Friday, 25 February 2011

“Have Mercy – His Complete Chess Recordings 1969 To 1974” by CHUCK BERRY. A Review of the 2010 Hip-O Select 4CD Box set.

"…She Worked Night And Day To Keep Us Six Kids Alive…"

"Have Mercy..." is the 3rd and final volume of Chuck Berry's Chess recordings. Released in the USA via their website in January 2010 (general release March 2010), Hip-O Select/Geffen B0013790-02 houses 71 tracks across 4CDs, 23 of which are previously unreleased (plus one further track which is previously unreleased in the USA - Track 4, Disc 3). Its packaging consists of a slightly oversized 4-way foldout digipak that is itself tied with a string on a lapel on the front - aping the layout of the two preceding sets (see PS below). It's a non-numbered worldwide limited edition of 6000 copies and Discs 1 to 4 run to 69:23, 71:37, 69:45 and 65:10 minutes respectively.

FRED ROTHWELL and ANDY McKAIE have compiled the set with Rothwell handling the 24-page booklet (he is author of the book “Long Distance Information – Chuck Berry’s Recorded Legacy”). Pictured beneath the see-through trays and on the final flap are the following 5 albums from that period…

1. “Back Home” (November 1970 on Chess LPS-1550 in the USA, February 1972 on Chess 6310 113 in the UK)
2. “San Francisco Dues” (September 1971 on Chess CH-50008 in the USA, March 1972 on Chess 6310 115 in the UK)
3. “The London Chuck Berry Sessions” (June 1972 on Chess CH-60020 in the USA, July 1972 on Chess 6310 122 in the UK)
4. “Chuck Berry/Bio” [aka “Bio”] (September 1973 on Chess CH-50043 in the USA, October 1973 on Chess 6499 650 in the UK)
5. “Chuck Berry” [released as “Chuck Berry ‘75” in the UK] (February 1975 on Chess CH-60032 in the USA, March 1975 on Chess 9109 101 in the UK)

The three volumes of “Golden Decade” doubles are not referenced at all in the booklet neither is the “St. Louis To Frisco To Memphis” album from 1972 with The Steve Miller Band live on one side because that was released through Mercury Records. The studio side of “The London Chuck Berry Sessions” (Side 1) features Derek Griffiths of The Artwoods and Dog Soldier on Guitar, Rick Grech of Traffic and Family on Bass with Ian McLagan and Kenny Jones of the Faces on Piano and Drums respectively. Side 2 of that album was recorded live in Coventry in England and features the Average White Band as Berry’s backing group. Elliott Randall of Steely Dan’s “Reelin’ In The Years” guitar-solo fame plays Pedal Steel guitar on “I’m Just A Name” and “Too Late” on Disc 4, while Jazz Fusion favourite and multi-instrumentalist Phil Upchurch plays Bass on Tracks 1 to 8 on Disc 1.
A rarity for US collectors is the UK-only 7” single live version of “South Of The Border” (Chess 6145 027), which features Jimmy Campbell of Vertigo Spiral Label fame on Guitar (its the previously unreleased in the USA track).

The A & B sides of the US 7” single Chess 2090 (“Tulane” and “Have Mercy Judge”) start things off strongly on Disc 1 and you immediately hear the quality song-writing and the cool sound upgrade. The 1st-generation master tapes have been remastered by ace-engineer ERICK LABSON (has over 850 credits to his name including the majority of the Chess catalogue) and his work here is again exemplary – the sound is great. There’s hiss on a few tunes for sure and the unreleased live stuff is untreated so it sounds very rough – but there’s a fab little instrumental called “Woodpecker” tucked away on Side 2 of “Bio” that I’ve been trying to get a good CD copy of for years – and here it is at last – and (if you’ll forgive the pun) it’s ring, ringing like a bell. So too when the British band back up Berry on the T-Bone Walker cover of “Mean Old World” (off “The London Chuck Berry Sessions”) – you can really feel and hear that as well – thrilling stuff.

More than a few of the 23 previously unreleased tracks are shockingly good – “Untitled Instrumental” features the fab piano playing of Ellis “Lafayette” Leake with great harmonica fills from Robert Baldori, while the 9-minute instrumental “Turn On The Houselights” sees Chuck play a blinding lead guitar. It’s not all good of course - from the “Chuck Berry” LP sessions in 1975 (all of Disc 4) both outtakes “Jambalaya” and “The Song Of My Love” are truly awful, while the abomination that is “My Ding A Ling” on Disc 3 is on here in its full album length version of eleven minutes and the 7” single edit too and even has an added previously unreleased studio version. But it is to this day quite possibly the worst song ever made – and cringing to listen to (I dare say his bank balance rather enjoyed it though). But overall – the outtakes are excellent – and along with the largely unheard remastered album tracks – it all makes for a rather spiffing listen.

Niggles and speculation – like the other two sets, the packaging is ok rather than great and had Bear Family of Germany gotten their hands on this project, we would have had a 9 disc box (instead of 12) with a 180-page 12” x 12” hardback book for about the same cost – and it would have been complete with visuals that would have taken 2 years to compile rather than two days to dash off. A fantasy reissue I know, but worth making the comparison…

Having said that - as it stands “Have Mercy” is far better than I thought it would be – his Rock’n’ Roll mojo and lyrical brilliance still intact in the Seventies (the 6-minute poem “My Pad” is deep and prophetic as are the lyrics from “Bio” which titles this review). And if you were to make up a single disc representing the best of what’s on this mini box set – then I guarantee you’d shock certain people as to how good it is.

So there you have it - fabulous in places, a let down in others – 2010’s “Have Mercy” does at least see Chuck Berry’s Seventies’ legacy be given some proper respect at last.


PS: His initial output for the famous label was released in 2008 as "Johnny B. Goode - The Complete 50's Recordings" - then followed in 2009 by the 2nd set - “You Never Can Tell – The Complete Chess Recordings 1960 to 1966” (see separate review for “Tell”).

PPS: see also the tag “Erick Labson Remasters” for a list of goodies remastered by him

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