When it comes to some legendary rock and roll artists, sometimes all you really need are the hits. Most performers from the early days of the form were focused on creating singles — like today, that was the dominant form of sales for artists (and thus many original albums are quite rare these days as they didn’t sell widely back in the day… but that is another discussion beyond the scope of this review).
For many people, the single CD (and two LP set) of music by Chuck Berry (RIP) from the 1980s called The Great Twenty-Eight is the definitive collection. This package is in many ways perfect, presenting enough of Chuck Berry’s music to give you a solid immersion in his accomplishments while not so big as to lose you in deep album cuts.
Over the years I have had many Chuck Berry compilations. At one point I purged my CD of The Great Twenty-Eight for a seemingly more complete and useful four disc study from England’s Charly label called Chuck Berry: Poet of Rock ‘n Roll. Its now something of a collectors piece but as I write this I admit that I am questioning whether I really need it at this stage; I admit to missing having that handy single CD collection. The Charly set is pretty solid sounding set but it stretches out the “good stuff” across the four discs so you have to endure a bunch of (ahem) “lesser” tracks just to hear the hits you want to hear — its simply not convenient that way. Of course, some would argue that there are no “lesser” Chuck Berry tracks, but that is again another discussion entirely….
For those of you out there seeking something just a wee wee bit more, there is a fine new reissue of The Great Twenty-Eight in a super deluxe five disc vinyl LP set which may be the best option. There you get the original 1980s two LP set plus a bonus third disc called More Great Chuck Berry collecting some other songs you might want (such as “You Never Can Tell,” “Promised Land”). You also get a first time vinyl release of a 1963 concert called Oh Yeah, Live in Detroit and a super handy Berry Christmas EP collecting Chuck’s holiday classics including “Run Run Rudolph.” The set comes handsomely packaged in a lovely cloth-bound box with a robust 35-page album-sized full color booklet. All the albums are on quiet, well centered, (probably) 180-gram vinyl.
Sonics-wise, for purposes of comparing relative apples to apples, I pulled out my two copies of the first Chuck Berry Greatest Hits collection from 1964 (I have a blue and black label Chess Records versions, both of which sound remarkably good for their age, each a little different).
For the purposes of this review I’ll pull out a couple of tracks to compare and contrast to give you an idea of what to expect:
“Brown Eyed Handsome Man” sounds pretty good on the Tidal stream, if a bit on the bright side, especially as you turn up the volume. On the Charley set this song sounds oddly “swooshy,” which could be a result of any number of issues such as CD compression, heavy-handed mastering tweaks, fake stereo processing, etc. The version on the new vinyl edition of The Great Twenty-Eight sounds good and closer to the sound on the original Greatest Hits LPs I have — interestingly, listening to these I realize that the distortion I thought was inherent on my old LP is actually on the original recordings, possibly an effect of super tape saturation which is how some older recordings achieved a certain sound, especially on the drums and that killer smack on the snare.
“Rock And Roll Music” sounds solid on the Tidal stream of The Great Twenty-Eight, delivering surprising definition to the bass and percolating piano. It sounds like there is an almost acoustic twangy guitar blended in the reverb drenched mix there, quite audible on this version. The version on the new reissue vinyl sounds pretty similar in many ways, with the guitar pulled back just a tad. On the black label Chess Records Chuck Berry’s Greatest Hits LP, that guitar sound is less in your face but the drums are bigger and rounder, the bass less defined and more thumpy on the low end.
And so it goes when you split audiophile hairs like this. At the end of the day, its about the music and whether you stream his music on Tidal or play his songs from a CD or original vinyl, Chuck Berry’s music is mostly timeless, essential listening for fans of modern popular music, from rock to rap. It pretty much all starts here. The original storytelling street poet of rock ‘n roll.
Oh Yeah! Live In Detroit (again, making its first time vinyl debut in this set) was previously only an earlier CD boxed set, You Never Can Tell: His Complete Chess Recordings. It is a pretty wonderful concert set, offering a glimpse into Chuck as a live performer relatively early on — with a great band including Motown’s James Jamerson on bass! — engaging a clearly loving Motor City crowd in 1963. Of course you can stream that entire set up on Tidal or you can just play the live album individually as well (click here for that) if you have access to this robust streaming music service. I have to admit these Detroit concert recordings sound pretty great up there on Tidal!
Chuck Berry – The Great Twenty-Eight: Super Deluxe is a fine collection. The limited edition (500 copies!), blue vinyl version of this set is available exclusively from Universal Music so click here to get one of those (standard black vinyl versions are available elsewhere). You’ll also get what is probably my favorite part of the set — a 10 inch four song EP on Rudolph Red vinyl featuring Chuck’s holiday tracks, all in a festive cover design that looks like it is from the 1950s.
Oh, wrapping up here you might be wondering what I am going to do with my UK boxed set? Well, despite my desire to purge things (which some of you know is an ongoing theme for me this year) I think I’ll keep this one. The booklet is interesting and the set contains other music not on this new Great Twenty Eight set. Plus having it already on CDs is handy for use in the car (I don’t think I want to rip four CDs of Chuck’s music on to my iPhone, although maybe I’ll make a hour long playlist of my own at some point).
Whether you get One Dozen Berrys, The Great Twenty-Eight, The Great Twenty-Eight: Super Deluxe or a hundred-plus on You Never Can Tell: His Complete Chess Recordings you can’t really go wrong with Chuck Berry’s supremely influential music. This is rock ‘n roll ground zero.