Chuck Berry was an artist about whom broad statements and arguments have been and are again being made as the current spate of post-obituary panegyrics pours out. He invented rock and roll, was loads better than Elvis, the Beatles wouldn’t have existed without him, and so on—remarks that, strictly speaking, aren’t true. It’s as though the iconic scene in Back to the Future—where Berry’s brother, Marvin, holds the telephone up so Chuck can hear the guitar riffs flailed out by our hero from the future Marty McFly at a high school dance—has become accepted as archival fact.
Rock and roll was arriving regardless of Chuck Berry; Elvis more readily embodied rock ideals than the Chuckster and was his own kind of greatness; and the Beatles always had the skill, genius, and drive to guide them toward something that was going to be born, no matter how challenging the road or who had driven it before them.
All of which is to say that Chuck Berry was even better than we think, but not in the way we think. Berry was great not because of what he led to but because of what he was: an authentic spirit that soared regardless of comparison with or to anything else.
Normally we think of Berry as a singles artist, a man made for stupendous greatest-hits compilations. The 1982 set, The Great 28, might be the finest in all of rock and roll, a veritable codex of guitar architecture on how to pair a sprightly narrative with sprightly backing. Berry created pop symphonies every bit as artful as anything helmed by Phil Spector, but with rhythm and blues leanness, and chops and heart in equal measure.
But then we also have Berry the album artist. It might seem fatuous to suggest he had one of the best records of the 1960s, a decade that largely left the 1950s stars behind in the album arena. But his 1964 set, St. Louis to Liverpool, easily holds its own in the pecking order of rock’s best decadal album. Like everything, it has a history.
Berry was released from prison in October 1963 after having served time for violating the Mann Act for transporting a minor across state lines for immoral purposes—prostitution, perhaps. Our Mr. Berry had his demons, and he certainly inflicted a few of them on the world. He had spent nearly two years in prison as the Beatles were getting going in Hamburg, and American rock and roll—despite the heroic efforts of some girl groups—had largely died out. Teenybopper idols like Fabian now carried the day after Elvis had gone to the Army and presumably lost it, and Buddy Holly fell out of the sky and died. Bo Diddley was too rhythmically intense for the kiddies—too black, a cynic could say. And meanwhile, a true force of nature with a piano instead of a guitar like Jerry Lee Lewis had his own boatload of problems.
Where American rock and roll really came to matter most at that point in time was in England. Berry’s pre-prison recordings had a wonderfully fertile second act in his absence, getting sliced and diced by all manner of English groups: the beat combos, the Skiffle units, the blues merchants, purists, and opportunists alike. It was easy to relate to Berry songs, with their heavy emphasis on first person narratives, a natural storytelling voice. Every great storyteller has always known that if you imbue that voice with enough emotion, people are going to think they’ve gone through some version of the story you’re telling, and all the more so if the words possess a musical quality. That bounces people along in the experience being conveyed, sending them straight into the heart of the intended recipient, where they mix with whatever that person has gone through—or thinks they have. The listener and the work become a joyous jumble. You know you’re there when it feels like you can’t tell exactly where one leaves off and the other begins.
The Beatles, seeking to curry favor, would often employ the pronoun “you” in their early songs—like they were talking directly to you, Sally, Jim, or Joan, as if your being/existence was necessary to animate their songs. You can see how this would feel good. Dickens did it a lot, too. Berry’s songs were animated by a personal but more adventuring spirit, a sense of heading out into wilds—be they by the side of a railroad track or deep in the urban wilderness—and observing sights not normally glimpsed by the narrator, let alone the listener, let alone some English kid from a different culture. Covering his songs made you feel cool, like you were in on some secret that your peers were not. And don’t ever underestimate what that means to a teenager, or early twenty-something, or really to just about any of us, no matter how evolved or aged we think we are.
Listen to The Animals’ pre-fame cover of Berry’s “Let It Rock” from a 1963 club date. There is this winking coolness in Eric Burdon’s voice when he screams those opening lines about the heat of the day in Mobile, Alabama, like he’s a Jules Verne-esque traveler who has beheld this most amazing of vignettes. We talk of Berry’s guitar riffs as his salient contribution to the rock and roll vocabulary, but when we do so we overlook the truth that his verbal riffs were every bit as impactful, and that the real Berry riff was a two-part deal: the guitar side, the words side.
