Three Missourians — a bassist, a son and a best friend — sat around a table in the back room of Blueberry Hill, the homey restaurant and intimate music venue where the man who brought them together, rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Chuck Berry, once played 209 gigs.
The group jumped from one anecdote to the next, laughing louder with each memory.
The bassist, Jimmy Marsala, kicked off one conversational detour: “He could sing in five different keys ... sometimes on the same song.”
The son, Charles Berry Jr., chimed in between booming laughs: “Jimmy’s actually not kiddin’ on that. He’d make it work. You had to have some really big ears to hear what he was doing.’”
The best friend, Joe Edwards, owner of Blueberry Hill, smiled and hoped to bring things back to topic, Berry’s live show: “That band was the tightest band of all time in St. Louis, (in) my opinion, and (Jimmy) was a great bandleader. He could read Mr. Berry like nobody could.”
Masking the grief surrounding the still-fresh death of their friend and father, the three have gathered to speak exclusively as a group with USA TODAY Network about CHUCK, the posthumous final studio album from the Midwest-born rock ‘n’ roll icon, his first studio effort in 38 years. Due June 9 via Dualtone Records, the album captures the timeless rock essence Berry unearthed by melding a punchy, blues-driven guitar, swinging percussion and transparent, ethereal lyricism.
No matter how passionately the music resonates, for a grieving son, 10 songs on a disc don’t begin to create closure. Berry died March 18 of natural causes at age 90.
“I lost my dad, man,” said the 55-year-old Berry Jr. “This record was part of his business. His business was probably the coolest profession in the world. But it’s business. I lost my father. The record’s not going to bring him back.”
Business, Berry Jr. said, is what motivated his family to release the already announced record. Berry signed a contract, and — as music historians have documented — Chuck Berry didn’t walk back on a contract. The family met soon after his death and decided to keep on the path laid out by the label, which included releasing the first single, Big Boy, days after his death.
“There (was) a business issue here,” Berry Jr. said. “We have to execute the business plan as he wished. That’s why everything else in sequence has taken place … because that’s what he wanted.”
New record, same rock ‘n’ roll
CHUCK opens with the bombastic Wonderful Woman, a track featuring three generations of the Berry family on guitar: Berry, Berry Jr. and Charles Berry III, Berry Jr.’s son. As if Berry himself were jumping out of the record to thank the listener for a lifetime of tunes, the first notes from his voice — bellowing the line “Oh, well lookey here now/This just makes my day” — send chills with each repeated listen. Berry tracked his vocals for the number between 2012 and 2013.
Referring to his son’s solo as one of the proudest moments of his life, Berry Jr. said he believes he felt a similar pride to what his father felt when Berry Jr. first joined his band in 2001.
“I understand how dad felt,” Berry Jr. said. “(The) kid just slammed. … The degree of pride was just unbelievable, to see him do that.”
Wonderful Woman features an exuberant solo from young guitar gun Gary Clark Jr., one of three guests to appear on the release — a guitar take from Tom Morello and backing vocals from Nathaniel Rateliff round out guest spots.
Berry caught Clark in action when he opened for Berry’s band in Texas, leaving him impressed.
“For whatever reason, I have no idea, my dad came out (during Clark’s set) and was like, ‘Damn, this kid’s good. He’s playin’ a guitar like mine, too. He’s good,’” Berry Jr. said.
Despite his liking toward Clark Jr., featuring guest artists on CHUCK was a decision that didn’t come easy for Berry, his son said. He and his widow, Themetta Berry, had final say on the entire record and both held a high standard for what made the cut.
“It kinda goes back to, ‘OK, my dad wrote the music. I think he did a fantastic job with it. But it also has to be marketed,’ ” Berry Jr. said.
The record progresses from … Woman to Johnny B. Goode companion track Lady B. Goode, a live take of ¾ Time (Enchiladas), which Marsala believes was recorded live at Blueberry Hill in 2008, and the sentimental father-daughter love letter, Darlin’, which features Berry’s daughter Ingrid on accompanying vocals.
But it’s the record’s last two tracks, the poetic, spoken-word Dutchman and introspective Eyes of Man, that capture the finality of Berry’s living career.
“It’s a powerful end,” Edwards said, “(For him) to get here, to the end of life, and to have that reflective knowledge ... gee whiz, he could just pen it like nobody.”
A legend in his family’s eyes
Considered by most to be have birthed rock ‘n’ roll, Berry himself never discussed his legacy with Berry Jr., Edwards or Marsala. An inaugural inductee in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a Kennedy Center honoree, a receipt of the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and yet, according to those closest to him, he remained humble to his craft.
“If he was ever asked (about being the father of rock) he’d say, ‘Eh, maybe I’m the prime minister,’” Marsala said.
With his death came glowing, global obituaries praising his on-stage achievements; however, some negative conversation, mostly regarding Berry’s late 1950s arrest for transporting a 14-year-old girl across state lines for “immoral purposes” and 1989 lawsuit for videotaping women in restrooms, pushed into the sphere of praise surrounding Berry’s musician contribution.
Berry Jr. said he learned as a kid how to turn the other cheek to negativity.
“I could use expletives to describe how I really (want to) respond to that kinda stuff,” Berry Jr. said. “You don’t have to buy (CHUCK). You don’t have to listen to it.”
Or, as Marsala puts it: “The negative stuff? It’s their problem.”
Still, with contributions such as Maybellene, You Never Can Tell and now CHUCK, the group is confident Berry’s legacy will outlive each of them.
“It’s going to bring a great deal of happiness to us because every time the needle hits the vinyl, there he is,” Berry Jr. said. “I get to hear his voice. I get to hear him doing exactly what he loved … makin’ music.”