Chuck Berry was on a mission while working on his final album. His son, Charles Berry Jr., says his father wanted fans to know: “‘I’m still here, I’m still kicking ass and I’m still taking names.’”
The album, “Chuck,” is out Friday. It’s his first since “Rock It” (1979), and its release following the rock ’n’ roll pioneer’s death March 18 at age 90 is bittersweet for the family.
“We really wanted him to see the fruits of his labors,” says Berry, a guitarist in his father’s band since 2001. His father ultimately got to hear the finished product, though not the final mastered version.
“We were trying our best to get it finished for Dad,” Berry says. “His dream of releasing new music to the world has been met. He took the time out to make it what he wanted it to be.
“He has put out something a lot of people are going to like, though he said he didn’t care if it sells or not. He just wanted his record out.”
A plan had been in place to announce the release date of the album, and its rollicking first single, “Big Boys,” within days of his death. The family had to decide whether to proceed as scheduled or change the plans.
“There were timelines — stuff existing on servers ready to go,” Berry says.
On the day of the legend’s death, representatives from record label Dualtone called in a panic to inquire about the family’s wishes.
“Myself and my mother (Themetta Berry) and sister (Melody Eskridge) sat down and really thought about it,” Berry says. “We came to the conclusion (that) he fulfilled every contract he ever signed, and there was a way he wanted this one to go. We decided to do everything that was supposed to happen. He would want us to take care of business.
“But it didn’t make us feel any better.”
Long in the works
“Chuck” ultimately had been 30 years in the works, with much of the time being consumed by Chuck Berry’s intense touring schedule. He faced another setback when his Wentzville recording studio burned down in 1989.
Gone were the tracks he’d been working on, as well as his recording equipment.
By 1991, the studio was rebuilt, and he began re-creating the lost work.
“He had to go back to square one,” Berry says. “It was him doing all the basics by himself, all his vocals, all his guitars, putting all the basics together and building from there.”
The album was recorded in several St. Louis-area studios, including Casa Del Torretta, Electropolis and at Blueberry Hill. Additional recording was done in Nashville, Tenn.
Many of the songs on the album were from analog tapes and had to be re-recorded. And Berry was constantly making improvements.
“A lot of this stuff started long before I was even in the band,” his son says.
Berry says there was never any doubt that “Chuck” would get finished. His father put his foot down in 2014 and told Themetta “it was time to get this record out” and that he needed help from her and his friend and Delmar Loop businessman Joe Edwards.
The family’s legal representatives met with record labels to negotiate a deal for the album. In most cases, “we didn’t think they could do what we wanted done,” Berry says.
Then Dualtone came along. The label’s work with the Lumineers and June Carter Cash impressed the family. (Dualtone released Cash’s final album a few months after her death in 2003.)
Dualtone representatives visited and got to know the family. “My mom and dad delegated stuff to me and my sister, but they had the final word on everything from cover art to track listing,” Berry recalls.
That included special guests on the album, a request from the label. Berry says his father initially didn’t love that idea. “He was really protective of his music. He didn’t have many guests on his albums. But he asked me to reach out to people he thought would be worthy. Some of them were deceased.”
Berry suggested singer-guitarist Gary Clark Jr.
“I sent Gary a letter and said, ‘Here’s this opportunity, if you want to do something with us.” Clark contributes guitar to “Wonderful Woman” on the album.
Also on the album are backing vocals by indie-folk rocker Nathaniel Rateliff on “Big Boys” and rocker Tom Morello’s guitar on “Big Boys.”
Berry calls Rateliff “a good vocalist and the whole bit. He brings it. We took it to ‘Don Corleone’ (Chuck Berry) for his approval, and he liked it. That rounded it out. That was it. There were others who made it onto the album who were removed. He said, ‘Take it off — that’s not me.’”
Berry didn’t expect his father to go for Morello, a guitar player suggested by the label. “They went and put the part down, and I let my mom hear and let my dad hear it, and they said, ‘Yeah, that’s cool.’”
Chuck Berry’s grandson, Charles Berry III, is featured on guitar on “Lady B. Goode” and “Wonderful Woman.”
“This kid is really becoming a very good guitarist. This kid just ripped it,” Berry says of his son, who turns 23 on Sunday. “And the fact my son is playing on the record, and I’m playing on the record with my dad — I know from that perspective how proud my dad was of me.”
The eldest Berry is also accompanied on the album by his St. Louis-based band, which includes Charles Berry Jr., Ingrid Berry (vocals, harmonica), Jimmy Marsala (Chuck Berry’s bassist for 40 years), Robert Lohr (piano) and Keith Robinson (drums).
Song by song
Charles Berry Jr. recently walked us through his father’s final album, “Chuck.”
“Wonderful Woman” • “My son is on the record with my father and sister and myself and Gary Clark Jr., in addition to my father’s St. Louis band. It’s a guitar slinger’s dream song. It comes right out of the gate with my dad just blasting, then I get the first solo, then it goes to dad blasting some more, and Ingrid is wailing throughout on harmonica. Then my son gets a piece, and it goes back to my dad, and Gary gets a piece. It’s madness, whimsical and lots of fun. That was the key to my dad’s formula: fun, love and cars, and the perils of life.”
“Big Boys” • “That’s another slammer. It’s the story of a little kid who wants to do what the big kids do. To put things in perspective, there’s a picture of my father when he’s maybe 11 or 12 and a bunch of older guys, and they all had a photography club. That was him wanting to do what the big boys did.”
“You Go to My Head” • “That’s one of his old ballad favorites he loved from long ago. You’re not hearing the ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’ Chuck Berry. You’re hearing the older statesman that has had experiences no one else has had. You get to hear him being reflective.”
“¾ Time (Enchiladas)” • “That’s a cover my father absolutely adored playing because Ray Charles did a cover of it. Ray was one of my dad’s favorite entertainers and musicians. That one was done at Blueberry Hill. It’s a live recording. It’s a fantastic song he has played countless times.”
“Darlin” • “This is a 25-, 30-year effort. It’s a song about a father being reflective of his life and the wisdom he’s instilling in his daughter, telling her, ‘Here’s what you need for life.’ Ingrid came in and added her duet, and she threw so much feeling into that song.”
“Lady B. Goode” • “He said he had to make a counterpoint record to ‘Johnny B. Goode.’ Is this a counterpoint or a compliment? I’d say it’s a compliment. It’s the next part to that story. And it’s just a slammer, hard-driving with a fast pace.”
“She Still Loves You” • “It’s about the idea of ‘I really screwed up. Is there any forgiveness?’ And there is. And there’s redemption if you are worthy of it. It’s a beautiful and melodic song, and another one I heard a long time ago on a TDK cassette. I heard the lyrics to it and I thought, ‘Oh my God.’”
“Jamaica Moon” • “He wanted to follow up ‘Havana Moon’ (1956). He wasn’t pleased with the record sales of ‘Havana Moon.’ I heard him talking about it, ‘That record didn’t make any money. This time let’s see what we can do with an updated version.’ It’s a different song with a different melody and the guitar work is different. It’s a different song with basically ‘Havana Moon’ lyrics. I think it works well.”
“Dutchman” • “That’s another one that goes back a long time. He’s writing about tavern life, but not from the standpoint of sitting at the bar getting drunk because he didn’t drink. But he has been at quite a few of them like the Cosmo in East St. Louis. It’s a great song about somebody running the dozens, ‘joanin,’ He’s trying to get this dude to get pissed off. It’s the typical bar environment.”
“Eyes of Man” • “I see that as another reflective, philosophical song about a man that has lived a long life and managed to gain that wisdom that comes with time.”