During the late fifties and early sixties the album format didn't really exist. Records tended to consist of a couple of singles, a few covers, and a selection of whatever B-sides or live set fillers were lying around. For that reason - and the fact that the record industry was still in its infancy and recording techniques were at a rudimentary stage – the albums of this era were often inconsistent and therefore largely forgettable.
Every now and then a real gem would emerge though, and Chuck Berry Is On Top is a true diamond in the rough of the broader musical landscape of its day. It’s the most fully realised record of Chuck Berry’s career, and has often been referred to as a kind of greatest hits collection. If you’re looking for an introduction to one of rock ‘n’ roll’s true pioneers, this is hands down the best place to start.
Teen anthem Almost Grown kicks things into gear. From there the album cruises round every corner on the road to rock ‘n’ roll, from the Latin roots of Hey Pedro to the surf rock of Blues For Hawaiians, which was the only new song written for the album. Between the start and final destination, Chuck Berry Is On Top visits some of the definitive moments from its era.
Maybellene was one of the very first rock ‘n’ roll hits, and it had the whole package: Chuck’s distinctive steel guitar tones, youth orientated lyrics, and a fevered delivery. Side one of the record culminates in the immortal Johnny B. Goode, which is one of the most absolutely perfect songs ever written, from any genre, whilst side two gets underway with the song that inspired Marc Bolan to write Get It On: the sexually charged rave-up, Little Queenie.
Carol and Around And Around were the templates from which The Rolling Stones based their sound during the formative years. And then there’s Roll Over Beethoven, which distilled the need to overthrow outdated forms of music in favour of the new youth orientated rhythm and blues more so than any other songs from the 1950s. It stands alongside Johnny B. Goode as one of the all-time great recordings, and has been covered by everyone from The Beatles, to Electric Light Orchestra and Iron Maiden.
Finally, Chuck Berry Is On Top is rare in the sense that all the songs on the album were original compositions written solely by Chuck, who had the help of some of the finest players of his generation in bringing them to life. Bo Diddley lent his unique guitar playing to the record, Chicago blues legend Willie Dixon played bass, and the backing vocals were provided by two soul legends: Etta James and a young Marvin Gaye. At the time of its release Chuck Berry was on top, and the songs on this album have stood the test of time. Roll over everyone.