When you helped invent rock n’ roll you’re pretty much allowed to take time as much time as you want cooking up new songs. Of course, nobody imagined rock godfather Chuck Berry would take a nearly 40-year powder. The “Johnny B. Goode” singer/guitarist, who turns 90 today (Oct. 18), is finally ready to break the spell with his first new studio album since 1979’s Rock It. Chuck — out via Dualtone Records in 2017 — is made up primarily of new and original songs written, recorded and produced by Berry.
“This record is dedicated to my beloved Toddy,” said Berry, referring to his wife of 68 years, Themetta Berry. “My darlin’ I’m growing old! I’ve worked on this record for a long time. Now I can hang up my shoes!” Chuck features Berry’s longtime hometown backing group – including his children Charles Berry Jr. (guitar) and Ingrid Berry (harmonica), plus Jimmy Marsala (Berry’s bassist of forty years), Robert Lohr (piano), and Keith Robinson (drums) – which has supported him for over two decades.
Back in 2012 during a tribute concert at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, Berry revealed that he had a handful of songs written 20 years ago that he was prepping for release. “And as soon as I can get someone to guide me – and I do know a little about the business – I want to push them out,” he said at the time. “I’m going to come back and push them out if you know what I mean, somehow.”
At the time, Berry, then 86, offered little in the way of information on the songs during a period when he said he was “wondering” about his future. In those days he still performed monthly in the Duck Room at the St. Louis nightclub Blueberry Hill, though time has apparently cut that gig short.
Berry, among the Rock Hall’s first group of inductees in 1986, might very well have kick started the rock era with the song “Maybellene” in 1955. In fact, on his Rock Hall page, the very first lines of his bio read: “After Elvis Presley, only Chuck Berry had more influence on the formation and development of rock & roll.”
The gritty song (a rewrite of the country tune “Ida Red”) with the kick-ass 25-second solo set the template for everyone from the Rolling Stones and Beatles to Jack White thanks to its pioneering mash-up of country, blues and R&B. In addition to his early run of indelible hits that talked to the kids (and explained to their parents) about DJs, records, fast cars, girls, dancing, guitars and jukeboxes, Berry also happens to be a consummate showman, known for his one-legged stage scoot “duck walk,” which was memorialized by Marty McFly in Back to the Future.
Still not convinced? In 1977, NASA sent a gold record called The Sounds of Earth into space on the Voyager 1 probe and Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” was included on the potential message to aliens along with a couple of pikers named Mozart and Bach. Among the Beatles’ early hits were covers of Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Rock and Roll Music” and “Sweet Little Sixteen,” with singer/bassist Paul McCartney calling Berry “one of the greatest poets America has ever produced” in the liner notes to a 2014 Berry box set.
Tuesday is not only Berry’s 90th, but also the 30th anniversary of director Taylor Hackford’s acclaimed rockumentary, Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll, which chronicled two shows organized for the rocker’s 60th birthday by Stones guitarist Keith Richards. True story: The Stones were allegedly formed a year after singer Mick Jagger spotted his old primary school chum Richards holding a Berry record at the Dartford railway station in Kent, England, in 1961.
After a string of nearly two dozen albums on the Chess label released from the late 1950s through the mid-1970s, Berry dropped Rock It on Atco in 1979 before going into studio silence.