For 209 months straight, Chuck Berry kept a monthly appointment with his 340 fans in the small Duck Room at Blueberry Hill in St. Louis.
As Blueberry Hill’s owner Joe Edwards tells it, “Chuck and I have been good friends since the early ’80s. One night in 1996 he was reminiscing about the smaller clubs he used to play when he was just starting out and how much he would love to play an intimate club again in contrast to large stadiums. There was a split-second pause. We looked at each other and said ‘Let’s do it.’”
And he did, for 209 shows until Oct. 2014.
It might seem quiet for the first man ever inducted in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, a man the New York Times called “probably the most influential rock musician ever” and a man about whom John Lennon once said, “if you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry.’”
But that’s how Berry’s always been for the past few decades — simple, intimate, personal.
So it’s wasn’t surprising five days ago that USA Today published a piece with the headline, “Chuck Berry is turning 90 without fanfare.”
Of course he was. He doesn’t play his monthly gig anymore, and he hasn’t released an album in 38 years. Though fans might have been waiting on new songs — in 2015, Edwards told St. Louis Public Radio that Berry was “working on some songs” — no one fully expected one.
They certainly didn’t expect the announcement Tuesday, one that marked his 90th birthday with more than just fanfare. Beyoncé and Radiohead may have surprised the world with unexpected records, but Berry likely just left a few jaws on the floor.
Because on Tuesday, he announced “Chuck,” his first record since 1979’s “Rock It.”
— Consequence of Sound (@coslive) October 18, 2016
“This record is dedicated to my beloved Toddy,” Berry, referring to his wife of 68 years, Themetta Berry, said in a statement on his website. “My darlin’ I’m growing old! I’ve worked on this record for a long time. Now I can hang up my shoes!”
The statement offered scant information about the record, but it’s surely enough to keep fans hungry for more:
Comprised primarily of new, original songs written, recorded and produced by the founding rock and roll legend, ‘CHUCK’ is Berry’s first new album in thirty-eight years. It was recorded in various studios around St. Louis and features Berry’s longtime hometown backing group — including his children Charles Berry Jr. (guitar) and Ingrid Berry (harmonica), plus Jimmy Marsala (Berry’s bassist of forty years), Robert Lohr (piano), and Keith Robinson (drums) — which has supported him for over two decades on over two hundred residency shows at the famed Blueberry Hill club. More details about ‘CHUCK’ and other Berry-related events will be revealed in the coming weeks.
As the announcement stated, Berry is known to many as one of rock ‘n’ roll’s founding fathers. As rock critic Robert Christgau once wrote, ”By adding blues tone to some fast country runs, and yoking them to a rhythm-and-blues beat and some unembarrassed electrification, he created an instrumental style with biracial appeal.”
Calling him one of the genre’s founding fathers is even more prescient when noting the fact that the Rolling Stones formed when Mick Jagger saw Keith Richards holding one of Berry’s records at a rail station in Kent, England.
There’s no release date for the LP quite yet, just a promise that it’s coming in 2017 — easily enough time to buy a new set of headphones.