Paul Roper, president of Dualtone Records, remembers getting the call about — possibly — being the label for Chuck Berry’s final album, titled simply Chuck. “A lot of jaws dropped,” he says.
Thirty-eight years after his last studio release, Rock It!, Berry was ready to release 10 songs he’d been working on for decades. Still marveling, the music-loving label head confesses, “You can’t prepare people to work with something on the scale of literally the founder of rock music.”
Continuing, Roper says of Dualtone’s latest jewel, “It’s a career moment — and we’re all spellbound by the process.”
Having built a reputation via their Grammy-earning later career work for June Carter Cash, Ralph Stanley, and Guy Clark, Dualtone found themselves in consideration through their relationship with singer-songwriter Esme Patterson’s lawyer Gary Pierson, who connected the label to Joe Edwards. Edwards, who owns Blueberry Hill Studios, encouraged Berry to return to playing with his monthly residency at Edwards’ local restaurant.
“We first heard (Chuck) in 2015,” Roper recalls. “It was so great and unexpected. This isn’t dialed in at all. Everyone keeps asking, ‘Why did it take 38 years to put it out?’ I think he’s a tough businessman, so someone may’ve approached him earlier and may not have been able to make a deal, but I also think he was perfecting and getting it right.”
Due out June 9, Chuck is a euphoric collection. Frisky and freewheeling, rather than relying on nostalgia to ratify what was, there is a spunk to “Wonderful Woman” that offers the same sexual appreciation as “Nadine,” “Sweet Little 16,” and yes, “Maybelline,” while “3/4 Time (Enchiladas)” had a shuffle that was equal bits naughty and delighted by life. At times experimental, there’s the eerie mostly spoken tale of Berry’s accomplishments- driving “Dutchman,” at others’ sequel-cizing “Johnny B. Goode” and “Havana Moon” with the updated “Lady B. Goode” and “Jamaica Moon,” Berry — even all these years later — engaged his legacy from a place of pushing it forward and burnishing it.
“It wasn’t (about) who’d write the biggest check, they wanted someone who would do right by the record, by Chuck’s legacy.”
And then there’s “Big Boys,” a jaunty look at how we view age at different points of life. Featuring Tom Morello on guitar and Nathaniel Rateliff on vocals, it suggests the same power surge of hormones and euphoria that made “C’est La Vie” and “Promised Land” standards.
For a man approaching 90, it was vital — and thrilling. It was a bonus that proved one does not have to “age out” of rock & roll; it is as much attitude and energy as it is dexterity and mainlining life as it’s going down.
“Remember this about Chuck,” says The New York Times best-selling author Joel Selvin, who won the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for his Burt Berns biography Bring on the Night. “When he got his shot, it was the ’50s. He was a 30-year old-black guy who was married — at that point for 10 years — with kids. But when he got his shot, he was gonna take it.
“He was speaking to those kids in code. His subtext? The way he played guitar? Came at the kids? It was rhythmic, catchy, ingenious. Those lyrics were beyond clever, with such a subtext. So, in 1964, the Supreme Court handed down the Brown decision and desegregated the schools, and Chuck was on the charts and the radio, doing it to music, to culture. He was a very advanced guard. You know, guys like that, they don’t change.”
“This isn’t an oldies album,” Roper says. “It has the contextualization of now. We wanted Chuck to really shine, to make (this record) be now without losing him. Our benchmark was the London Sessions, but we wanted it to sound as it should sound — to get that jumpoff, so it’s his record.
Though no one expected the rock’s founding father to pass before the album was released, the Dualtone staff understood that Chuck was to be the icon’s final work. After an initial meeting by phone, Roper and some of the team found themselves journeying to St. Louis to meet with the Berrys.
When they walked into the house, there were telegrams from Elvis Presley’s people asking for songs next to Grammy Lifetime Achievement awards, pictures of Berry with everyone from Etta James to Axl Rose. Mrs. Berry had laid out a spread of snacks and drinks. As Roper recalls of the scene, “Talking to his wife, Themetta, it was obvious he was working, he’d said to the family, ‘Make sure I finish the record. Make sure I get this done.’
