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chuck book  Remembering Chuck Berry: The Brown-Eyed Handsome Man as Prometheus

On the passing of rock music's first and possibly its greatest troubadour...

There have been a flurry of retrospectives about the life, music and career of Chuck Berry after his passing this week. I could not resist adding another to the pile, since Chuck was always on my list of favorite musicians. As I read the impressive number of tributes and obituaries, there wasn't enough direct discussion of the art itself, and I also found considerable reluctance to dig into what we might call the "difficult" parts of the Chuck Berry story. (Though a few weeks after I posted this, Rolling Stone weighed in with a deep look at the messy parts of the story.) The mainstream tributes didn't really go past the easy topics of what he meant to other musicians and how he helped shape rock n' roll forever, though I found a few brave attempts to reckon with the “complexity” of Chuck's life. The more I look into Chuck's life and work, the more I see an epic character of drama, quite Shakespearean, perhaps even more like an ancient Greek protagonist.

Before I get going here, please understand that even though I am a “folk” or “acoustic” guy, I was galvanized as a child by hearing Chuck Berry songs on the radio. They sound as good to me now as they did 50 years ago. When I started playing guitar around 1968 one of the first albums I ever bought was the Chuck Berry: Golden Decade (1967), and one of the only songbooks I ever bought was his Anthology. I still have both of them, and can reel off a dozen or so Chuck Berry classics that are permanently embedded in my memory.

I bought and devoured his autobiography a few years ago, and I went to see him play twice, around 1971 and 1972. You’d never know that to listen to my music; there are a tiny handful of tracks among the 520+ cuts I have recorded that show any hint of his guitar influence on me. (the Six-Shooter Stomp on my Artistry of the 6-String Banjo album, “Duncan and Brady” on “Steel Drivin’ Man” and versions of Chuck’s “Memphis” and “You Never Can Tell” featured on the 56 song boxed set The Song Train that I made with my wife Joyce Andersen in 2007.) Twice I tried to record a solo version of No Particular Place To Go, but I never released any of them, and my love and admiration for Chuck Berry has had little outlet in my life as I have become Mr. Solo Acoustic Troubadour guy.

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So what do I see when I look at Chuck Berry though my Modern Troubadour lens?

I see a body of brilliant music as well as the performer and creator all shining like a gemstone, but I also see the shadow of something very dark around the man and his art. The fact that the Beatles recorded 9 of Chuck's songs and the Rolling Stones did 13 speaks strongly of how powerful his muse was. Those of us who are fascinated and moved by someone's art are naturally drawn to understand more about the person who created it. Sometimes the stories mesh nicely, and sometimes they don't. When you try to get closer to Chuck Berry to understand his art and to try to get a sense of where it came from, you run into a complex, powerful and defensive man guarding it and deflecting your inquiries. As I ponder him and his legacy I see him alternately as a brave pioneer not unlike those first men in space, or perhaps a wayward son, a lost sheep, or even an Icarus figure who flew too close to the sun.

The best source of information about his personal life is the 327 page "Chuck Berry: The Autobiography" (1987). It's not a summer beach read; you need to be a hard-core fan of Mr. Berry to wade into this book, and it doesn't paint a rosy picture of a happy man. Probably the most interesting thing about it is that he wrote every sentence in it, and did not use a ghost writer. He was very anxious to tell us his story, with much "gory" detail, though very little of what he talked about was guitars or songwriting, or his musical path and influences. There are proverbs about how some things we wish we hadn't learned about, and now I think I prefer the achy feeling of wishing I had a better idea of what Chuck Berry's muse was like to my present feeling of wondering why that muse chose that man to be its channel.

Chuck Berry poured out a fountain of magnificent music for a few years from 1955 to about 1964 when the pure musical genius stopped spouting out of him. The last album he made that wasn't a compilation of older cuts was the 1979 "Rock It" that has some sizzle and sounds like Chuck, but to my ears never enters the magical realm he used to go to effortlessly. He was in prison for about 2 years of that 8 year stretch, further shortening the "magic window" to about 6 years when he burned like a supernova. He was 30 when that window opened, bringing us the music that changed so many lives. Not long after 1964 the creative spigot shut off, and whatever it was that gave us that astounding guitar sound, those infectious rhythms and brilliant lyrics pretty much ended, or lost a magical property it had shown so much of.

