Want more Chuck Berry? Dive into the CREEM archives, here.
Few rock biographies rise to the level of their subject. In Chuck Berry: An American Life, author RJ Smith offers a detailed study of the rock ‘n’ roll pioneer; portraying a shrewd, implacable trickster who wrote an ingenious catalog. At crucial points, Smith's lively critical voice and passionate detail enliven Berry's songs, which have inimitable stature. But this surpassing history offers persistent and damning contradictions.
Born on October 18, 1926 and named after the Republican senator Charles H. Sumner, an abolitionist who argued a pioneering 1845 case against Boston school segregation, Charles Berry earned his high school nickname “Ol’ Crazy Chaws Berry” growing up in “the Ville,” the segregated neighborhood of East St. Louis. Early on, Berry became obsessed with two “magic boxes,” the family piano that his sister played, and the Victrola, which blared foxtrots. Stealing a car with some buddies landed him in the Algoa reformatory school in 1944. A missionary named Mother Robinson, from the Kansas City music scene, helped spring Berry early, and encouraged his talent. In 1952, a high school friend named Tommy Stevens reconnected about playing some gigs at a club called Huff's, and from there, Berry joined the Jeter-Pillars orchestra.
By the mid-1950s, as Elvis erupted on the nation's stage, Berry played in a band led by Johnnie Johnson, a West Virginian pianist. Johnson quickly deferred to his guitarist once he saw the easy laughs Berry got from club crowds. In May of 1955, Berry drove up to Chess Records in Chicago to meet his idol, Muddy Waters, who had “cracked open [his] soul…” This led to an early demo called “Ida Mae,” based on an old white fiddle tune that Bob Wills had tracked, called “Ida Red.” The “Ida Mae” name didn’t work (“too rural,” Chess felt), so Berry recalled an old children’s book about a cow that fit the same rhythmic pulse. This became “Maybellene,” in 36 takes, later that same month.
Even at this first session, Berry went for the same echo effect he heard on Bo Diddley’s “I’m A Man” that “supersized his bluster,” and used the house bassist, Willie Dixon, to anchor the boom. “The biggest problem was outside the room: how to frame a number that blurred the lines between country and rhythm and blues, that was neither Black like an Ike Turner record nor white like a Hank Williams one,” Smith writes. “Was it a goof, a parody? Was it for Muddy Waters’s grown-up Black fans or for teenagers or… who?”
“The biggest problem was outside the room: how to frame a number that blurred the lines between country and rhythm and blues, that was neither Black like an Ike Turner record nor white like a Hank Williams one.”
As with Presley, context proves all-important to Chuck Berry’s brand. Technology drove both the sound and its audience: louder guitars meant bigger rooms; radio gave unity and shape to regional tastes that barely had a national identity. It became a place where you could hear all types of music. Unlike Presley, who alerted white ears to black sources, Berry aroused the black roots of country music. Smith points out how “notably free of a direct influence of the church” Berry’s music was, how it sounded more like Country & Western, and how uncanny that once seemed. “Ike Turner called country his favorite kind of music,” Smith says. “The idea that it is an inherently white form is disproved both by country’'s origins and its audience.”
Smith also unpacks Berry’s material with zeal (and who wouldn’t? In CREEM, Christgau labeled Berry “the inventor of rock ’n’ roll.”) Discussing a 1964 hit Bruce Springsteen sponged, Smith writes, “From the start, ‘Promised Land’ feels tossed off, musically and lyrically, and that’s a big part of its power,” he writes. Why does the song mention a place called “Rock Hill,” alongside Raleigh and Charlotte, North Carolina? Because Rock Hill was the place where Freedom Riders challenged the new Supreme Court ruling integrating the Greyhound buses crossing state lines in 1960. When the protesters entered Rock Hill station on May 9, 1961, they were beaten by white nationalists, who left 21-year-old John Lewis “lying in blood.”
The song later mentions rolling into Atlanta “by sundown, rolling outta the Georgia State,” referring to the sundown laws, where “nonlocals would be subjected to jail or worse if caught after dark.” Berry deliberately included the name Rock Hill for its symbolic power embodying what the Freedom Rides were all about. When the song appeared in December 1964, the first Civil Rights Act had passed, and spurred by Beatlemania, Berry enjoyed one of the biggest string of hits since 1958. The Beatles proclaimed “Nadine” the “record of the week” to New York City radio DJ Murray the K on WINS. Then came “No Particular Place to Go” and the teenage wedding song, “You Never Can Tell.” That same year, Johnny Rivers took “Memphis” to the top ten, and Lonnie Mack turned in his instrumental version, as though the song never ended.
“Berry’s radical act was to have a laugh by pretending distinctions didn’t matter,” Smith argues. “‘If you ever want to see something that is far out,’ [Berry] said, ‘Watch a crowd of colored folk, half-high, wholeheartedly doing the hoedown barefooted.’ Berry saw this as just the beginning.”
