Ex­ud­ing the dan­ger­ous ap­peal of rock mu­sic

Icon was a rare ex­am­ple of the singer-com­poser

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - CHUCK BERRY 1926-2017 BY TER­ENCE MCAR­DLE

Chuck Berry, the per­pet­ual wild man of rock mu­sic who helped de­fine its re­bel­lious spirit in the 1950s and was the sly poet lau­re­ate of songs about girls, cars, school and even the “any old way you choose it” vi­tal­ity of the mu­sic it­self, died March 18 at his home in St. Charles County, Mo. He was 90.

St. Charles County po­lice an­nounced the death in a Facebook post on its web­site, say­ing of­fi­cers re­sponded to a med­i­cal emer­gency at Mr. Berry’s home and ad­min­is­tered life­sav­ing tech­niques but could not re­vive him. No fur­ther in­for­ma­tion was avail­able.

“While no in­di­vid­ual can be said to have in­vented rock and roll, Chuck Berry comes the clos­est of any sin­gle fig­ure to be­ing the one who put all the es­sen­tial pieces to­gether,” reads Mr. Berry’s in­duc­tion into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.

A sem­i­nal fig­ure in early rock mu­sic, he was all the rarer still for writ­ing, singing and playing his own mu­sic. His songs and the bois­ter­ous per­for­mance stan­dards he set di­rectly in­flu­enced the Bea­tles and the Rolling Stones and later Bruce Spring­steen and

Bob Seger.

Mr. Berry so em­bod­ied the Amer­i­can rock tra­di­tion that his record­ing of “Johnny B. Goode” was in­cluded on a disc launched into space on the Voy­ager 1 space­craft in 1977.

Be­sides Mr. Berry, mem­bers of the rock hall of fame’s in­au­gu­ral class in­cluded Elvis Pres­ley, Buddy Holly, James Brown, Jerry Lee Lewis, Lit­tle Richard, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino and the Everly Brothers. Of those he sur­vived, Mr. Berry re­mained among the most in­de­fati­ga­ble and ac­claimed per­form­ers, playing con­certs all over the world well into his 80s.

De­spite John Len­non’s oftquoted quip — “If you tried to give rock-and-roll an­other name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’ ” — Mr. Berry was an un­likely idol for a bur­geon­ing teen sub­cul­ture that he sang about at the dawn of the rock era.

He was 30, mar­ried and the father of two when he made his first record­ing, “May­bel­lene” in 1955. The song — a story of a man in a Ford V8 chas­ing his un­faith­ful girl­friend in a Cadil­lac Coupe de Ville — charted No. 1 on Bill­board’s rhythm-and-blues chart and No. 5 on the pop mu­sic charts.

It was soon fol­lowed by “Rock and Roll Mu­sic” (“it’s got a back­beat, you can’t lose it”) and “Sweet Lit­tle Six­teen,” whose as­tute ref­er­ence to the teen-ori­ented TV show “Amer­i­can Band­stand” (“Well, they’ll be rockin’ on Band­stand, Philadel­phia, P.A.”) helped him con­nect to ado­les­cent record buy­ers.

With his lithe, ath­letic body, high cheek­bones and per­fectly po­maded hair, Mr. Berry per­son­i­fied the dan­ger­ous ap­peal of rock. He’d grin sala­ciously and tele­graph the lyrics with a wide-eyed, al­most child­like ex­u­ber­ance and then shoot across the stage, un­leash­ing a stac­cato burst of bright, blar­ing gui­tar notes.

When he went into his sig­na­ture “duck walk,” his legs seemed to be made of rub­ber, and his whole body moved with clock­like pre­ci­sion — the vis­ual state­ment of his mu­sic’s ki­netic en­ergy. His charisma was the gold stan­dard for all the rock-and-roll ex­tro­verts who fol­lowed.

He once told The Washington Post that he ini­ti­ated the duck walk at the Brook­lyn Paramount theater in 1956, based on a pose he some­times struck as a child. “I had noth­ing else to do dur­ing the in­stru­men­tal part of the song,” he said. “I did it, and here comes the ap­plause. Well, I knew to coin any­thing that was that en­ter­tain­ing, so I kept it up.”