For the last several decades, Chuck was not just a singer/songwriter in semi-retirement, with his kind of music getting old-fashioned as he became decreasingly relevant. He was playing gigs and rocking pretty hard right up till the end at age 90. As he tells his life story, it's not all pretty, and some of the jarring events in his life are in pretty stark contrast to the happy energy and upbeat themes of his best-known songs. I get this vision of him instead as more of a war veteran with several forms of PTSD, who was a bit too long on the battlefield.

That is the mystery of Chuck Berry: where did that art come from, and where did it go? It's vastly easier to answer the latter question when it involves a Buddy Holly or Jimi Hendrix who died young. But that intense musical spirit that was bursting out of Chuck Berry back then– what did it do for the last 50 years? How does a genie like that get out of the bottle, and what makes it go back in? The other question we must ask ourselves is one I won't even attempt to answer, which is "What gives us the right to want more from a creator like Chuck Berry than he already gave us?" I guess it's just human nature to want more of a good thing, especially when it's that good.

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Chuck Berry the Unconventional Story

I have always marveled at how shallow our culture is about the stories behind its artists. We basically only like a very few of the narratives. We tolerate the "overlooked genius" story but it doesn't get printed that often, probably because it is fundamentally sad and bitter-tasting.

These seem to be the Big Three:

1) Rags to riches– You know, the guy or gal had nothing as a kid, but that music came into their lives and now they have several big houses and lot of fancy cars and clothes. We like the country version of it, and the blues version, and the modern urban version. Even the recent version, where they were sleeping on friends' couches and now all of a sudden it's big hotels and tour buses...

2) Born to do it– We love to hear about the Cajun accordion player who grew up amid the culture, with the family all playing music and eating awesome home-made food. We like the highbrow version, where the kid's parents are conductors or composers, and we go nuts for the rural bluegrass or country or Native American or Southern Rock versions, where the young artist absorbs the art from the old-fashioned culture that surrounds them.

3) Young and tragic– our favorite story of all is the unlucky or tormented genius who gives us that all-too-short a career before the tragic death. Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Jaco Pastorius, Otis Redding, Janis Joplin, Hank Williams, Buddy Holly, Mozart, Dinu Lipatti. The list is endless, and all the stories are heart-wrenching as we ponder what might have been.

If your musical story is not close to one or more of those standard stories, it's hard for people to digest you as a source of magic. I don't understand why this seems to be true, but I have noticed for years how much easier it is for the artists who fit one of the templates nicely. Everyone knows what to say about them. And guess what? Chuck Berry's story is way too messy, and the more we learn about him the man the less we understand his art. His is not an uncommon story, though it's never the type they make the movie about. We sure don't like the "he's a genius but he's weird" story template, which might be the one that best applies to Chuck Berry. It's too hard to empathize with the main character. Chuck was trained as a hairdresser, was quite good at house painting and carpentry work, and could fix cars. He was a very skilled photographer, and taught himself to be a fine typist; he understood finer points of tax and copyright law...

Chuck Berry the Musician

Of course I see the stunning guitar work and the brilliant songwriting and performing that everyone else sees in Chuck Berry's art. His music screams at us to notice its brilliance and lightning-bolt energy. His musicianship has aways stood out; never equalled or surpassed in its energy or craftsmanship. First let's talk about his guitar work.

Chuck's music appealed to both black and white audiences, but he was very much a black man, and it's not unreasonable to look at him as a black musician and not just as a musician. Hotels and water fountains in large parts of the U.S. were segregated during much of his career. He told of promoters putting ropes down the middle of his audience in the South, with white audience members on one side and blacks on the other. As a black musician, he inherited a lineage of African-American guitarists going back in recordings to Lonnie Johnson in the 1920's, and the shoulders that he stood on included Charlie Christian, T-Bone Walker, Carl Hogan, Elmore James, Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters among others. Chuck was also about the same age as a new generation of post-war black electric blues guitar players that included B.B. King, Gatemouth Brown, Albert King, Buddy Guy, Lowell Fulson, Little Milton and Bo Diddley. But in the mid-1950's, the fuse was lit, and the cultural fusion of African-American rhythm and blues with white country and rockabilly music was beginning to bring us what we know of as rock n' roll. A number of the participants in the big explosion happened to be in the right place at the right time with the right skill set, and others came rushing in from nearby places to join the party.

