Chuck Berry, who just turned ninety years old, invented rock and roll. Period. Despite its country origins and the hillbilly sensitivity that Bill Haley and Elvis Presley brought to the nascent form back in the fifties, Berry created the blues-based template that the best rockers have adhered to for the past six decades. The proof is in these twenty-eight songs that were released between 1955 and 1965 and featured in this 1982 compilation.
The Great Twenty-Eight doesn't assemble all of Berry's greatest songs, but it comes damned close. All of these songs crackle with energy and sizzle with wit, and many of them derive from three simple chords. When Berry illustrates the more innocuous scenes in life, from dating pretty girls to rocking out in the dance halls, he provides the most detailed descriptions in only a few words. The sexual tension of the car-chase song "Maybelline," the innocence of "Sweet Little Sixteen," and the teenage rituals of "School Days" all feel like a release. But many times Berry's words leave us with something to think about as well as entertain us - the parables of rock and roll dreams and stardom in "Johnny B. Goode" and its sequel "Bye Bye Johnny," the sense of freedom in the road trip song "You Can't Catch Me," the racial pride of "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man," the ironies of "Back In the U.S.A." - while getting us to dance, or at least play air guitar. Now that's genius.
Berry has always considered himself an artist, something Elvis was never able to consider himself so long as Colonel Tom Parker directed his career. Only a sharp observer like Berry could come up with something as perfect as "Memphis," a heart-rending tale of a man separated from the love of his life (and if you've never heard it, you'll be in for a surprise), or explore what happens after high school and the pleasures of youth in "Too Much Monkey Business." The deceptive simplicity of his music and the bite of his impeccable guitar set the standard for rock and roll - a standard that still shines under the dross of overproduction and hyperprofessionalism that has long since overtaken pop. Although rock and roll is going to a tough period these days, the best way to resuscitate it is to get today's kids to hear The Great Twenty-Eight . . . and all of Chuck's children will continue to play his licks.