Rooted in the blues

Mr. Berry was cred­ited with pen­ning more than 100 songs, the best known of which used care­fully crafted rhymes and of­fered tightly writ­ten vi­gnettes about Amer­i­can life. They be­came an in­flu­en­tial part of the na­tional sound­track for gen­er­a­tions of lis­ten­ers and prac­ti­tion­ers.

“Back in the U.S.A.” (1959), later cov­ered by Linda Ron­stadt, de­lighted in an Amer­ica where “ham­burg­ers siz­zle on an open grill night and day.” And “School Day (Ring! Ring! Goes the Bell)” (1957), writ­ten about the over­crowded St. Louis schools of Mr. Berry’s youth, be­came an an­them for bored, rest­less kids ev­ery­where.

The Beach Boys had a hit record with “Surfin’ USA” (1963), its melody bor­rowed with­out credit from “Sweet Lit­tle Six­teen.” The Bea­tles be­gan their first U.S. con­cert, at the Washington Coli­seum, with Mr. Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven” (1956).

And when Bob Dy­lan turned to­ward elec­tric rock-and-roll, he ac­knowl­edged that his “Sub­ter­ranean Home­sick Blues” (1965) bor­rowed its me­ter al­most di­rectly from Mr. Berry’s “Too Much Mon­key Busi­ness’’ (1956).

Per­haps the most per­formed of his songs — in­deed, one of the most per­formed of all rock songs — was “Johnny B. Goode” (1957). Its story line em­bod­ied Mr. Berry’s own ex­pe­ri­ence as a black man born into seg­re­ga­tion who lived to see “his name in lights:”

Deep down Louisiana close to New Or­leans

Way back up in the woods among the ev­er­greens

There stood a log cabin made of earth and wood

Where lived a coun­try boy named Johnny B. Goode

Who never ever learned to read or write so well

But he could play the gui­tar just like a ringin’ a bell

“The gate­way from free­dom, I was told, was some­where near New Or­leans where most Africans were sorted through and sold” into slav­ery, Mr. Berry wrote in his self-ti­tled 1987 mem­oir. “I’d been told my grand­fa­ther lived ‘back up in the woods among the ev­er­greens’ in a log cabin. I re­vived the era with a story about a ‘col­ored boy named Johnny B. Goode.’ ”

Mr. Berry said he knew the song could have a wider ap­peal. “I thought it would seem bi­ased to my white fans to say ‘col­ored boy’ so I changed it to ‘coun­try boy,’ ” he added.

In an in­ter­view with The Washington Post this year, rock his­to­rian Al­bin Zak called Mr. Berry a “very lit­er­ate” word­smith but that more im­por­tant was the “dura­bil­ity” of his songs.

“In early rock-and-roll, there were so many one-hit won­ders, but Chuck had so many hits that he was one of the most rec­og­niz­able stars in the busi­ness,” Zak said. “When rock be­came so­lid­i­fied in 1964 and the British in­va­sion comes along with bands like the Bea­tles and Rolling Stones per­form­ing Chuck Berry songs, it seals the deal on the vi­tal­ity of that reper­toire. His mu­sic be­came tra­di­tion at that point.”

De­spite Mr. Berry’s charisma, race played a fac­tor in pre­vent­ing him from achiev­ing Elvis-like lev­els of com­mer­cial suc­cess in Hol­ly­wood and Las Ve­gas. He had hits in­clud­ing “No Par­tic­u­lar Place to Go” (1964) and “Dear Dad” (1965) and ap­peared in “The T.A.M.I. Show,” a 1965 con­cert film with James Brown, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys and Marvin Gaye. But Mr. Berry was rel­e­gated to the oldies cir­cuit by the end of the decade.

In 1987, in the wake of his in­duc­tion into the rock hall of fame, Mr. Berry re­leased his mem­oir and was the sub­ject of “Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll,” a doc­u­men­tary and con­cert film fea­tur­ing guest per­form­ers in­clud­ing Keith Richards and Eric Clap­ton.

At the time, Mr. Berry said he was wary of ac­cept­ing a crown — be­stowed by crit­ics or peers — as a “king” of rock mu­sic.