If you study the early history of American popular music, you find an endless "cat and mouse" game where small record labels first put out exciting new records, and the bigger record companies copied them and bought them out. Early rock n' roll was no exception. This new music had its first hit record in 1951 with "Rocket 88," though it was far from a huge hit record, and just a tiny tip of the coming iceberg. At that time this new music had a big element of piano and boogie-woogie in it, and indeed many of the seminal artists like Fats Domino, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis were piano players. On the rockabilly side of the "explosion" were a number of Merle Travis-influenced white guitarists, notably Carl Perkins, Paul Burlison and Scotty Moore, who played lead guitar on Elvis Presley's early hits. There were also a number of influential and prominent jazz electric guitar players like Les Paul, Nick Lucas, Eddy Lang, Johnny Smith and George Barnes that might have offered ideas or influences to guitarists of that era, though they never really stole the spotlight away from the horn players, vocalists and pianists the way rock guitarists began to do.

Chuck Berry's guitar playing came more from the "jump-blues" world rather than the rockabilly, though he does admit that he was trying to play country music when he crystallized his sound with his version of Ida Red, later named Maybellene. His playing was phenomenal in 1956, and it still is now. Indeed he was a true Prometheus of the guitar, who brought fire to Earth, and perhaps like Prometheus he made Zeus angry. Chuck was one of those rare pioneers like Django Reinhardt or Earl Scruggs who invents the game and also hits the ball farther than anyone else. Not only did Chuck play those parts better than anyone before or since- he invented them, too. Nobody you ever heard of has ever matched either the notes or the musical and rhythmic excitement of Chuck’s guitar solo on Johnny B. Goode, except perhaps Billy Coover or a few other unknown barroom guitar slingers. Brad Paisley got a lot of press last week for his timely tribute, but his duckwalk was pitiful and he only could come up with one part of Chuck's signature JBG guitar lick.

As important and influential as Chuck Berry's guitar style was, the tree it grew on didn't produce a lot of new branches. An interesting aspect of Chuck Berry's gigantic influence on the new world of rock n' roll guitar playing is that he seems to have primarily ignited legions of young white players like Duane Eddy, The Ventures, Rick Derringer, Eric Clapton, Keith Richard, John Lennon, Steve Miller, George Thorogood and the Beach Boys. The post-Chuck Berry black electric guitar troubadours have been a small group: Jimi Hendrix and Prince are the only highly visible members of that "club", and neither can realistically be viewed as musical offspring of Chuck Berry. I'm not sure where to put George Benson, Lenny Kravitz or Vernon Reid in the taxonomy of black electric guitar players either, though none of them sound like Chuck Berry was their touchstone.

I'm reminded at this point of an analysis I saw once of rockabilly singing. The idea was presented that though Elvis Presley was not the first or arguably even the best rockabilly singer, because he was so good at it and so immensely popular, his success and evolution into other things effectively killed off the whole genre. Maybe somehow Chuck Berry did something similar to danceable guitar-based pop-rock music. There have continued to be a few prominent black electric guitar players, but more in the world of blues rather than Top 40 pop music, and more and more of the young blues players carrying the hot guitar torch seem to be white. Robert Cray was a successful exception who remains respected, popular and active to this day, though he is a blues musician and not a Top 40 pop artist.

I also don't think any songwriter has eclipsed Chuck Berry's lyrics in their metric and syllabic sophistication, story-telling, joyous rhyming, or sheer cleverness: “They furnished off an apartment with a 2-room Roebuck sale, ‘Coolerator was crammed with TV dinners and ginger ale…” or my all-time favorite: “Running to and fro, hard working at the mill, never fail in the mail, here come a rotten bill.” There ought to be college classes in Chuck Berry lyrics, where the internal rhymes, alliterations and rhythms are put under the microscope. Go check out the lyrics to "No Money Down" as a good example of a lesser-known masterpiece, or "Nadine." (Though it's a "military spot" not "spark" in No Money Down. Lyrics web sites have a habit of all being wrong because they copy each other.) Since we're on the subject of Chuck's lyrics, I want to take issue with the claim of several writers and bloggers that Berry invented the word “motor-vatin’ in the first line of Maybellene. He clearly sang “As I was motivatin’ over the hill, I saw Maybellene in a Coupe De Ville” just like it’s printed in his songbook. He also used the same verb in the opening line of "No Money Down".)