That defines your big Berry riff. It’s not the guitar intro at the start of, say, “Roll Over Beethoven.” What’s telling, too, is that with Berry licks were riffs and riffs were licks, and if you could not tell, technically, which was one and what was the other, you also wouldn’t have cared. There was generally a larger principle at work, a heightened riff bigger than a mere guitar riff that embodied an overarching principle of flow.
No Berry album distills his core riffy-ness like St. Louis to Liverpool. The title suggests a cash grab. Having been released from prison, Berry now had money to make on the backs of these British kids who were making money on his back. But there’s something more Homeric in that title, more befitting an epic sweep that knows no bounds, but with geographical city-coordinates provided nonetheless. It may be a long way from the American Midwest to the north of England, but this is a wider panoramic still, comprised of music that feels ancient, given the surety of its narrative voice, albeit equally at home in an electric age.
John Lennon was a man who knew his Chuck Berry. With only a couple of exceptions, when it was time for the Beatles to do a Chuck Berry number, Lennon was going to sing it. He opined that Berry wrote key St. Louis to Liverpool cuts like “No Particular Place to Go,” “Promised Land,” and “You Never Can Tell” before heading into the joint, but Lennon always liked clean and easy demarcations. Elvis was great before the Army, terrible after it, no matter what he did. Berry was sort of the same way, in Lennon’s view, with prison being the dividing career marker for him. But the greater likelihood is that this chronicler of vistas and scenes not normally glimpsed by the rest of us wrote this material in his cell. That’s something about the imagination of great artists: It tends to roam when and where the body cannot.
The 1950s blues cut “Merry Christmas Baby” was flown in for the album’s penultimate track, but it’s such a steamed-over, late-night type of offering—post-party blues, really—that in the context of the LP it hardly makes you think of Kris Kringle. This recording from a different time ought to feel incongruous, but it doesn’t, and an album that maybe should have a hodge-podge element never does.
Berry wasn’t typically a slide guitar player, but the guitar has these quasi-slide guitar effects, like there ought to be metal on Berry’s finger only he forgot to put it there. (You can hear some of this same technique on the much earlier “Havana Moon.”) Berry’s singing ability has always been underrated, perhaps because his voice doesn’t seem to inhabit any realm other than his own. That is, he sounded less black than Elvis, but he didn’t sound white, exactly, either.
Not that he hid any blackness. Indeed, the syntax of his lyrics often required blackness and were part of his sound brand, and these lyrics sound stupid when covered by not-black others. Take the line leading to a song’s title, “Don’t bother us, leave us alone; anyway we almost grown.” Berry did not affect either blackness or the lack thereof; he was just who he was—his own make of singer, an entirely self-contained commodity. His voice didn’t master a huge range, but it didn’t need to. What it needed to be was something that moved from the points of A and B that had already been established by that twin riffage of guitar and lyric with economy of flight—we might think of it as the fastest emotive path. Thus his songs, even in a slow blues like “Merry Christmas Baby,” felt like they were coursing briskly, even when, musically speaking, they were unfolding slowly.
“Night Beat” operated along the same lines—though now there is an actual slide guitar—but sans words. The guitar is our narrator and all we need, especially as its articulate presence conjures up a sense of the words that we have come to expect to be there. The voice that is not in the room can be larger in our minds than those that are, in rock and roll or in life.
“Our Little Rendezvous” shows just how steeped Berry was in jump blues, as does “No Particular Place to Go.” The latter presages rap, as Berry did several times, but he’s also in T-Bone Walker territory, another musician with no definite home/era, because he’s such a free mover. Some songs travel more than others—a regular Berry conceit throughout his finest work.
In “Rendezvous”, the guitar figure is a taut one, a compact two-note pattern rapidly strummed, providing the song with a locomotive driving figure. Berry’s words are then situated atop it, and the driving figure is so propulsive that he can space them further apart than he usually does, relying on phrases and declarations of aims (for you know what kind of rendezvous is ideally envisioned here) rather than a torrent of sentences.
It’s a sort of song-based version of the notion of “what the heart wants, the heart wants.” With Chuck Berry—and with one of his best long-players like this one—the human heart and the human ear were commonly in accordance, their shared excitements blending into a mutually beneficial whole. The sets of twin riffs, voice and guitar, added to a whole, and became rock and roll.