Chuck Berry Joel Vance - Essay

Joel Vance

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Berry was the first literate lyricist in rock-and-roll, and, so far as I'm concerned, he's still the champ. His delighted exploitation of the possibilities of the English language and his sophisticated sense of humor are unsurpassed in the field….

"Rockit" is precious not merely as a reminder of what he once was, but as evidence of how great he still is. Some of the songs here, such as Oh What a Thrill, are such pure, undiluted examples of Berry's late-Fifties style that they might have been written and recorded twenty years ago. Others are frankly updates: Havana Moon, one of Berry's B-sides from the Fifties, is re-created here without the West Indian accent he was then fond of using, and I Need You Baby is a rewrite of Elmore James' blues number It Hurts Me Too….

But three cuts here show quite a "new" Chuck Berry, different from the "classic" rock artist we've taken for granted for so long. I Never Thought and Wuden't Me are bitter, dramatic statements about being black in white America, an issue Berry's work has always previously avoided (though the "pitch" on him has always been that "he could have been as big as Elvis if he'd been white"). And the final track, Pass Away, with unabashedly romantic lyrics that are impressively spoken, not sung, suggests that Berry's ultimate ambition is to be recognized as a poet—and, perhaps even more, as an actor.

"Rockit" epitomizes Chuck Berry's past glories, demonstrates the healthy current state of his talent, and points out his possible future direction. Clearly, he is at his best as a lyricist, but he is also a consummate guitar stylist and an ingratiating singer. All rock musicians today are in his debt, but that's not why you should buy "Rockit." Buy it because it's good.

Joel Vance, "Chuck Berry" (reprinted by permission of the author), in Stereo Review, Vol. 43, No. 6, December, 1979, p. 96.