[Note:] Some people feel that perhaps the "mysterious" key to Berry's creative output was his collaboration with pianist Johnnie Johnson. It is well-known that two writers working together can often create special musical magic. Berry started playing in Johnson's band "The Sir John Trio" in 1953 in St. Louis, and Berry even admitted in a court deposition that Johnson had contributed something to the writing of his famous songs, but the court tossed out the case because the statute of limitations had expired when Johnson tried to sue for co-writer's credit in 2000. Johnson was reputedly a musical savant who had a bad drinking problem, and his side of the story is that Berry put his own name on at least 30 of the classic songs they wrote together. Johnson toured as a member of Berry's band until 1973, and the two remained friends even after the infringement lawsuit. Johnson reportedly did not know he was entitled to "songwriting" credits because he played by ear and did not know how to write down the music. There is no question that Johnson contributed as an arranger of the music on the hit recordings. This avenue is wide open to exploration, and recent (2017) revelations of the contents of court depositions seems to be sparking considerable commentary about the case itself, the contributions they admitted making, and the overarching issue of collaborations and copyright law.

Chuck the Rock Troubadour

I also see Chuck Berry not just as a brilliant musician and creator, but as perhaps the godfather and all-time king of rock n’ roll troubadours. I have used the “troubadour” word a lot to describe what I do, though I have long had trouble defining what I mean by the term, and I am aware that the word confuses some people. Recently I found a reference in an old book to a “proper education” as described close to 900 years ago, and they nailed the troubadour thing perfectly, as basically the art of being able to walk into a gathering of people by yourself, to command their attention and entertain them. (Every kid should learn to do that.) Most rock musicians work in a band context, and the idea of solo rock music has never been a common one. Much more than today, in Chuck Berry's era, bands and groups were on top of the heap, and solo artists nearly non-existent, especially when it involves danceable music.

When I saw Chuck Berry play, he used the local opening-act band to back him up, as was his standard procedure for many years, and as always after a few songs he sent them off stage and took over himself. Talk about a master class in solo rocking. He had 2000 college kids in the Armory on their feet and in the palm of his hand, in total control of the beat as much as several drummers. He pranced and duckwalked all over the stage, while the audience danced wildly, clapped and roared their approval. Even at the age of 17, as a kid who was just learning the guitar I was stunned that an individual could rock a place for a whole set by himself with just a guitar. Now that I realize that he was 45 years old at the time, and battling ageism as well as racism, it makes it even more impressive. Though I don’t go to a lot of rock concerts, I have almost never seen any other solo musicians even come close to rocking a room by themselves. (The three examples I can think of are Boston rockabilly guitar legend Billy Coover on Telecaster [though when I witnessed it, he just did it for one long song, not 45 minutes], Willie Murphy at the piano at the 400 Club in Minneapolis, and John Valby, the Paganini of dirty songs, who also plays piano.) Even the famous rock troubadours who come to mind, like Jimi Hendrix, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, John Fogerty (Creedence Clearwater) or Prince, don’t even come close to generating the rhythmic energy, charisma and solo command of the stage that Chuck Berry had. A few acoustic musicians like Ani DiFranco or Joel Cage get revved up to a level were they become solo rockers, but they do it more with sheer energy than as a built-in feature of their craft. When Chuck Berry rocked by himself, he was calm and suave and playful, never wild or crazy, yet the music that passed through him was burning hot.

I have always seen Chuck Berry also as a prime example of how the artists who really blazed the biggest musical trails were the ones who were equally adept at singing, performing, writing and playing their instruments really well. There have been a lot of good musicians, and a lot of influential ones, but to me the ones who really shape the musical landscape around us are the ones who both create and perform at a high level. Bill Monroe may have done more to give us the genre of bluegrass music than anyone else, and his contributions as a player, writer and performer were all immense. And certainly Chuck Berry was a shining example of this “triple-threat.” The skill, excitement and distinctive character of his guitar playing, songwriting and vocals were all unsurpassed, and the combination of them with his commanding stage presence and dance moves set him apart from anyone before or since. James Brown probably danced better, but he didn’t play smoking hot guitar, and didn't smile much. Jimi Hendrix had all three, but you couldn't dance to him. The list of all-time most-respected and beloved musicians, including artists like Louis Armstrong, Doc Watson or Ray Charles, includes a lot of names who were not top-level creators, performers and players. It's a small elite group who used all the tools in the tool store to build their artistic legacy.

