Top positive review
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Arguably the best single disc edition, though there are better 2-disc alternatives
on June 5, 2006
In October of 2006 Chuck Berry will be 80 years old. Of the founders of rock `n' roll, he is today the one whose honor and esteem is most out of whack with his actual contributions. By any standards, Chuck Berry is one of the founding titans of rock. Musically, he contributed more than any other of the original inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Elvis put rock `n' roll on the map, but Chuck is the one who drew it. Before Bob Dylan and the rash of great rock `n' roll song writers to spring up in the wake of Beatlemania, Chuck Berry was hands down the finest rock songwriter, with the lone exception of his equal Buddy Holly. It is only a slight over implication to state that most rock since Berry has been a variant of his original adaptation of rhythm and blues. And lyrically Berry was the most gifted lyricist before the advent of Bob Dylan. Of all the rock and roll performers, Berry was the easiest to understand when he sang, precisely pronouncing every word and for a very good reason: they were good words. Indeed, his diction was so superb that his earliest listeners refused to believe that he was a black man; they were convinced he was white. Chuck Berry has long been criticized for his lack of involvement in the Civil Rights movement and for reinforcing some negative images of black males, but by presenting himself as an undeniably intelligent and gifted black at a time when many whites were denying that blacks were as intelligent was itself an important contribution. Besides, working as a black crossover artist he was sometimes able to get his own back by subtle messaging. We all know, for instance, that in "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" he wasn't really talking about eye color. My hope is that for his birthday Berry will be recognized for what he was: the equal of anyone in making rock the popular musical form it became.
Apart from Berry's musical contributions, which were formidable, he brought a sense of playful theatricality that was key in defining early on that rock `n' roll, whatever else it was, was fun. Many of the early rock `n' rollers were great, great showmen in a way that few today aspire to be. Most contemporary performers rely on light shows, gimmicks, and props for their shows, but several early performers were precisely that: performers. To this day few guitarists have been as much fun to watch as Berry, not just during his legendary duck walks, but in a myriad of minor antics onstage.
But most of all, Chuck Berry has established a legacy of great, great songs. Most people know that the lone rock `n' roll song put on Voyager's data disc for any extraterrestrial who happens upon it was none other than Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode." Perhaps one day it will be as big a hit in Alpha Centauri as it has been on earth. What many today may not know is just how much very great music he produced. In fact, his string of hits outstrips nearly any of his contemporaries other than Elvis. His notorious stint in prison probably kept him from charting a few more hits (that he transported an underage girl across state lines is undeniable, but it is hard today to realize how vigorously he was prosecuted by St. Louis authorities and he certainly seems innocent of incitation to prostitution charges), but he eventually recovered from his ordeal to generate a second run of hits in the sixties.
Luckily, though in my and others' opinion Berry is not today given the credit he deserves for his major role in creating rock `n' roll, he has been exceedingly well served by a host of absolutely first rate anthologies. What I would like to do here is map out the five Chuck Berry collections I would most recommend. Each has its virtues and none any vices and it would be very hard to go wrong with any of them. I do think a couple of choices are better than others. Here are the main Chuck Berry collections available today:
CHESS BOX--If price is no consideration and you want almost all of the great music that Chuck Berry, this is unquestionably the one to get. The 3-CD set collects over 70 songs and has every one of the songs that the vast majority of music fans will have heard, all the way to his Christmas hit "Run Rudolph Run." There are a few cuts that are less than essential, but no current collection gives such a great view of his work as a whole, except for the complete collection of his Chess work, but in my opinion it collects too much that is of at most secondary interest.
ANTHOLOGY--Chess released this superb 2-CD culling from the larger CHESS BOX. Though less than half the price of the box, it collects over two-thirds of the songs, though without the Christmas songs that I frankly find endearing. But if you are willing to live without "Run Rudolph Run," this has just about all the Chuck Berry that most fans could crave.
GOLD--This is the big bargain of Chuck Berry anthologies. It contains all the major hits and familiar songs--though, again, without "Run Rudolph Run," which for some reason is omitted from almost all hits collections--and several nice extras as well. Though its 50 songs are slightly different than the one from the ANTHOLOGY, the heart of both collections is the same. If you don't own any Chuck Berry and are not sure that you want to spring the bucks for the CHESS BOX, this is probably the safest best. Lots of Chuck Berry for not very much money.
THE DEFINITIVE COLLECTION--Well, no, this isn't definitive, but this newest Chuck Berry is arguably the finest single-disc edition. But here is the problem: The GOLD collection is only a buck more and contains 20 more songs. Plus, one of the 30 songs on this disc is the dreadful gimmick song "My Ding-A-Ling," a slightly ribald and not very good song that was Berry's last hit in the early seventies. My own belief is that shorter anthologies are improved by its exclusion.
THE GREAT TWENTY-EIGHT--This is back in print after being unavailable for a long time. Unlike THE DEFINITIVE COLLECTION, this is pretty much definitive. Most anthologies basically take the songs off this disc and then add to it. It is canonical in a way that none of the other discs is. Nonetheless, while I think it deserves five stars simply for the role it has played in introducing fans to Berry and for its historical importance, I think it has been surpassed by other collections. Also, the sound on the later discs is better than what you will find on this disc. (Caveat: I own an earlier version of this disc, and it is not impossible that on its re-release the remastered versions of the recordings have been utilized.) Still, for a long, long time this was the Chuck Berry disc to get.
So, if I were buying my first Chuck Berry disc and couldn't afford the CHESS BOX, which one would I go for? I would probably go with the GOLD collection. It is cheap, contains a heap of songs, and has decent sound quality. Then, if I were sufficiently moved to the point where I wanted more, I would go for the CHESS BOX. That really is the best one to get, but there are some really inexpensive compromises that one can make and still get a lot of music by one of the towering figures in rock `n' roll.