear tone but was hampered by a narrow range and little apparent skill at the microtonal shadings that are so essential to the blues. Rock’s propulsive rhythms would take care of these shortcomings, which makes it very clear why he should’ve stuck to it even more devoutly than he did. Unlike Fats Domino’s Blues Kingpins from earlier this year, Blues sounds exactly as one might expect despite the new medium, and the transplant, fresh though it may be, is largely unflattering. Similar releases by Elvis Presley or Jerry Lee Lewis highlighting their roots were often revelations, but Blues is nothing provides nothing so much as relief that this work was relegated to the status of a historical curio. Other rockers may have had the option to make it in other fields, but the only way a jack-of-all-trades like Berry could become a master was by mixing together everything he knew how to do. In his hands, the individual elements didn’t amount to much, so Blues is best left for Berry fanatics that like eating slices of pepperoni in addition to putting them on their pizza.