Chuck the Indie Artist

Another side of Chuck Berry that I see through my personal lens, that isn't being talked about is that he was an "indie" or independent guy in the days when that didn't happen. It caused a lot of "friction" in his world, and contributed significantly to the ongoing struggle of his career. I have often thought that I was born at the wrong time, since I fell in love with the acoustic guitar right at the time when it was plunging in popularity, and I always felt like I was swimming upstream in wanting to make it the center of my musical world. What I did hit right was the DIY "indie" music thing, and I was at the forefront of musicians in the 1980's who chose to start their own record labels and not to get involved with agents, managers and record companies. I made a good living for 25 years in a world where I ran my own life, and chose what to play, record and perform, and called all my own shots.

When Chuck Berry started riding the first wave of rock n' roll and formed his exciting music, he had no choice but to try to get a record deal, and the story of him driving from St. Louis to Chicago to Chess Records is a famous one. Luckily Chess was a reasonably honorable record label, and they were responsible for bringing us a lot of great R&B music. (Though the story is that they greatly underpaid him.) But Chuck was pretty vocal in telling his side of how he did not like being ripped off by managers, agents or anybody else. Chuck might have done much better and been more productive had he been born 30 years later and been able to manage more of his own affairs without having to deal with as many sleazy "old-school" music business people.

What happened to Chuck Berry was typical of what happened to a lot of artists who signed record deals: they unknowingly signed away ownership of the intellectual property rights to their music. Poor John Fogerty lost close to 500 million dollars when he gave Fantasy Records full ownership of his copyrights for the Creedence Clearwater Revival catalog of hits. (Most record companies take half the ownership of the property, but some unscrupulous ones get artists to sign away it all.) When Chuck Berry saw the stacks of records coming into Chess offices of his first hit song Maybellene, he saw that he was listed as co-author with legendary rock DJ Alan Freed and a man named Russ Fratto, who was a business associate of Leonard Chess. Chess had taken ownership of the song, and then parceled it out to promote the song and lubricate his business alliances. Chuck says in his book that it took him almost 30 years of litigation to get back the full rights to his song, though it is an important question as to how much Alan Freed's financial stake in the song caused it to become a hit. Generally the victims of this kind of fraud got what seemed to them like impressive royalty checks, and they weren't even aware that someone else had also taken a big chunk of the money that the artist never saw or even knew existed. Chuck was luckier than Jelly Roll Morton, who was scammed out of half of the royalties of his whole catalog of music by his publisher (Melrose Brothers) who added another author's name to the copyrights as they "did Morton a favor" by handling the "government paperwork."

Chuck Berry was a proud and smart man, who took a delight in understanding contracts and handling his own business affairs, and it's pretty painful to read in his book about all the ways the business people he dealt with cheated him out of ticket or record money as he recorded and toured, as they had done so with all the other artists (especially the black ones...) they had dealt with. Chuck learned quickly about the value of copyright and publishing, and hung onto the ownership of most of his catalog of music during his career, which undoubtedly contributed to his being left out of a lot of deals and gigs. It can't have helped Chuck's career on the large scale for him to be so astute in business, since he undoubtedly rubbed people the wrong way and missed out on all sorts of "opportunities" by refusing to be taken advantage of. Steve Miller, who toured as Chuck's back-up band for several years in the 1970's affirmed a lot of my suspicions about Chuck's struggles with the music business establishment in his nice tribute in Rolling Stone Magazine in March 2017.

Chuck Berry the Successful But Embattled Black Man

The "complexity" and the really painful parts of the Chuck Berry story involve the messy subjects of sex and race. The obituaries and tributes to Chuck I have been reading have trouble with the "seamier side" of the man, which are hard to reconcile with his musical genius or his huge influence on other artists and on the trajectory of rock music.

Chuck Berry grew up in a segregated part of St. Louis known as "The Ville." It happens to be a handful of miles from Ferguson, the town that has been in the news so much in recent years following the police shooting there of young Michael Brown, which spawned the Black Lives Matter movement. Chuck had some run-ins with the law as a teen-ager and spent some time in a youth prison for robbery. Possibly the most chilling moment in Chuck's entire book for me was the story of him being hauled into the police station in around 1949, accused of having sex with a white woman, and threatened and taunted by a group of white officers with a baseball bat. Chuck's realization that they could easily have killed him with no one questioning their side of the story paints a pretty grim picture of the helplessness of a black man in the white-man's world.

