Chuck Berry will always be known as one of the founding fathers of Rock n’ Roll. Along with people like Little Richard, Fats Domino, Bo Diddly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley - only Lewis is still alive - Berry helped to slim R&B down to a leaner sound and introduce it to a wider audience than it knew in New Orleans (Fats Domino said what they’d been playing what people called rock n’ roll in New Orleans for 15 years).
By the ‘70s he was seen widely as a nostalgia act and no one in their right mind would have turned down a chance to see him in person because he really put on a show, as you can see here. At this point he had been through a lot and was wary of the music industry and basically just picked up local musicians to back him up when he made appearances which helped keep his costs down. Everyone knew his songs so getting musicians on short notice was easy.
He still had some great music in him though as we see in these two songs from Back Home, which was released in 1970 upon his return to the Chess label.
The songs are Tulane and Have Mercy, played back to back. In Tulane, Johnny and his girlfriend Tulane are operating a novelty shop with the “cream of the crop” under the counter. The police show up, perhaps from the vice squad, and Tulane takes off although Johnny isn’t so lucky.
In Have Mercy, Berry plays a slow blues rumination about seeing a judge again and knowing he’s about to do time. He has some remarkably frank thoughts about Tulane that are a very long ways from Maybellene or Carol, two of his earlier hits.
He was not an easy man in person and sometimes not on stage but he had a vast lyrical imagination and took it places that popular music has rarely been or, in some cases, has yet to revisit.
Bonus gold: You Can’t Catch Me from 1956