No need to re-state the obvious here. Chuck Berry’s life is being gorgeously remembered, appreciated, and celebrated around the world and across the internet. Particularly moving essays have come from Peter Guralnick, David Remnick, and Alan Light, who put together a list of Chuck’s most important singles and explains why each of them matters. Read them all.
Those articles and countless others should motorvate you to go back to the Chuck Berry songs that inspired, influenced, or flat-out caused every other rock act that followed, and that’s a very good thing. Music has changed drastically in the past 60 years, but with the volume turned up, Berry’s records slice through everything that’s happened since, sounding fresh as they did when they first changed the world. But while you’re reeling and rocking out to those songs, we’re going to slow it down a bit and go back to the b-side of Chuck Berry’s shot-heard-round-the-world.
“Wee Wee Hours” is everything that “Maybellene” blasted a Cadillac-sized hole through
“Wee Wee Hours” is the old-school, late-night blues tune stamped on the flip side of Berry’s first single, “Maybellene,” and, in many ways, the opposite of that revolutionary record. It’s traditional. It’s moody. It’s adult. It’s a link back to the smooth blues of Charles Brown (oh, and if you don’t know Charles Brown, do take a moment to acquaint yourself) rather than a link forward to Keith Richards, John Lennon, or Bob Dylan. In a way, “Wee Wee Hours” is everything “Maybellene” blasted a Cadillac-sized hole through, making this particular 45 its own tipping point for 20th Century culture.
The ever-savvy Berry supposedly recorded “Wee Wee Hours” because he thought it’s what Chess Records, as dedicated a blues label as there ever was, would dig enough to give him a record deal. Berry also said the thing took him less than an hour to write. But none of that takes a thing away from the song itself, which managed, despite its b-side status, to become a Top Ten R&B hit, one Berry would keep in his live sets for the rest of his life. It shows where he came from and makes where he ended up that much more phenomenal. Beyond any historic implications or analysis, this is just a beautiful bit of loneliness, perfectly painted by Berry and his too-secret weapon, pianist Johnnie Johnson. Sip it slowly. It’s the perfect come-down after you’ve danced your heart out to the Chuck Berry songs that changed the world, and started to accept some of the sadness that comes with the loss of an artist of his stature.
BONUS CUT: Here’s another clip of “Wee Wee Hours” where we get to watch Chuck work the song out during rehearsals for a German TV performance in the early ’70s. Too many wonderful things going on to list, so just click and enjoy: