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Almost the Versions You Want to Hear

TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

The songs of Chuck Berry, the most important songwriter of all the ‘50s rock performers, and Burt Bacharach, one of the most successful pop composers of the ‘60s, are saluted in a pair of albums. The good news: The songs are still appealing. The bad: You don’t always get the versions of the songs that you most want to hear.

*** Various artists, “Chuck B. Covered: A Tribute to Chuck Berry,” Hip-O Records. From “Maybellene” to “Roll Over Beethoven,” Berry’s hits were built around such infectious melodies and engaging wordplay that it’s no wonder his songs have been recorded by more than 500 artists over the years. Indeed, Berry’s songs may have been recorded by more Rock and Roll Hall of Fame members than any other writer--save Bob Dylan.

In a 1985 Pierian Press book on Berry’s recording history, Howard A. DeWitt lists some 850 cover versions of Berry tunes. The most recorded tunes at that time: “Memphis” (120 times), “Johnny B. Goode” (101) and “Roll Over Beethoven” (73).

Among the nearly three dozen Hall of Fame members who have recorded Berry’s songs: the Beatles, David Bowie, the Byrds, Eric Clapton, the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones and Simon & Garfunkel.

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Unfortunately, none of those artists are included in this 14-track selection, presumably because of licensing problems. There are, however, several other Hall of Fame members represented, including Rod Stewart (“Sweet Little Rock ‘n’ Roller”), the Beach Boys (“Rock and Roll Music”), Buddy Holly (“Brown Eyed Handsome Man”) and the Kinks (“Too Much Monkey Business”).

Not bad.

One thing we learn listening to these numbers--as well as others by such non-members as George Thorogood, the Stray Cats and Johnny Winter--is that it’s hard to ruin a Berry song. Almost everything here carries at least a touch of the Berry spirit. But the album also points out that it’s hard to improve on Berry’s own versions.

It’s fun hearing some of the artists inject their own personalities into the songs, especially Holly, but most stay pretty close to the Berry originals. The chief exception: reggae star Peter Tosh’s drastic reworking of “Johnny B. Goode.”

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The highlight, though, is Emmylou Harris’ stylish rendition of "(You Never Can Tell) C’est La Vie.” By extending Berry’s vision in her interpretation, Harris demonstrates again why she is one of the great figures in all of contemporary pop.

*

** 1/2 Various artists, “The Burt Bacharach Songbook,” Varese Sarabande. There are some valuable tracks in this collection of Burt Bacharach and Hal David songs, including Jackie DeShannon’s “What the World Needs Now Is Love,” Dusty Springfield’s “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself” and Sandie Shaw’s "(There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me.”

So far so good.

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The problem is there’s no Dionne Warwick, whose recordings pretty much defined the Bacharach-David songbook. Instead of her versions, you get Della Reese singing “A House Is Not a Home,” Anne Murray interpreting “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” and Ramsey Lewis performing “Do You Know the Way to San Jose.” Another unsatisfactory substitute: Andy Williams rather than the Carpenters giving us "(They Long to Be) Close to You.”

While the highlights work nicely, all too often you find yourself missing the Warwick versions.

*

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).

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