Whenever one of those time capsules is launched into outer space, someone smart always includes a Chuck Berry record. After all, what better way to introduce extraterrestrials to American culture than through the humoresque teen anthems Berry recorded for Chess Records. While it's nice to think about those classy blue-and-silver Chess labels tantalizingly floating about the universe, at least a few American record buyers would prefer to intercept some at their local record store. During the past few years, however, all of Berry's classic recordings have been out of print and thus not easily obtainable.
The unavailability of Berry's recordings is symptomatic of the dismal efforts of American record companies regarding the reissue of older rhythm and blues and rock 'n' roll. Americans in search of this material have turned to buying imports produced by foreign record companies that regularly turn out aurally pristine and beautifully packaged collections of older American music. Not only is the purchase of these imports expensive, it's culturally depressing--imagine having to go to France to buy a Chevrolet.
In this country, the problem seems to be economic. It's not that a company stands to lose a lot of money with a reissue package (especially when it already owns the material), but rather that it doesn't stand to make much money. There is an inherently limited demand for much older music and in an industry scaled for successes on the order of the Bee Gees and Fleetwood Mac, "why bother" is the operative attitude.
Things seem to be changing for the better, though. In the last few years, two small labels, Rhino and Solid Smoke, have produced a steady stream of intelligently compiled and attractive reissues. Rhino, which focuses on '60s rock, has just released new collections by the Monkees, the Box Tops, Freddie Cannon and the Beau Brummels, as well as "Wonder Women" (Rhino RNLP 055), easily the best girl group collection available. Unfortunately, Solid Smoke, which focused on rhythm and blues, has gone out of business, partly reflecting a small label's steep costs of leasing older material from other companies.
More recently, some larger labels have started exploring their vaults. Arista's "Roots of Rock and Roll" series, involving the reissue of R&B originally recorded for the Savoy label, has now reached 12 volumes. Columbia has issued two rockabilly collections, as well as four compilations of material from its Okeh subsidiary. And recently, Atlantic Records began a reissue series that thus far has released collections by Ray Charles, the Coasters, Albert King and Professor Longhair. Atlantic probably recorded and owns more great R&B than any other label; one can only anxiously await further releases in this series.
If Atlantic has any competition for supremacy in recording great R&B, it would be the legendary Chess label. Chess, famous for its roster of Chicago blues artists as well as for Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, was recently bought by Sugarhill Records, a small company responsible for a number of rap hits. The good news is that Sugarhill has begun an extensive Chess reissue series presided over by Marshall Chess, son of the founder of Chess Records. Each album in the series, now totaling eight releases, has been mastered from original session tapes and, more good news, is budget priced.
Not surprisingly, this series quickly remedied the criminal situation regarding Chuck Berry's material. "Chuck Berry: The Great Twenty-Eight" (Chess CH 8201) is a double album presenting all of Berry's best-known material from 1955 to 1965. How definitive are these recordings? Much of rock history can be seen as little more than the creative revision of Berry's basic guitar grammar.
In the blues area, the new Chess series offers outstanding introductions to its catalogue. "Wizards From the Southside" (Chess CH 8203) provides a scintillating overview of some great Chicago electric blues men, with illustrative material from Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter, Muddy Waters and others. "Muddy and the Wolf" (Chess CH 8200) offers selected tracks from sessions that teamed these blues giants with the new generation of white rock musicians. On Waters' material, Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield convincingly approximated the classic Chicago sound, while Wolf's session with Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones rhythm section is interesting simply for failing to emulate that sound. Finally, there is "Rolling Stone" (Chess CH 8202), a superb album presenting many of Muddy Waters' biggest hits, all featuring his declamatory vocal style and nonpareil blues ensemble.
The other Chess releases are of less interest to rock fans, but fill some important gaps. There is a double album set by John Klemmer, "Blowin' Gold" (Chess CH 8300), that places this alto saxophonist at the start of the fusion movement in the late '60s. "Aretha Gospel" (Checker CH 8500) presents the queen of soul at age 14 in her daddy's church in Detroit where she sang with the control and emotional power of a seasoned professional. "The Dells" (Chess CHH 8400) collects the later soul hits of the Chicago group that left doo-wop for a successful, if derivative, Motown-based sound. Finally there is "Billy Stewart: The Greatest Sides" (Chess CH 8401), offering everything you want to hear and more from this dynamic pop singer with an overly idiosyncratic vocal style. Now where's that Bo Diddley collection?