Chuck Berry, the artist, was a genius. We owe just about everything great about rock and roll to Berry (and his pianist/collaborator, Johnnie Johnson). Singer/guitarist Mike Zito pays tribute to the artist on Rock ‘n’ Roll – A Tribute to Chuck Berry.
Berry, the man, was more complicated. He was an African American who perfected a largely white artform. His career stalled due to a Mann Act conviction, which many believe to be a racist statute. People have maintained that after his 20-month jail sentence, Berry came out a changed, meaner person. In the 1980s and 1990s, there were all kinds of allegations against Berry: assaulting women, video cameras in bathrooms, and videotapes of minors. He is both survivor and a perpetrator, easy to sympathize with but hard to root for.
There’s a fantastic scene at the end of Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll, the documentary about the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards efforts to organize a tribute show for Berry. Berry tortures Richards for most of the film, treating Richards more like a court-appointed dentist than as a huge rock star trying to honor Berry’s legacy. At the end of the show, Richards, who has seen some things, looks completely desiccated, totally broken by Berry. Altamont and Hells Angels were one thing. But Berry was next-level pain.
But people like Richards and Zito pay their respect because Berry’s music is just that good. Blasting this album over a weekend, my one-year-old daughter would consistently bop to Zito’s takes on these classic, instantly-recognizable songs. It says something when music resonates that powerfully with a person so young.
Zito says the album originated from his time living in St. Louis, Berry’s hometown, where he got to know Berry’s drummer and son. I suspect Zito also hoped to introduce Berry’s music to younger fans, who might not be familiar with many of these classic songs. Similarly, Zito features an impressive array of guests across the album, using this as an opportunity to promote lower-profile artists (although there are also big names, like Joe Bonamassa and Luther Dickinson, who finds time to appear on what seems to be thousands of albums a year).
There are also some cool surprises. “Downbound Train” is trippier than Berry’s original, featuring guitar right out of Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused.” The guitar comes courtesy of Alex Skolnick, best known for this work with the thrash-metal band Testament (but also an accomplished jazz guitarist). “Rock and Roll Music” is re-imagined with slide guitar and backing vocals from the amazing Joanna Connor. And “Too Much Monkey Business” features a laid-back Dickinson co-vocal that gives the song a different complexion than Berry’s higher-energy original.
Despite the stunning number of guests, Zito is never lost. His vocals and guitar are present on every track, gracefully allowing his collaborators to shine, but also not deferring to anyone. Zito never lets the songs stray too far from the Berry originals, but provides space for different takes on material that is canonically seared into the minds of many. For instance, “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” one of my all-time favorite Berry tunes, here features singer/guitarists Kirk Fletcher and Josh Smith, but doesn’t deviate too far from Berry’s original. They throw in some slightly flashier guitar licks and put a little mustard on the vocals, but otherwise the performers know better than to mess with perfection.
The perfection of Berry’s music is the challenge of an album like this. Back to the Future, which wasn’t a documentary, features a scene where Michael J. Fox, having traveled back in time to the 1950s, performs Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” at a high school dance, using all of Berry’s moves, both of the guitar and duckwalk variety. Berry’s cousin runs to call him, holding the phone up so Berry can hear the new sound he’s supposedly been looking for. It’s a goofy joke, but there’s a larger message: that Berry’s music is historically significant. The world would be a sadder place without the music of Cream or the Allman Brothers, but would things be that different? Now think about where we would be without Berry. What music wouldn’t have been written without his (and Johnson’s) coming first? Would we have a Beatles or a Stones without him?
And that’s what works about this album. It’s timeless music respectfully presented by talented artists. Zito uses his visibility not just to honor Berry, but to also re-introduce him to a generation (or two) of fans who might not be familiar with his work, which still stands up remarkably well, all those decades later. Adding on to the good deed, Zito also uses this as an opportunity to showcase contemporary artists who might not be as well-known as they should be (and many of whom have been produced by Zito, like the criminally good Albert Castiglia, who performs Berry’s “30 Days”). Great music and great intentions makes for a beautiful tribute.
The Review: 9/10
Can’t Miss Tracks
– Brown Eyed Handsome Man
– Too Much Monkey Business
– Rock and Roll Music
– Downbound Train
– Johnny B. Goode
The Big Hit
– Johnny B. Goode
Review by Steven Ovadia