Mike Zito and Friends pay tribute to Chuck Berry

When a musician as respected as Mike Zito decides to do a tribute album I tend to take notice…after all, his output to date as a solo artist and with Royal Southern Brotherhood is uniformly excellent. His latest album of Ruf Records is his tribute is to Chuck Berry. I will be honest, I wasn’t so sure: to me, Berry was a great composer and interpreter of others but he never quite seemed to have the consistency or flair of many of his contemporaries and I tended to class him as an entertainer rather than a guitarist. I think my view was coloured somewhat when Chuck released My Ding A Ling and I could only cringe …it was as if Zeppelin had recorded Shaddup A Your Face! (Now that would be worth seeing) In saying that, I, of course, acknowledge the inspiration Berry was to many of the guitar greats of recent years…Zito, obviously, but Brian May and Tony Iommi also cite him as a major influence and I really cannot argue with them because, as Mike says, “I lived in Chuck’s hometown of St. Louis for 32 years, and I worked at a small musical instrument store where his drummer also happened to be employed. Chuck’s son would drop by on occasion as well. He was an icon, and rightfully so. I’ve been playing his songs since I was a kid. He was a tremendous influence on my career, and, of course, on many other musicians’ as well.”

Anyway, I am always prepared to change my mind and when you look at the list of venerable friends that contributed to the album, it has to be given credence and a fair hearing…even if, in Zito’s words “We recorded the basic tracks and then sent them to each guest musician, they added their contributions and then sent the files back to us. The process took a year to complete.”

Some will, inevitably, question the choices of songs but Mike I think has gone for some of the ‘classics’ and some of the ‘lesser known’ songs that Berry wrote or covered over the years. As there are twenty tracks I won’t dissect them all…so let’s see what we get.

Opener, St Louis Blues, features Berry’s grandson and it’s a signature Berry riff with added attack from the modern amps and recording techniques…the solo is worth the wait and saves the song with the clever nods to Berry and the era but with some neat flourishes. Johnny B Goode is forever etched in my mind via the Judas Priest version and I always doubted that could be surpassed…well, even with Walter Trout lending his skilful touch, that opinion is undimmed, although this version is still excellent due to the guitarists interesting interpretations and moulding of the very recognisable melodies. The true highlight for me is Zito and Bonamassa attacking the classic Wee Wee Hours and, whilst nodding to the Berry version, the fret virtuosity throughout would mean I’d have bought this album for this song alone. Memphis turns slidey which I love and even brings a mild country twang to lift this one. You Can Never Tell has Zito and Robben Ford synchronising and making this a cracking interpretation. Another high-highlight is the reading of Down Bound Train…Alex Skolnick adds his unique style to the guitar sections and makes this into a whole new, fascinating and brilliant version of the song. (Alex can be an acquired taste, but if you persevere with albums such as Last Day In Paradise or Transformation, you will be more than rewarded.) Brown eyed Handsome Man is transformed thanks to neat picking and Reelin’ And Rockin’ stays true but fresh and Thirty Days jumps along nicely. Now for the ‘novelty’ that was My Ding A Ling…, I’m sorry, but even the fret wizardry of Zito and Andersen cannot rescue what, in my opinion, was and is a truly awful song. Mind you, it is the only track that will be skipped.

This is an album full of fun and it’s a blast from beginning to the end… of track nineteen. With all of the input from the stellar cast backing Zito and his solid band, it is impossible not to enjoy this run through the rock and roll past in an imaginative and up to date way.

EIGHTpawprint half inchdoodle paws out of TEN …

Track listing and guests:

  1. St. Louis Blues feat. CHARLIE BERRY III
  2. Rock And Roll Music feat. JOANNA CONNOR
  3. Johnny B Goode feat. WALTER TROUT
  4. Wee Wee Hours feat. JOE BONAMASSA
  5. Memphis feat. ANDERS OSBORNE
  6. I Want To Be Your Driver feat. RYAN PERRY
  7. You Never Can Tell feat. ROBBEN FORD
  8. Back In The USA feat. ERIC GALES
  9. No Particular Place To Go feat. JEREMIAH JOHNSON
  10. Too Much Monkey business feat. LUTHER DICKINSON
  11. Havana Moon feat. SONNY LANDRETH
  12. Promised Land feat. TINSLEY ELLIS
  13. Down Bound Train feat. ALEX SKOLNICK
  14. Maybelline feat. RICHARD FORTUS
  15. School Days feat. ALLY VENABLE
  16. Brown Eyed Handsome Man feat. KIRK FLETCHER and JOSH SMITH
  17. Reelin’ And Rockin’ feat. TOMMY CASTRO
  18. Let It Rock feat. JIMMY VIVINO
  19. Thirty Days feat. ALBERT CASTIGLIA
  20. My Ding A Ling feat. KID ANDERSEN

Musicians on all tracks:

Mike Zito: Vocals/Guitar

Matthew Johnson: Drums/Vocals/Percussion

Terry Dry: Bass Guitar/Vocals/Percussion

Lewis Stephens: Piano/Organ/Wurlitzer

Recorded at Marz Studios and mixed and mastered by David Farrell

(The iTunes run on track when I didn’t click stop in time brought me a song from one of the best blues albums of recent years. I was treated to Miller Anderson’s High Tide And High Water from his Bluesheart album…sheer brilliance!)

Mike Zito and Friends pay tribute to Chuck Berry

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