John Lennon once said that if you wanted to give rock ’n’ roll another name you might call it Chuck Berry. Far be it from me to disagree with him, but that’s not quite true: There are a few different founding fathers and mothers in the mix. Consider the incendiary flamboyance of Little Richard or Jerry Lee Lewis pounding the piano, or Bo Diddley’s immortally inspirational beat, and that’s to say nothing of all the many blues and country singers who electrified their instrumentation after hitting the big city, helping to push the sonic envelope just a little bit further.
He’s certainly no slouch at singing, and plays guitar just like ringing a bell, but what truly sets Chuck Berry apart from his peers is the brilliant craftsmanship of the songs: the storytelling, the mythmaking, the ability to create drama in a few lyrics, all of which are hallmarks of a true poet. We can trace the various rhythms of rock ’n’ roll from any number of sources, but it really is Chuck Berry who first gave it a language. “Climb into my machine so we can groove on out” is the rock ’n’ roll way of asking someone if they would fancy a ride in your automobile.
An engaging new biography of Berry from music writer RJ Smith is appropriately subtitled “an American life” given how profound Berry’s influence has been in the history of American music and how his rise to fame and fortune put him on a collision course with some of the uglier realties of American life, some of which he overcame and some of which he couldn’t.
We learn how Berry grew up the son of a carpenter who recited the poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar at the dinner table. He was raised
, in a strictly segregated St. Louis, as part of a Black community known as the Ville (short for Greenville), which sounds like the kind of place that locals take a unique pride in hailing from. Young Berry was a quick-witted kid who had been around the block early in life, doing odd jobs, playing music for extra cash on weekends in small clubs, even spending some time behind bars, before heading up to Chicago to record at the legendary label Chess Records, where he got his big break.
One of the charming details Smith includes is how the title of his breakthrough single “Maybellene” might have been inspired by randomly seeing the brand name of a box of mascara lying around in the studio. It apparently took quite a few takes to nail down that enlivening blend of Western swing, rockabilly, and jump blues, a witty tale of romantic intrigue as told through a Rebel Without a Cause-like car chase. “As I was motorvatin’ over the hill/ saw Maybellene in a Coupe De Ville/ A Cadillac a-rollin’ on the open road/ Nothin’ will outrun my V8 Ford/ Cadillac doin’ about ninety-five/ we was bumper to bumper, rollin’ side to side.”
In no time at all, you can feel the speed of the high-speed car chase in your hair while raising the emotional stakes of the scene — don’t run away with my baby! Then there’s the delightful neologism “motorvatin.’” It’s instantly infectious, danceable, and cinematically vivid. And he wins the race and his baby’s heart in the end. Not a bad start.
That’s just the A
–side; remember that songwriting was a singles game in the mid-’50s. The B side is “Wee Wee Hours” a lovely blues lament with spine-tingling piano accompaniment, that Berry and the band especially appreciated because, as his brilliant pianist Johnny Johnson remarked, it felt like “the first song we did, Chuck and I, that was all our own.” In other words, it was the real Black stuff and not the corny rock ’n’ roll aimed at a mass audience of white teenagers.
Smith is very much aware of this aesthetic contrast, an issue for any number of gifted Black artists of all kinds trying to make it in America. Even as Berry became wildly successful, he would still be treated as a second-class citizen, with promoters and publishers ripping him off left and right with shady contracts and dubious song credits and payola and racially targeted laws and playing to segregated audiences and having to go in through the side doors at restaurants and hotels and white groups who are covering your songs making 10 times what you do and don’t even think about checking out any of the local women and be grateful that we even let someone like you in here to entertain us in the first place. One false move, and you’ll be dragged out of the spotlight.
What’s more, a significant part of Berry’s success relied on figuring out how to win over a predominantly white audience, to get mainstream America dancing to his tune. Despite his great accomplishments, Berry was always in a precarious state, duck walking along the edge of disaster. His visibility begged the very pressing social question, especially with Jim Crow alive and well, of exactly how much space a talented, handsome, charismatic Black man was allowed to claim in mid-century America.
A born tinkerer, Berry knew perfectly well what was up: “a student of the radio, always listening, [he] started to think about it in an almost mechanical way: to play music for more people, find out what they want to hear.” But, of course, there were already places for Black musicians to play, other places for whites; there were radio shows for country music, other shows for rhythm and blues. Berry’s radical act was to have a laugh by pretending distinctions didn’t matter.” Pretending is an important word here: Smith tells us enough about the nitty gritty of Berry’s life to show that he knew perfectly well how much those racial distinctions mattered and how he was able to subvert them anyway.