I've been aware of the story line all my life where rich or powerful black men seem to become targets for prosecution by law enforcement. The long list includes sports stars, entertainers, actors and especially wealthy black businessmen and "underworld" figures who often end up in trouble with the law. It is certainly not uncommon for a popular black entertainer to be charged with a crime, and the complete book about the rise and fall of wealthy and/or powerful black men in our society would be a very long and difficult one. Chuck Berry was one of the first black artists to succeed in the pop music world of early rock n' roll, and it was clearly a hard battle for him. No doubt the roots of what he was up against go all the way back to the fears of slave rebellion, which likely permeated the whole history of the South. I'd sure love to read Barack Obama's blog on the subject of the struggles of high-flying black men, though I can't imagine he would ever dare to go there publicly.

There has even been a lot of interesting discussion recently surrounding the new remake of the King Kong movie, of how that story is deeply embedded in our culture and how difficult it is to resurrect the story without fanning its underlying racist theme. It is essentially the story of how the large and immensely powerful ape symbolizes dark-skinned people, and how the white man cannot just leave the ape alone on his island, and eventually brings in the army and feels compelled to conquer the dark beast, especially after the ape has shown a preference for the white woman. I'd like to hear Chuck Berry's take on that subject.

The Chuck Berry story also involves an issue of what I call the "Martha Stewart" syndrome, whereby some people go to prison for things that others are not even prosecuted for. My guess has been that Martha Stewart was disrespectful to the prosecutors or whomever she was dealing with when they questioned her about her stock trades, and they stuck it to her and put her in jail. From what I can discern of Chuck Berry's personality I can believe that he was not the most diplomatic guy you'll ever meet, and this perhaps invited and inflamed his problems with authority.

It sounds to me like Chuck could have learned to be a lot more diplomatic, which might have even saved him numerous trips to prison. Watch him in the 1987 documentary 'Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll' where The Rolling Stones and others try to celebrate him at a special concert. He was quite a jerk, and unlikable in many ways. Not a chummy & lovable guy, but a serious lone wolf. But if I had lived through all the fear and prejudice he went through, I might have turned out the same. Not so easy for me in my white skin to be able to see or experience things in the same ways a dark-skinned person might.

I am suddenly reminded of the moment when I met Chuck Berry briefly. I was in a casino in Atlantic City NJ in the early 1980's walking down an empty hallway looking for a restroom, and he popped out of a door into the same hallway, presumably on a break from a gig, and we were alone and face to face for 20 seconds. I remember that I smiled and said graciously something like"You're Chuck Berry aren't you- I am a guitar player too and I am a huge fan of your music." He gave me a limp and reluctant handshake, and refused to give me an autograph or look me in the eye, which has smarted to this day. I have asked a tiny handful of artists in my life for autographs, and he was the only one who said no. I have often puzzled over what he gained by rejecting me, and 35 years later I vividly remember being quite surprised by the wounded wild animal energy field I felt around him. Maybe he really was a wounded wild animal.

Chuck generally insisted on being paid in cash to avoid being cheated with bad checks, and often carried a pistol to protect himself. I can't imagine what it must have been like to have been pulled over by white police late at night while driving a Cadillac, as he described, and being illegally searched and found to have a lot of cash and a loaded pistol. Even today that would be a recipe for trouble, and if you happen to be a smart aleck or have a bad attitude with cops you're in even deeper trouble.

Chuck struggled for much of his life trying to operate a music club near his home in St. Louis as a way to invest some of his music profits into capital gains, and to avoid touring, and he even opened the ambitious Berryland Park in 1961, and bought an old theater in Wentzville (population 3213) in 1968. He claims that he was constantly targeted and harrassed for noise, parking and all sorts of code violations by local authorities, and that the fire department didn't even do much to put out a fire when it started there. He says the authorities didn't like the idea of him hiring white women to work for him, or driving a Cadillac. He was his own version of Isaac Hayes and Shaft and Blaxploitation energy several decades ahead of the movie genre.