“It’s not me to toot my horn,” he told The Washington Post. “The minute you toot your horn, it seems like so­ci­ety will try and dis­con­nect your bat­tery. And if you do not toot your horn, they’ll try their darnedest to give you a horn to toot, or say that you should have a horn. It’s them that cre­ates the de­mand, so let them toot the horn.”

Ris­ing to the top

Charles Ed­ward An­der­son Berry was born in St. Louis on Oct. 18, 1926. His father was a car­pen­ter and handy­man.

He was 14 when he be­gan playing gui­tar and per­form­ing at par­ties, but that was in­ter­rupted by a three-year stint in re­form school for his role in a bun­gled armed rob­bery. Af­ter his re­lease, he worked on an au­to­mo­bile as­sem­bly line while study­ing for a ca­reer in hair­dress­ing.

On week­ends, he sang at the Cos­mopoli­tan Club in East St. Louis, Ill., with a group led by pi­anist John­nie Johnson, who later played on many of Mr. Berry’s records.

At the urg­ing of Muddy Wa­ters, Mr. Berry took his demo tapes to Chess Records, the Chicago la­bel that spe­cial­ized in blues and ur­ban rhythm-and-blues. La­bel owner Leonard Chess was im­pressed by “Ida May,” a coun­tryand-western-styled tune, and said he would al­low Mr. Berry to record it if he would change the name to “May­bel­lene.”

The song’s coun­tri­fied style and Mr. Berry’s non-bluesy in­to­na­tion re­port­edly led many disc jock­eys to as­sume that he was white, and the song’s pop­u­lar­ity with white record-buy­ers helped spur his quick rise in the mu­sic in­dus­try.

His savvy about the un­sa­vory busi­ness prac­tices of the day — giv­ing co-writ­ing cred­its to DJs, such as Alan Freed, in ex­change for fre­quent air­play — also pro­pelled his ca­reer.

String of le­gal woes

His ca­reer was nearly de­railed in 1959, when he was ar­rested on a fed­eral charge of tak­ing a 14year-old girl across state lines for im­moral pur­poses. Mr. Berry was con­victed but granted an ap­peal on the ba­sis of racist re­marks made by the judge. A sec­ond trial also ended in a con­vic­tion. Mr. Berry even­tu­ally served 18 months of a three-year sen­tence and paid a $10,000 fine.

He was re­leased in 1963, soon to find his ca­reer over­taken by a sec­ond wave of rock­ers and the so-called British in­va­sion of bands, such as the Bea­tles and the Rolling Stones. He con­tin­ued to be drawn into the head­lines by le­gal trou­bles. In 1979, he served four months in Lom­poc Fed­eral Prison in Cal­i­for­nia for tax eva­sion.

In 1989, Hosana Huck, a cook in Mr. Berry’s St. Louis restau­rant, the South­ern Air, sued him, claim­ing that he se­cretly video­taped her and other women in the es­tab­lish­ment’s re­stroom. Huck’s suit was fol­lowed by a class-ac­tion suit by other un­named women. Mr. Berry de­nied any wrong­do­ing but set­tled out of court in 1995 for $1.5 mil­lion.

In 1948, Mr. Berry mar­ried Themetta Suggs, known as Toddy. In­for­ma­tion on sur­vivors was not im­me­di­ately avail­able.

Mr. Berry re­ceived a Grammy Award for life­time achieve­ment in 1984 and the Kennedy Cen­ter Hon­ors in 2000.

In later years, when Mr. Berry re­flected on his age, he al­ways made it clear that he in­tended to keep rock­ing as long as he lived.

“Elvis’s songs will al­ways be there, and I hope mine will be af­ter I’m gone,” he told the Los An­ge­les Times in 2002. “But you can’t com­pare that, be­cause he’s gone and I’m not!”


Chuck Berry with his Gib­son hol­low body elec­tric gui­tar.


Chuck Berry in con­cert Oct. 17, 1986, at the Fox Theatre in St. Louis. Berry was in­ducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. To see more pic­tures, go to www.wash­ing­ton­post.com/photo.

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