Books

Chuck's Berry Good Book

Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry backstage at London's Wembley Stadium, September 1972.
Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry backstage at London's Wembley Stadium, September 1972. Photo from the Bill Greensmith Collection
Chuck Berry was a complicated man.

He craved love, attention, and acceptance. But he could brutally deride those who gave it to him. He could be kind and generous to strangers. And harsh, cold and explosive to those closest to him.

He was a Founding Father of Rock ‘n Roll who wrote and performed scores of timeless classics like “Maybellene,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Back in the USA,” “Carol,” “Nadine,” “Reelin’ and Rockin’,” “School Days” and signature song “Johnny B. Goode.”

Yet, his only No. 1 hit—many years later—was a live version of “My Ding a Ling,” a dirty, simplistic schoolboy nursery rhyme about masturbation he performed in an affected voice.

He was a smart businessman who held to the letter of agreement when it benefitted him, but looked for every possible out—invented or not—to squeeze more money out of a nervous promoter or hapless record  or ad exec.

Chuck Berry was the greatest champion of Chuck Berry. He was also the worst enemy of Chuck Berry.

Author RJ Smith brilliantly brings together all the Complicated Chucks in this self-proclaimed “definitive biography” that actually lives up to the distinction. His Chuck Berry: An American Life (432 pp., $32, Hachette Books) gives readers background on those songs and his music, of course. But where it really succeeds is plumbing the psychological depths and driving forces of its subject in a deeper and richer way than ever before.

Growing up in St. Louis in a middle-class household, Chuck Berry was besotten with—and some might find surprising—country music. Only by blending this with R&B and blues and writing concise songs about average American teenage life to his utterly distinctive guitar, was he arguably the most important “founder” of rock and roll (though Little Richard, a lifelong frenemy, would beg to differ).

click to enlarge
Chuck Berry in 1952, before the rock 'n roll hits started.
Photo by Harry Davis/From the Bill Greensmith Collection
And if people were surprised that Elvis Presley was actually White, others were equally shocked or bemused that Chuck Berry was Black.

Beholden to no one but himself, for decades Chuck Berry showed up at gigs be they in tiny clubs or on huge Festival stages in a rented car, carrying only his guitar in a case. He expected to be paid full—and in cash—before setting foot on the stage.

And woe be to any unrehearsed band the promoter was required to hire that couldn’t play his music, got lost with his many improvisations and key changes, or just pissed him off for any reason and was then fired on stage in the middle of the show. That just wasn’t his problem.

And while that made sense to the Lone Wolf, cut-all-the-fat, Me-Myself-and-I aspect of Chuck Berry, it certainly resulted in nearly many live shows over decades that were messy shambles as on-point, ecstatic successes.

Some have said this steadfast way was the result of Berry being cheated financially in his career, or with credit. He was indeed shocked to see two other men—DJ Alan Freed and semi-gangster loanshark Russ Fratto—receive co-writing credit on “Maybellene” once he held an actual record in his hands.

But that’s the slippery way business was done in rock’s early days when payola was king. It certainly led Freed to play and push the record more, which arguably led to a sizable career boost for Berry. Smith postulates that Berry’s strict tendencies were more about control. Something Chuck Berry never wanted to give up, ever.
Chuck Berry often takes side narrative trips into areas like the history of St. Louis (background on “The Veiled Prophet” is especially interesting), racism, business and cultural traditions in the United States, and the legal side of rock and roll that most fans know little or nothing about. They are always illuminating to the story of Chuck Berry, and bolster the book’s subtitle: This is an American story.

And Berry is the Horatio Alger of his own tale, always looking to hustle, always looking to improve himself and gain a piece of knowledge that will give him the advantage of an enemy, again both real and perceived.
While serving a prison sentence, he bemoaned lazy inmates wasting taxpayer dollars doing nothing, while he was busy getting his high school diploma, taking business classes, and writing songs that would become worldwide hits after his release.

Smith doesn’t skimp on the low lights of Berry’s personal, professional, and legal life outside the music—and there are plenty. But even amidst the oft-told tales of the Mann Act violation with an underage girl, the prison sentence, tax evasion, and—later in life—explosive news that Berry had secretly videotaped women in restrooms and changing rooms in his restaurant—Smith uncovers new information and first-person accounts.
Sex is nearly a co-star to music in the narrative, and Berry’s legendary appetites for it in all forms, ways, places, and kinks (and it’s noted, pretty much exclusively with White women) is dissected. Smith postulates that the hundreds of posed naked photos he took with partners could be taken as some sort of bragging, or his own compulsive need for documentation, or a way to prove that the relations were consensual should he be faced with a lawsuit (or all three).

How his wife Themetta—married to him for 68 years and still alive today at 96—justified this in her head, even when he set up competing mistresses in different apartments on their own property?
She has said that what he did on the road or in bedrooms, that was Chuck Berry. When he came home to her and their children, he was Charles Berry (though Smith notes that when a statue of Berry was unveiled in St. Louis, protestors carried signs decrying him as a pedophile).

Let’s not forget that out there in space, some alien life form could be grooving to Chuck Berry music right now. When the Voyager 2 spacecraft launched in 1977, it contained two golden disc records to show any life form “out there” evidence what humans were like. It featured photographs, readings, classical music and…“Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry.
But even giants get old and decrepit. Chuck Berry pushed himself to perform well past the time he should have, often at the tiny Blueberry Hill Club in St. Louis. And if he forgot the words to “Johnny B. Goode,” or sang the same song three times in a row, audiences were usually more than forgiving.

Chuck was aware of his own legacy, and Smith says that one of his favorite poems was Theodore Tilton’s 1866 piece The King’s Ring. It was one of many that Berry could recite from memory, but one passage stuck with him early, and right up until he died in 2017 at the age of 90.

“Gazing at his sculptured named,
Asked himself ‘And what is Fame?’
Fame is but a slow decay,
Even this shall pass away.”

Chuck Berry’s music will likely never pass away. And with Chuck Berry: An American Life, there’s finally a multi-faceted biography for an even more faceted man.
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero