FRED ROTHWELL and ANDY McKAIE have compiled the set with ROTHWELL handling the 24-page booklet liner notes (he is author of the book "Long Distance Information – Chuck Berry's Recorded Legacy") - while Universal's hugely experienced Audio Engineer ERICK LABSON (who does almost all the Chess material - has over 1000 credits to his name) has handled the expert transfers and Remasters from first-generation master tapes. This 4CD set sounds fantastic - the best I've ever heard this material.
1. "Back Home" (November 1970 on Chess LPS-1550 in the USA, February 1972 on Chess 6310 113 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 A and 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. Although Labson's transfer work is exemplary throughout - there's hiss on a few tunes for sure and the unreleased live stuff is untreated so it sounds very rough. But to get an inkling of the fab sound - there's a wickedly cool 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. Check out iTunes for this - it's (if you'll forgive the pun) ring- ringing like a bell. So too when the British band back up Berry on the T-Bone Walker cover of "Mean Old World" (from "The London Chuck Berry Sessions" LP) – 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 o.k. rather than great and had Bear Family of Germany gotten their hands on this project - we would have had a 12" x 12" Box with a 180-page 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. Recommended...
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 "You Never Can Tell...")