Perhaps oddly recalling David Bowie and Leonard Cohen recording final albums before the Grim Reaper descended, Chuck Berry took his final duck-walk three months before the new album he announced on his 90th birthday was due to be released.
While not exactly his concisely conceived Blackstar due to its 25-year gestation, Chuck is a robust parting shot and touching concession to mortality from rock’s original gunslinger. It’s almost hard to believe the little old man in the accompanying photo is the architect of modern rock’n’roll, its first flash guitar hero who captivated teenagers of all races with his universal lyrics, but tarnished his standing with mercenary gigging and was branded a dirty old man through his mistreatment of women.
On Chuck, dedicated to his longsuffering wife of 68 years, Themetta ‘Toddy’ Suggs, Berry tries to put things right in his old age, starting with lowslung opener Wonderful Woman, while reaffirming his position as rock’s original messenger. As he declares on rolling barroom tale Dutchman, ‘In my day and time, my music was considered superb.’
Increasingly aware of his fading faculties, Berry instructed his son Charles to finish the album, whose basic tracks were laid down between 1991 and 2014, with six completed by 1996. Charles brought in his own son and singing sister Ingrid, who duets with her dad on touching old-age confessional Darlin’. For long-time fans, this show of vulnerability is disarmingly intimate. While age has dulled his fingers and vocal chords, it’s granted Berry humility and wisdom.
The album is short, few of its ten tracks exceeding three minutes, but thankfully star guests are restricted to Tom Morello on somewhat generic single Big Boys. Lady B. Goode reworks Berry’s biggest anthem to praise Themetta, and there are two covers: a ramshackle live treatment of Tony Joe White’s ¾ Time (Enchiladas) and Haven Gillespie and J. Fred Coots’ 1938 ballad You Go To My Head.
She Still Loves You and Jamaica Moon’s cod-Caribbean remake of Havana Moon are throwaway, but there’s enough skill and grit elsewhere to ensure Berry departs looming large, rather than as a shrivelled travesty. Closing spoken-word confessional Eyes Of Man even becomes the highlight as our newly humble seer praises mom, missus and the world’s women, with all guards dropped.
“One of my big lights has gone out,” tweeted Keith Richards when his inspiration and nemesis passed.
Chuck is Berry’s last inimitable flare, delivered in the nick of time.