Berry's seemingly endless struggle against racism was no doubt exacerbated by his success as a musician, and intense pride, which seems to increased his profile as a target for harrassment, especially as he toured the South on the heels of his first few hits. He was a sexy black man, and though he stayed married to his black wife Themetta for 68 years, he talks openly in his book about his sexuality, which came out in his music and performances. The fact that his early records attracted large crowds of teenage white girls to his performances did not make his life any easier, and the constant threats he describes from racist police, promoters and random people he encountered while touring are beyond my ability to imagine.

Chuck talks a bit in his book about his experience performing on American Bandstand with Dick Clark in 1958, and my mind races to try to imagine that scene. He mostly talked about the difficulties he had lip-synching, and didn't broach the "elephant in the room" subjects of race and sexuality. At that time, the show was all-white teenagers dancing to pop hits by mostly white artists. Even the lengthy discussions you can find of Clark's gradual inclusion of some black teenagers and more black artists don't go anywhere near where Chuck was that day. Clark hosted a handful of black artists like Chubby Checker (1960), Aretha Franklin (1962), young Michael Jackson (1971), but they weren't sexy men strutting their stuff. The only black musical energy that anyone had seen on this hugely popular show were vocal groups like The Coasters, The Impressions and The Shirelles. None of these black artists were anything like Chuck Berry in his prime.

Here was a handsome, charismatic, talented, moving, grooving sexy 32-year-old black man ripping it up and probably leering at the white teenage girls like King Kong eyeing Faye Wray, surrounded and watched by white teenagers who could not possibly have ever experienced anything like him. There was no "white Chuck Berry" like Pat Boone promoters could go get to take his place. Chuck's happy pop story songs about car races and high school dances and his non-threatening "excellent diction" made many people think he was white when they heard him on the radio, and no doubt helped lead to his invitation to be on the show. No doubt there was a collision of cultural forces that Philadelphia afternoon in the TV studio that we can only imagine, starring the Brown-Eyed Handsome Man duckwalking all over the stage, surrounded by teenagers who were almost young enough to be his children, dancing wildly to the first really sexual music that the Patty Page/Peggy Lee/Bing Crosby-raised generation had ever experienced. What a scene that must have been, and what scenes there must have been all over America as racist white parents watched at home, fearing for their teenage daughters as they were captivated by the spell of genuine rock n' roll energy, generated by a black-skinned man who obviously rocked much harder than Bill Haley & the Comets or Paul Anka.

We can't pretend that Chuck Berry had no sex drive or that he behaved perfectly at all times, but certainly the list of Elvis Presley's unusual and shall-we-say "improper" sexual behavior dwarfs whatever Chuck Berry did. Wilt Chamberlain's Brobdignagian sexual exploits have not tarnished his reputation as perhaps the greatest basketball player ever. Likewise with Mick Jagger, Freddie Mercury or lots of other famous entertainers or athletes who seemed to enjoy debauchery without being forever cast as deviants. Yet undoubtedly related to Chuck Berry's black skin and defiant attitude, he is the one who went to jail and whose legacy is tainted by "sex scandals."

Chuck spent 2 difficult years in federal prison from 1961-1963 at the peak of his career for violating a law called The Mann Act. Passed in 1910, it was a federal law intended to stop "white slavery," or specifically to prevent anyone from transporting underage girls (the law has been amended and now includes either gender) across state lines "for immoral purposes." It is rarely invoked, and appears to have primarily been used to arrest black men. Boxer James Johnson was another prominent black man prosecuted for violating it, though the supposed "prostitute" he was transporting was his white girlfriend. Actor Charlie Chaplin was also arrested under the law, which still exists today in a slightly modified form.

Chuck met a young girl in El Paso, Texas, and offered her a job at his club in St. Louis. Because he personally drove her across several state lines, and because the prosecution needed only to argue "intent," he was able to be convicted, though the girl was on his payroll for some time before the arrest. Berry says that he saw a young girl in a bad place, and offered her a job and a place to live and a chance at a better life, and I guess it is not possible to know if he was right or wrong. There was no attempt to prosecute Chuck for having sex with an underage girl, but the prosecutors chose to go after him, and they did succeed in putting him in federal prison for 5 years (he served 2 with good behavior) for the crime of supposedly having immoral intentions as he drove her across a state line. As a casual observer, it sure looks more likely to me that Chuck was a victim of overzealous and quite possibly racist law enforcement more than he was engaging in "white slavery" and pimping young girls. There were even 2 trials, since Chuck's lawyer got the first verdict thrown out because of overtly racist remarks made by the judge to the all-white male jury.

