UNIVERSITY CITY, Mo. – Chuck Berry did things his own way, right up to his final album, a 10-song set nearly four decades in the making.
The St. Louis native widely hailed as the father of rock ’n’ roll announced plans for the album “CHUCK” in October on his 90th birthday. The music took on added poignancy when Berry died in March. The album will be released Friday.
It’s a fitting finale from the guitar master who melded blues, R&B and country music into a sound that took over the 1950s, forever changing the cultural landscape. Some of the new songs, like “Wonderful Woman” and “Big Boys,” feature the same driving rhythm of his earliest hits like “Maybellene” and “Roll Over Beethoven.” In fact, one of the new songs, “Lady B. Goode,” offers the perspective of the woman left behind by his legendary “Johnny B. Goode.”
But Berry’s son, Charles Berry Jr., said his father did not set out to make a legacy album.
“I think this was just his next body of work, and it just took a lot longer than the other albums to get released,” Charles Berry Jr., 55, said in an interview with The Associated Press.
That’s an understatement. Jim Marsala, who played bass guitar in Berry’s band for 41 years, said Berry began working on new material soon after the release of his previous album, “Rock It,” in 1979.
Always marching to his own beat, Berry was in no particular hurry. For 10 years, he recorded songs, or riffs for songs, or whatever came to mind. All of the tracks were destroyed in a 1989 fire at a studio near his home in Wentzville, Missouri, a St. Louis suburb.
At that point, “he has nothing,” Charles Berry Jr. said. “So, he builds another studio and goes back to work, re-creating and creating new music.”
In the meantime, Berry continued to perform, including monthly shows for nearly two decades at Blueberry Hill, a venue in another St. Louis suburb, University City, until age 88. Marsala directed the band, Charles Berry Jr. played guitar, and the always unpredictable frontman commanded the stage, taking his bandmates on a nightly trip they could never anticipate.
“The show was completely ad-libbed,” Marsala said. “You never knew what was coming next. We usually started out with ‘Roll Over Beethoven,’ ‘School Days,’ and then ‘Sweet Little Sixteen,’ and then from there it was whatever he felt like playing.”
Marsala made sure he stood to Berry’s left, better to see where Berry’s hands were on the neck of his guitar “so I knew what key he was in. So when he would do his four-bar intro I had hand signals. I would flash to the keyboard player so he would know what key we were in. And we’d come in on the fifth bar. It worked great.”
Charles Berry Jr. smiled as he recalled those shows.
“He’d be up onstage and just start doing stuff,” he said. “And it’d be, ‘OK, let’s just follow him wherever he’s going.’”
“CHUCK” was a family affair. Charles Berry Jr. plays guitar, as does his own son, Charles Edward Berry III, who turns 23 this week. Ingrid Berry-Clay, one of Chuck’s three daughters, sings and plays harmonica.
She sings along with her dad on “Darlin’,” a country-tinged ballad that resonates as a final message to his children.
“Darlin’, your father’s growing older each year,” Berry sings. “Strands of gray are showing bolder/Come here and lay your head upon my shoulder/My dear, the time is passing fast away.”
Typical of Berry, the lyrics of “CHUCK” are at times poetic, at other times playful. “Big Boys” harkens to his earlier odes to teenage cravings. “The girls wanna stay and the boys wanna play/So let’s rock ’n’ roll ’til the break of day,” he sings.
But in the closing song, “Eyes of Man,” Berry warns philosophically of worshipping false idols.
“So be the temples men have cherished/Crumble in ruins to rot and rust/Low lies each pillar and arch to perish/Doomed to decay and rot to dust.”
Berry’s impact on music was evident, said Joe Edwards, the owner of Blueberry Hill and a close friend of Berry’s.
“But the fact that he changed culture around the world by bringing black kids and white kids together through music was an even greater accomplishment, perhaps,” Edwards said.
“It was just unbelievable the influence he had.”