“School Days” wasn’t necessarily autobiographical, but the tour through a day in the life of an average high school kid is perfect. “American history and practical math/ you study ‘em hard and hopin’ to pass/ workin’ your fingers right down to the bone/ and the guy behind you won’t leave you alone.” As one person Smith quotes puts it: “I don’t care who you are, everybody knows exactly what that feels like.” The guitar responds to the narrative as it unfolds piece by piece. He knows what all kids want once the last bell rings and school’s finally out: where’s the party, the jukebox, the hamburger joint? I love the playfully grand way he rolls his tongue when he says “drrrrrop the coin right into the slot.” Who doesn’t relate to how great that feels, punching the keys to hear the songs you love?
Like plenty of singers before him, Berry was code-switching before there was an official term for it. Smith describes it like so: “key to getting a song over was positioning himself in various cultural traditions, and it started, he said, with his voice, the sound of words and the weight he put on them and where they fell around the beat. It was my intention to hold both the black and the white clientele by voicing the different kinds of songs in their customary tongues.’ Paul Laurence Dunbar could not have put the point any more clearly.”
You can see examples of this everywhere once you know how to spot it, and part of what made Berry a genius was his ability to smuggle some serious social critique through customs. He could tell a complex while encouraging the greasers and bobby soxers to get up and commence to “reelin’ and a-rockin’” — a perfectly worthwhile endeavor on its own. Ideally you want to get the hips shaking and the mind working simultaneously.
Case in point: 1956’s “Brown Eyed Handsome Man.” A perfectly fun and catchy tune on the surface level, but that title signifies more than might appear at first blush, especially when you consider what the brown-eyed handsome man who wrote it knew. Right in the first line we have “arrested on charges of unemployment” which goes by so fast that you might not stop to consider the direct reference to Jim Crow and the laws against “vagrancy” which meant that in many places a Black person could easily be tossed in jail for hanging out in the wrong place and the wrong time, for being homeless or “loitering with intent” or being tipsy in public or for pretty much whatever reason the local law enforcement felt like giving.
The titular character doesn’t suffer such a fate, however: the judge’s wife pulls a string with the DA and demands that he be set free. As the verses unroll, a woman wanders the desert to get to find her man in Bombay, a mother instructs her beautiful daughter to forget her square bougie suitors and go with this type of guy, who is “just like your Daddy” which may well be a nod towards interracial marriage, which, let’s remember, was also against the law.
We are even winkingly informed that this has been the case “ever since the world began” — those brown-eyed handsome men just can’t be resisted since the dawn of time. This is also about turning the white gaze’s hypersexualized stereotypes of Black folks on its head: in this song being irresistibly sexy is a form of empowerment, of subversion of the rigid white dominated social order, an idea that will be passed on to plenty of Black artists after him. And I like the final added touch about another hero knocking one out of the park to win the ball game, a sly reference to the ways in which Black excellence, when denied other opportunities, stubbornly makes itself known.
Packing that song in as the B side of “Too Much Monkey Business” is quite a one-two punch, artistically speaking. In this tune we get a hep cat’s scoff at all the hassles of modern life, beginning with shoddy accommodations in the army, which by then had only been desegregated a few years ago, and would have had a particular resonance for a generation of Black men who returned from fighting fascism and for democracy abroad only to seek “the double victory” of full equality at home. Then there’s the bills, the salesman’s hard sell, the boredom of domesticity, and the daily hustle at the gas station: “too many tasks/ wipe the windows, check the tires, check the oil, a dollar gas.”
“No Money Down” is a surreal bluesy anecdote about trying to buy the ultimate car. It’s THE ultimate symbol of American freedom, especially during the postwar boom of the ’50s, with a new coast-to-coast highway system stretching from sea to shining sea, and a gleaming status symbol proving that you had it together. No wonder Berry proudly collected them. “All you need is a guitar and a car” he liked to say. There’s a reason for the constant namechecking of different spots all around the country that his characters hit up in their quest for freedom and adventure, where people are inevitably rockin’ to the brand-new beat.