“On the phone, they were getting the feeling of who we are, feeling comfortable with our process. It wasn’t (about) who’d write the biggest check, they wanted someone who would do right by the record, by Chuck’s legacy. They realized the younger generations didn’t really know other than maybe Back To The Future, so this (album) was important to them.”
With the challenge to contemporize without losing Berry’s inherent swagger, the label brought in Leagues’ Jeremy Lutito to help mix, to get a sound that had the electricity, but also the immediacy of modern records. Just as important to both the family and Team Dualtone was threading Berry’s family deeper into the tracks. While Charles Jr. and daughter Ingrid had toured with their father for decades, they’d never had an indelible place on their father’s records.
Beyond enlisting Morello, Rateliff, and Gary Clark Jr., the powers that be brought Jr. and Charles III (Charlie) to Nashville to put some guitar parts on Berry Sr.’s St. Louis recordings. Beyond the legacy, highlighting the talent they shared seemed critical.
“Charlie played as a hobby, but not really professionally,” Roper explains. “We thought it would be cool to have three generations of the family, you know, to have him play on his grandfather’s record, who also happens to be the father of rock & roll.”
“When we had ‘Wonderful Woman’ up, he asked if he could take another pass. He did — and just blew it up! We were all high-fiving, because it was so good.
Initial response has been intriguing. Beyond the cover of Rolling Stone, Berry’s turning up on Los Angeles’ hippest radio station, KCRW, as well as NPR powerhouse WXPN in Philadelphia and on SiriusXM’s The Loft, Tom Petty Radio, and Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Radio.
“So, in 1964, the Supreme Court handed down the Brown decision and desegregated the schools, and Chuck was on the charts and the radio, doing it to music, to culture. He was a very advanced guard. You know, guys like that, they don’t change.”
Noted Springsteen/Pearl Jam photographer Danny Clinch shot Berry for Esquire. Some of those pictures are part of Chuck’s packaging. Aware of the legend’s cantankerousness, he arrived in St. Louis with a plan: ask him to pose at the piano, the unheralded place he’d composed many songs — and perhaps outside, sitting in a vintage ’59 Caddy.
“Everyone knows the story of Chuck Berry driving around America, demanding a bag of cash before he’d play the gig, then driving away from the show before the dust settled,” Clinch explains. “He said he didn’t think (he wanted to do it). But when we were done, I said, ‘Mr. Berry, you gotta come out and see this car.’
“You know, he comes from an era when people present themselves to the camera. He was wearing his cap, his bolo tie, his killer shoes — and he’s such a distinguished figure. We’d had such a good time, he figured he’d come outside and have a look at the car — and when he did, he had the biggest smile.”
Clinch pauses, thinking about the record. A fan of rock & roll, he understands what Chuck means. But even more, he senses what it meant to the now deceased rocker. “He sounds happy on these recordings,” Clinch says. “Recording with his family, with some of the younger people he influenced. You can hear the rhythms, just like you hear them through many, many rock & roll records. It’s so alive.”
The irony, of course, is that Berry didn’t make it to release day. With a press release to announce the record written and ready to go on Wednesday, March 22, the duck-walking guitarist/pop poet passed away unexpectedly on the Saturday prior. A decision had to be made: Honor the passing of an icon, or let it rock.
“We reached out and asked about pushing it back,” Roper says, clearly uncomfortable with cashing in on Berry’s passing. “But the family was like, ‘Let it go. Let it happen.’ ”
And so they did. On April 9, all eyes turned to St. Louis where Chuck Berry was laid to rest. As Keith Richards wrote in a letter to his hero, posted on his Facebook page, “For me the world went from black to white to glorious Technicolor when I first heard ‘Little Queenie.’ There was no doubt in my mind: It was obvious what I had to do, and I haven’t changed since. The effortless ease with which he laid down the rhythm makes a mockery of countless grimacing lip-biting, agonizing imitators.”
Indeed. And the intensity and levity of Berry’s gift endures. With a new record, almost four decades after his last release, already making waves, Chuck Berry passed as so many artists wish they could live.