Pioneering rock musician
Chuck Berry, rock‘n’roll’s most astonishing and enigmatic talent, had a phrase to cover the years when his musical career was interrupted by a spell behind bars. He “went away” for a while. So when he was asked about being jailed for crossing a state border with a fourteen-year-old Native American girl for immoral purposes, he chose his words carefully. “When I had my problems with the Indian girl,” he said, “I went away for almost two years.”
Earlier in his life, while a teenager, he went away after being involved in a series of armed robberies. He went away again in his middle years when found guilty on tax evasion charges, shortly after visiting the White House at the invitation of President Carter.
From the moment he gained the power of successful rock musician, Chuck Berry never played the game. His sexual history was tawdry. His obsession with money was pathological and weird. Towards his admirers and even his fellow musicians, he behaved with a mind-boggling lack of generosity. Even by the low standards of his chosen profession, he was a mean son of a bitch.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, when he died in 2017, there was no great outpouring of sadness. The obituary headlines used cool, distancing descriptors like “pioneer”, “innovator”, “guitar hero”, “the wild man of rock”. The fact that, almost single-handedly, he had created the soundtrack of a generation, was played down. He had effectively trashed his own legacy by the way he behaved in the last 50 years of his life.
These days we like our heroes to be good citizens. We have come a long way since William Faulkner could pronounce, “If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the Ode to a Grecian Urn is worth any number of old ladies.” These days we are on the side of the old ladies.
So something has been lost in the history of the man who single-handedly changed the course of popular music in the twentieth century. Others adapted folk or blues to their own style. He changed everything: the sound, the look, the act, the story and the way the story is told. He was a true and extraordinary creative revolutionary.
How that happened is still something of a mystery. Born in St Louis in 1926 into a devout, middle-class family, Chuck Berry claimed he was three before he saw a white face. The event which tipped him into entertainment was a concert at Sumner High School in 1951. He was expected to sing a suitably soapy parlour song – Danny Boy and I Dream of Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair were favourites – but instead sang Confessin’ the Blues and brought the house down.
Like millions of teenage boys, he fell in love with the guitar and joined a school band but, while others copied, he innovated. He studied other guitarists, notably Carl Hogan of the Louis Jordan band, introduced the idea of a two-string solo, adapted to the guitar the rolling boogie-woogie riffs of the great blues pianist with whom he played, Johnnie Johnson. He combined hillbilly music with blues, boogie-woogie and jazz.
An instinctive showman, he was the first to see that a mighty, phallic electric guitar could be an essential stage prop.
By 1955, Berry and Johnson had a sound – the drive of a guitar with rolling piano riff – that was completely new. “If you wanted to play rock and roll, or any upbeat number,” Eric Clapton once said, “you would end up playing like Chuck Berry.”
He caught the eye of Muddy Waters, who introduced him to Leonard Chess of Chess Records. For his first release, Chuck adapted the old western swing classic Ida Red and turned it into something entirely his own, Maybellene.
And here is the final and greatest miracle in the story of Chuck Berry. Having changed the instrumental sound of pop, he then did the same with lyrics. Into a world of bubble-gum, home-coming queen, walking-in-the-rain fantasy, he brought stories from the real world, told with a wild, demotic swing that has never been equalled.
“I got on a city bus and found my vacant seat/ I thought I saw my future bride walking up the street/ I shouted to the driver hey conductor, you must slow down / I think I see her, please let me off this bus.”
Chuck Berry’s model as a singer was Nat King Cole with his clear diction – it was what, Chuck said later, gave his songs appeal to black and white audiences. With an astonishing, effortless ease, he brought the poetry of everyday teenage life into his songs. In every one of them there are phrases and lines that could only come from his pen: “hurry home drops on her cheek”, “I was motivatin’ over the hill/ I saw Maybellene in a Coupe de Ville”; “They furnished off an apartment with a two room Roebuck sale/ The coolerator was crammed with TV dinners and ginger ale”; “Working in the fillin’ station, too many tasks/ Wipe the windows, check the tires, check the oil, dollar gas…”.
After jail, Chuck Berry’s musical career was pretty much done. He found he made more money from playing old songs than writing new ones
The songs he wrote between 1955 and the moment he “went away” after the problems with the fourteen-year-old girl in 1959, have set the standard for rock songwriters ever since. Dylan, Paul Simon, Lennon and McCartney, Jagger and Richards have all paid tribute to his influence. “I wanted to write the way people talked,” Bruce Springsteen once said. “Because that’s how he writes.”
When he came out of jail, Chuck Berry’s musical career was, apart from a few more songs (notably No Particular Place to Go, You Never Can Tell), pretty much done. He found he made more money – always his main concern – from touring and playing the old songs than writing new ones. In 1972, he released the execrable novelty song My Ding-a-Ling which was, embarrassingly, his biggest hit. It was the song, he later told interviewers, of which he was most proud.
The next 40 years were inglorious. As a rock‘n’roll sleazeball, Chuck covered the waterfront. Hilariously tight-fisted, he would tour alone, insisting the venue supplied a local backing band. Having agreed a fee, he would demand another couple of thousand dollars just before he went on. If he was not provided with the Fender Bassman amplifier he had stipulated, he demanded a fine of $2000.
Audiences were treated with the same level of respect. He would play a one-hour set as agreed and not a second more. Sometimes he would unpack his guitar onstage and casually put on new strings. He would change keys several times in each song to throw his backing band. “I’ve never heard him in tune,” Keith Richards has said. “He’d just wing it.”
Then there was the sex, which grew weirder and nastier with age. In 1987, a woman claimed he had beaten her up; he was fined $250 for harassment. Three years later, he was sued by several women who claimed that a camera in the restroom at his restaurant in St Louis had filmed them. He settled for $1.2 million. There were stories about his distinctly unattractive sexual preferences.
The best and worst of Chuck Berry is revealed in Taylor Hackford’s 1987 film Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll, around an all-star tribute gig organised by Keith Richards. Occasionally charming, Chuck mostly emerges as difficult, aggressive and astonishingly ungrateful.
What went wrong? In interviews, he avoided talking about his own work and, if pressed, would refer vaguely to his financial motivation. He had an extraordinary disrespect for what he had done.
For me, though, nothing can take away from the sublime, heart-stopping joy – and, yes, innocence – of those great early Chuck Berry songs. They helped define a generation and give it a voice.
Hail! Hail! Rock‘n’Roll. He delivered us from the days of old.
Terence Blacker is a songwriter, novelist, children’s author and former columnist for the Independent. His one-man show “The Shock of the Old” will be touring theatres this autumn