Chuck Berry fanatics, your ship has come in, and it’s the Queen Mary—or maybe we should call it the Queen Maybellene. As you’d expect from the Bear Family label, which specializes in gargantuan reissues, this 16-CD, 396-song box doesn’t simply span Berry’s career, it embraces virtually every musical note the man has ever issued. You’ll find all of his released album tracks and singles, starting with an obscure 1954 recording and including everything from the Chess, Mercury and Atco labels, plus every surviving alternate take. Also here are five CDs’ worth of concert performances from 1956 to 1972. And while you’re absorbing all this—which, incidentally, will consume about 21 hours, assuming you listen nonstop—you can read the package’s pair of hardcover books, which feature insightful essays about Berry’s life and music, photos of him on and off the stage, album covers, a detailed discography and more.
Knowing how the record business works, I hesitate to call this the last word in Chuck Berry reissues. (I still remember shelling out a hefty sum for a 12-CD collection whose title promised The Complete Hank Williams, only to find out that it omitted enough material to fill the three-CD Unreleased Recordings 10 years later.) Still, this has got to be close to the last word, or at least as much of Berry as anyone outside his immediate family could conceivably need.
For many listeners, of course, it will actually be overkill; if all you want are his most important tracks, you’ll likely be satisfied with The Great 28, a long-available single CD that includes “Rock and Roll Music, “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Johnny B. Goode," “Sweet Little Sixteen” and all the other classics. But if you’re a serious fan—and there are plenty of good reasons to be one—you no longer have no particular place to go.
Speaking of destinations, Berry seems to have had his in sight almost from Day One. He took all sorts of satisfying side trips in the course of his career—from Nat King Cole-style crooning to Hawaiian-inflected instrumentals—but he headed mostly for a musical landscape that melded jazz, R&B, blues, boogie-woogie and country into something that was completely new when it first appeared.
You don’t have to go beyond the instantly recognizable guitar that opens 1955’s “Maybellene,” the lead-off track on this set and Berry’s first hit, to hear it. As he sang a year later in his second hit, “I go for that rock and roll music.” And as this package underscores, Berry was one of that music’s first masters—an inventive guitarist as well as a proficient songwriter, capable of wittily describing teenage life as well as the music itself.
Not everything here is extraordinary. The Mercury sides are particularly weak, some of the live performances are poorly recorded and does anyone really need five versions of “My Ding-a-Ling,” the throwaway novelty that, ironically, provided the singer with his sole number-one pop hit? Probably not, but some people undoubtedly need this box. I’m one of them.