A part of the Chuck Berry story I have stayed away from here involves some lawsuits where he felt that others (including John Lennon) had stolen his music. In trying to wrap your mind around this guy, try to imagine being Chuck, in federal prison in March 1963 for violating the Mann Act, in Terre Haute, Indiana, where it is especially cold and gray and cheerless that time of year. After more than a year in the slammer, suddenly there is a new hit song by The Beach Boys called "Surfin' USA" that roared up to be the #2 song of the year on the billboard charts. It was credited as "words & music by Brian Wilson." Some of the high-profile music plagiarism lawsuits involve some questionable stuff, with reasonable doubt, but this one is a no-brainer, and the most obvious ripoff of a song you could possibly imagine. Listen to Chuck's "Sweet Little Sixteen" and compare it to the Beach Boys song. Yet it took Chuck several years to get his name on the credits, and you know he lost a lot of royalty money and had to expend time, money and energy to challenge the high-flying blond white guys and the lawyers from their record label and publisher. Wilson claimed he was "paying tribute" to Berry, which reminds me of the things I have read about Bill Monroe, the supposed "Father of Bluegrass." Monroe reportedly had a hard time accepting that other bluegrass artists were "honoring him" and "paying tribute to him" when he felt they had just stolen his sound. This helps explain why Berry was somewhat permanently embattled, had trouble when the Stones tried to "pay tribute" to him, and perhaps why he taunted them in that documentary movie for not being able to play his stolen guitar licks right.

Chuck also did 3 years in state prison at age 18 for robbery, and 4 months in prison for tax evasion in 1979 (at age 53), though from his description of the tax transgressions they were small, and involved him bringing $35K worth of British pounds home from a tour and not converting them into dollars or declaring them as income. Here I again invoke the Martha Stewart Syndrome to explain, and his conviction hinged on a business associate turning state's evidence and testifying against him to save himself. After his book was published, Chuck was arrested (at age 64) for possession of 2 ounces of marijuana, and for having videotapes recorded in the bathroom of a restaurant he owned. He claimed that he put the cameras in to catch an employee stealing, but got a six month suspended sentence and a fine, plus another ugly blemish on his aleady-tainted image. Chuck was keenly aware how his accumulated criminal record and prosecutions for "sex crimes" have made him look like a "sexual undesirable" when he may have only been a very sexy black man with a high profile and a bad attitude toward authority that was fanned by a lifetime of mistreatment. My limited experience with cops is that they love to go after smart-mouthed, defiant people who refuse to grovel or back down.

When you contemplate the long grind of Chuck's battles against music business people cheating him and stealing from him, and his endless struggles and temptations as a high-profile black man, it gets clearer why he couldn't just sit around and write more brilliant high school dance music, or duckwalk around his living room all day. It's unreasonable but understandable that any of us would want more than he already gave us, but we're actually lucky we got as much as we did. I am haunted by John Lennon's answer when a journalist asked him why the Beatles don't get back together: "Why don't you go back to high school?" was Lennon's quick reply.

When I listen to Chuck Berry music or Beatles or Beach Boys music with my young kids, there is a joy and an optimism oozing from the pop music of that era that is palpable and so often missing from pop music in today's darker world. Chuck Berry's musical oeuvre (and the white imitators like Jan & Dean and The Beach Boys) may have marked a "peak wave height" for that optimistic energy, and we can only dream that someone young and talented can give us another dose of something like it. Maybe there is another Chuck Berry out there about to come on the scene with a similarly fresh and exciting bag of musical tricks. Or we can just go back and bask in those recordings that we do have, that came from the bone marrow of our culture in those exciting and explosive musical years in the 1950's and 60's.

I can't wait to hear the new album "Chuck" coming out in June 2017, with mostly new songs of his. He announced the album on his 90th birthday. I'm hopeful that he could fire up some of that old muse again before he left us for good.

This is another posting where I'm trying to raise issues, questions and awareness in the world of modern troubadours... You deserve a reward or a door prize for making it to the end. Please check back to look for new posts as I get them done. I plan to cover a wide range of issues and topics.  I don't have a way for you to comment here, but I welcome your emails with your reactions. Feel free to cheer me on, or to disagree...

Chordally yours,

HARVEY REID

 ©2017