“Berry’s radical act was to have a laugh by pretending distinctions didn’t matter.”
Moving through Berry’s life, a marriage, children, and a scrappy cash-only business practice, Smith’s piercing descriptions pin the musician’s upbeat songs to their worried times. “Berry was a lifelong baseball fan, and ‘Brown Eyed Handsome Man’ was written during the final year that Jackie Robinson, the man who broke baseball’s color line, played ball,” he writes. “The song finishes with the brown-eyed man up to bat, the game on the line, and he hits a home run to win it all. In the song, he starts out as a victim and ends up as a hero: an American folk song for the Civil Rights era.”
As the narrative continues, the music loses some of its smile the more you learn about Berry’s behavior. As “Johnny B. Goode” (Berry’s stylistic totem, with its core riff native to all guitarists) climbed the charts in 1958, one Andrew Pallardy of the St. Charles, Missouri police department, spied Berry trying to pull a spare tire out of his Cadillac’s trunk on Highway 74. Pallardy thought he might be a thief. In the back seat sat 17-year-old Joan Mathis, white, described as a “girlfriend.” A search turned up a gun, a “.25 caliber French MAB pistol” under the driver’s seat. The firearm violation required a court date, where Berry’s lawyer seemed taken aback at his screaming fans. The next day after that court appearance, Berry recorded “Carol” in Chicago.
“Of course they wanted to stop Chuck Berry,” Smith writes. “From ‘Maybellene’ on, he was a prophet of Black mobility. He was himself in flight, taking Black music to white audiences across the country with a fury. His red Cadillac demanded that you see him and remember his name. He liked fucking in the back seat while Johnnie drove. He was a victim and a victimizer.”
Then, in December of 1959, after a gig in El Paso, Texas, Berry picked up a 14-year-old named Janice Escalanti across the border in Juarez, Mexico, and brought her back to work at his Club Bandstand in St. Louis. She quickly rebelled against Berry, refusing to show up at work, or play the "hat-check" girl Berry demanded, or blindly follow his rules. He tried to put her on a bus back to El Paso, and things unraveled from there.
Prosecutors charged Berry with violating the Mann Act, also known as the White-Slave Traffic Act, a federal law that supposedly protected white girls from “acts of debauchery.” (Under J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI was famously tracking all Black celebrities and the whites who promoted them.) After Berry appealed a first guilty verdict, he was convicted a second time. He received a $5,000 fine and a three-year jail term. In February, 1962, Berry entered a federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, eventually transferring to Leavenworth, Kansas.
Berry spent a year and a half in prison, took classes to complete his high school diploma, wrote up new songs, and earned a sentence reduction for good behavior. Too often, however, this prison sentence has been brushed off as the white power establishment locking up another Black man, but Smith’s research clarifies and makes plain Berry’s pursuit of underage girls. This period of incarceration didn’t end Berry’s legal troubles, either: in 1979, he was convicted of tax evasion, and in 1990, he settled a class-action lawsuit brought by dozens of women who claimed they had been videotaped in the bathroom of a restaurant he owned.
In a twist worthy of one of his songs, Berry’s only Number One hit came with “My Ding-A-Ling,” in 1972, which most consider a cosmic farce (especially since it belonged to the New Orleans producer, Dave Bartholomew).
Throughout his narrative, Smith makes intriguing connections between Berry's behavior, outlook, and writing, playing with words just like his subject. When Smith describes a guitar texture as a “congested thrum,” for example, he’s drunk on Berry wordplay, not unlike Berry’s own self-created terms like "Southern Hospitaboo." Smith nabs it as a chapter title, calling it “a mash-up of Southern hospitality with taboo. The collision of sexually available white women and the threat to your life that sex with them promised.”
You can hear how his anger fuels the music’s joy, and how hard it is to reconcile Berry’s charm with his transgressions.
Throughout, Smith persuades you that Berry weaponized his notoriety as slow-motion revenge against a racist state throughout his life. When you listen to 2021’s Live from Blueberry Hill, the ecstatic live record made at Berry’s club, released after his death in 2017, you can hear how his anger fuels the music’s joy, and how hard it is to reconcile Berry’s charm with his transgressions.
In the end, Smith draws an indefensible man who made soaring, history-changing music. As shrewd and insightful as the author can be here, he lets the great Washington University critic, Gerald Early, upstage him: “Those were the years, then, in which America recognized, and cringed before…an unquenchable thirst for mixing. And the ‘new’ popular music helped to expose the false separation of America from itself, by revealing the culture’s essential fusion all the more inescapably.” You could say rock 'n' roll unleashed this tension, and Chuck Berry duck-walked it into the history books.