Our confident main character rolls up at the dealership and guns the motor twice because he wants it all, proudly specifying the ultimate tricked-
“Roll Over Beethoven” is still an electrifying tune, heralding the new rules of pop culture populism, teaching you how to dance to the new music. “Well, if you feel it and like it/ go get your lover/ then reel and rock it/ roll on up and try for further/ then reel and rock with one another.” It’s fun to give old Ludwig Van a reason to perk up, and maybe flip his wig a little, which I think the fiery old maestro would actually have appreciated.
Berry also excels at doing character studies, a distinctly literary skill you don’t always see in rock songwriting. People have called him the Ernest Hemingway of rock, which isn’t quite right. In terms of compression, yes, there’s no question he can pack a lot of dramatic information in a very small number of words. But he doesn’t have the tragic sensibility and obsession with tough guy stoicism over Death and Nothingness.
He’s more of a sly social satirist with an eye for internal drama, as in “Nadine” a rollicking tune about romantic idealization which Smith seems to enjoy quite a bit, the comic twists of fate in “Havana Moon” and “No Particular Place to Go,” or the devastatingly subtle domestic drama about a father trying to get in touch with his estranged daughter in “Memphis, Tennessee.” Lately, my personal favorite has been “Downbound Train” a haunting little number about the perils of drink that takes us on a reverb-drenched ride of the damned.
“You Never Can Tell,” one of his greatest songs, written while in jail, paints a vivid technicolor portrait of a young hipster couple, telling us what they eat (“the coolerator was crammed with TV dinners and ginger ale”) what’s in their record collection (“seven hundred little records, all rock rhythm and jazz”) and how they zoom down to the crescent city to celebrate their anniversary. It’s about how love writes its own rules, creates a world of two, and how no one else can understand or change it, they can only smile and shrug at those crazy kids. Not to mention it’s the perfect soundtrack to one of the greatest movie dance sequences of all time.
It must be said that despite Berry’s brilliant streak of superb singles throughout the ’50s and ’60s, he pretty much kept rehashing his classic catalogue over and over as the years progressed. After being blatantly screwed over in any number of ways early on, Berry took an understandably no-nonsense businesslike approach to playing live: here’s the contract, now sign that line, give me whatever pickup band you’ve thrown together as backup, and I’ll do exactly that which is specifically designated, and no more. I’ll be taking my money now, thank you, actually, you know what — I’m gonna need some more, and I’ll be starting and stopping the show on the dot. You really can’t blame him, everyone’s got to pay the bills, and Berry certainly had his share. Being a seasoned pro meant that he reserved the right to retain control by any means necessary.
Those control freak tendencies really started to cross some serious moral lines when women were involved. Berry certainly didn’t have any trouble finding excited young girls to slide into the back seat of his Cadillac, and he certainly wasn’t checking any IDs on any of the little queenies who lined up after the show. Things go from sleazy to salacious to just plain sordid, and we get quite a few eyebrow-raising examples of how Chuck Berry gratified himself at pretty much every opportunity, in increasingly gross ways.
There’s no excuse for putting cameras in the bathrooms of your restaurant, to take but one egregious example of his creepiness, and that’s not even where the penchant for surreptitious videotaping ended, either. Smith is clear-eyed about his subject’s unsavory tendencies, writing “that is the nature of researching the life of Chuck Berry: one minute you are basking in the greatness of the man, how he made you feel … and the next moment bodily fluids are seeping into the frame.”
Maybe Berry’s most biographical song is “Johnny Be Goode” which to be sure has nothing whatsoever to do with the actual biographical details of his life, which he liked to play around with to amuse himself and confuse interviewers. It might be how he imagined himself in relation to the rest of the country. This hero’s origin story goes deep into the Louisiana woods, close to the musically mythological city of New Orleans, one of the essential birthplaces of all American music, where a simple country boy born in a Lincoln-esque “log cabin made of earth and wood” sits by the railroad tracks, strumming his guitar in tune with that propulsive rhythm, absorbing the power of a technique that can conquer great distances, dreaming of the day his name will be in lights.
Which it surely was. Berry was certainly proud of what he had accomplished, and he had every right to be, though I suspect he harbored plenty of lingering bitterness over how he’d been treated. Sometimes it can help an artist to know what their audience wants, though it’s also true that it’s dangerous to be at the mercy of mainstream taste. Trickster hero that he was, Chuck Berry knew what he was doing when he created his slick, debonair, immaculately poised image, which kept his true nature elusive. He always seemed to be one step ahead of everyone else. As he put it in “You Can’t Catch Me”: “if you get too close, I’m gone like a coooool breeze.”•