chuck berry: the prototypical guitar god

June 13, 2011

“If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry.’” – John Lennon
There are hundreds of moments you can point to as the watershed moment where rock was born. There are dozens of early singles by blues and hillbilly bands that point to where rock was headed. But before him, there was no-one who embodied the now iconic image of “guitar god” like Chuck Berry.

Words by Nathan Leigh

Things Chuck Berry invented:

1. Guitar showboating (well, he got it from Marty McFly, obviously)
2. Reinventing one’s childhood for the sake of “legitimacy”
3. Catering to a teen audience despite being a long way from teenagery
4. Doing horrible horrible things and somehow still being a beloved cultural icon
5. Being a guitar god.

Born to a middle class family in St. Louis in a (comparably) affluent black neighborhood, Charles Edward Anderson Berry was exposed to music at a young age through the church. The son of a deacon and school principal, he played guitar and violin, and sang with the church choir. Although he would sometimes later exaggerate about his upbringing, claiming he was raised in absolute poverty to appear more “legitimate” as a blues guitarist (I hear he didn’t even have an Xbox), for a St. Louis family in the 40’s, Berry’s early life was comfortable.

In the years following World War 2, a new phenomenon developed in America. In previous years, American teenagers were sent off to work or start families as soon as they were able, with only the wealthiest getting an education beyond middle school. In the post-war economic boom, high school went from a luxury to a necessity for most Americans. Almost overnight the notion of idle, bored, and angsty teens was born.

Like Berry would later sing in his classic “No Particular Place To Go,” he spent much of his teen years “ridin’ along in [his] automobile…cruisin’ and playin’ the radio with no particular place to go.” Unfortunately for him, his car fetish combined with suburban boredom would begin his long and storied relationship with the police. In 1944 while driving around with friends, his car broke down. With no money on hand, Berry flagged down a passing car and stole it at gunpoint. He was sent to the Intermediate Reformatory for Young Men at Algoa, Missouri.

Berry was released on his 21st birthday on October 18th, 1947, and joined several local bands. He would work hillbilly songs (early rockabilly, before the invention of rock, but after the invention of hills) into his set for shock value initially. Berry delighted at a black audience’s reaction to him playing hillbilly music with a blues band. Eventually the songs shifted from being gimmicks in his sets to highlights, and as the local audience grew, Berry got serious about pushing his music beyond St. Louis.

In a chance meeting with his hero Muddy Waters, Berry was introduced to Leonard Chess of Chess Records and invited to audition. Berry ran through a number of blues standards, but Chess was most impressed by a hillbilly song called “Ida Red.” With longtime pianist Johnnie Johnson, Jerome Green (from Bo Diddly’s band), Jasper Thomas, and Willie Dixon, Berry adapted “Ida Red” as “Maybellene” and the record hit #1 on the rhythm and blues charts. In exchange for airplay, Chess would give legendary DJ and douchebag Alan Freed writing credits on the song, a fact that Berry wouldn’t find out until after the record had been released.

Berry launched a successful US tour, becoming one of the top touring acts in 56. He would test his stage antics on audiences throughout the country, fine tuning his stage persona and vocal delivery to appeal as much as possible to both black and white audiences. He deliberately sang with clear diction for the white audiences and played with flamboyant guitar showmanship for the black audiences. His goal throughout the 50’s was to be an artist with true cross-over appeal.

With the goal of creating a place where black and white teens could dance without fear of police harassment, Berry started the nightclub Club Bandstand in St. Louis. He put the venue in the primarily white theatre district in St. Louis, and as a result him and his secretary Francine Prager became the subject of frequent police harassment. The two were the only consistent employees of the venue, which was probably a good idea considering what happened when he tried to hire a hat check girl in 1959.

In December 1959, Berry was arrested for violating the Mann Act (transporting underage girls over state lines for immoral purposes. Immoral here means sex, not other immoral acts like tax evasion or videotaping people in the bathroom, Berry would do that stuff later.) when he brought an Apache waitress from Arizona to St. Louis to work at Club Bandstand. After a falling out between them, he was arrested. The two week trial in 1960 was eventually overturned because of the judge’s rampant racism (he would only refer to Berry as “The Negro” throughout the proceedings), nevertheless a second jury convicted him in 1961 to 3 years in prison.

Accounts of the incident vary, as they always do in these situations. Thus among his rock and roll pioneering, Berry also spawned the Michael Jackson / R Kelley / Roman Polansky defense: “well sure he might be a pedo, but have you checked out Thriller / 12 Play / Rosemary’s Baby? The dude’s a genius.” As a Boston ex-pat, I’m also intimately familiar with “I know he may have killed that woman in the 60’s, but Ted Kennedy’s an amazing senator.”

Berry was released on his birthday in 1963, and his career seemed to recover for a time. Releasing classic singles like “No Particular Place To Go,” “You Never Can Tell,” and “Nadine,” it appeared Berry was back. However, the success he had known in the 50’s were quickly dominated by the white British invasion bands who had lifted their sound almost entirely from Berry’s classic records. Although both the Beatles and the Stones (and of course the Beach Boys, whose classic “Surfin’ USA” is a note for note copy of Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen”) made no bones about Berry’s influence on them, and name-checked him whenever possible, Berry became increasingly embittered that his efforts to unite black and white music had instead been wholly co-opted by white musicians for white audiences.

“Sweet Little Sixteen”

“Surfin’ USA”

And this was no coincidence of the “Born This Way” sounds like “Express Yourself” or “Post-Break Up Sex” totally rips off “The KKK Took My Baby Away” sort; Berry was awarded a writing credit for “Surfin’ USA” shortly after its’ release.

He would express his bitterness in the Keith Richards produced film Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll about fans like Richards copying his trademark guitar style and stage antics to great success, while Berry was stuck playing the oldies circuit to diminishing audiences. Berry would have one final hit with the novelty song “My Ding-a-ling” in 1971, ironically his only #1 single, but that would be his last successful new release.

Throughout the 70’s, Berry continued to tour regularly backed by young up-and-coming local bands, who included Bruce Springsteen and the Steve Miller Band. His performances at the time were notably erratic, and he demanded that he be paid in cash. In 1979, shortly after playing a gig at the White House for Jimmy Carter, Berry was arrested yet again, this time for the considerably less rock and roll crime of tax evasion (if only he’d timed it better…).

Berry would have legal trouble one more time in 1990, when female employees from his Southern Air nightclub alleged that he had been taping them in the bathroom. He ultimately settled out of court with the 59 women, with the incident costing him an estimated 1.2 million dollars.

Rather than ruin his career, or tarnish his legend, Berry’s legal drama has only bolstered his reputation as the prototypical rock and roll badass. As Salmon Rushdie puts in his novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet, rock stars are our modern day Greek gods. And in the rock and roll pantheon, Berry is a Titan. We need our guitar gods to be brilliant, deviant, and flawed. The contradiction of fanship of musicians like Chuck Berry is ultimately what makes them endlessly fascinating. He’s a man who in his 30’s became the original rock and roll teen idol, despite having lost his teenage years in a correctional facility. He’s a man whose music is often used in films to display a more “innocent time” despite his…let’s just call it a noted appreciation for young girls. He’s a man who’s autobiographical song “Johnny B. Goode” was included on a gold disc sent in to space literally as a document of humanity’s greatest achievements for aliens to hear. Ultimately we don’t need Chuck Berry to be good(e), we need him to be a genius, we need him to break boundaries, and we need him to be interesting.