Photo by Jean-Marie Périer, 1964
Chuck Berry was a walking contradiction. An inquisitive and highly intelligent student, born into a stable middle class family, who found himself incarcerated at 19 after an armed robbery spree with a broken pistol. A black man in his thirties in Jim Crow America who found a way to speak directly, successfully, to white teenagers. A cynic with an unyielding optimism. A sensitive, introspective man with a chip on his shoulder the size of a Coupe de Ville. A bitter man with a sly and relentless sense of humor. A loner and eternal outsider, who was at times the most beloved musician in America. A self-professed lover of performing live, who often seemed to consider his audience little more than a necessary annoyance. A consummate craftsman, who seldom bothered to rehearse or even tune. His only number one record, his worst song.
He saw the highest highs and the lowest lows of the American experience – from Bandstand to Lompoc, the colored window to the Kennedy Center – and he performed at times as brilliantly and as badly as an artist can. Through it all, he did everything on his terms.
Chuck Berry was the embodiment of America, and one of its greatest chroniclers and creators. Yes, he helped create rock ‘n’ roll and heavily influenced the Beatles and Rolling Stones and everyone after. But Chuck Berry’s genius is not tied to his chosen genre nor dependant on the successes of later British bands. His genius is independent, wholly American, self-contained, and has only solidified with time.
Among the Evergreens
Chuck Berry was born in 1926 in St. Louis’ best segregated black neighborhood, on Goode Avenue. He would later immortalize the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll through his alter ego guitar-slinging folk hero, taking his curiously spelled surname from this childhood anchor. Johnny B. Goode. More than a name, it was a sentence. A declaration. A whole world created with the use of an extraneous, mysterious vowel.
Growing up on Goode Avenue, Berry was surrounded by intoxicating sounds: his mother’s living room piano, where he and his siblings competed for “piano time” (his sister Lucy’s classical studies monopolized this precious “piano time,” later inspiring “Roll Over Beethoven”), and around which the choir from the Antioch Baptist Church, where his father was a deacon, rehearsed (his mother sang soprano, and daddy sang bass); the foxtrot records on the Victrola and, especially, the Philco radio, which seemed to harness sounds from far away places through thin air. The ever-curious kid would study these machines, from the back, from all angles, taking them apart, trying to figure out what made them work. Trying to discover the source of their sounds.
And what sounds! Fats Waller, Bing Crosby, Kate Smith, Louis Armstrong. Country music like Gene Autry and Kitty Wells over KMOK, which the young Berry found “irresistible.” Gospel shows on Sunday mornings, the only time the Berrys let the Philco blast. And stories: Flash Gordon and The Shadow Knows.
Berry’s wit and wordplay would define his songs as much as his rockin’ rhythm. He first became consciously aware of words listening to his mother singing Baptist hymns while doing housework. His parents were strict, but loving and engaging with their children. Chuck took his whoopings when he misbehaved, and his father read the family poetry after dinner. Chuck loved Edgar Allen Poe and his father’s favorite, the 19th century African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. A seminal moment in the young showman’s life was seeing his father perform in a play, introducing the five-year-old sponge to a sense of drama.
Words and music were everywhere.
And women. Women would be a motivating factor in his life and a frequent subject of his songs. He forged essential personal and professional bonds with strong (and patient) women. And his poor judgment with others would lead to his downfall on more than one occasion. Berry seemed to have been born with a sense of longing when it came to female companionship. He and his wife Themetta were married in 1948, and she stayed by his side until his death, even as he infamously partook of all the benefits befalling a rock ‘n’ roll star on the road, at times running him afoul of the law.
But the romanticism inherent in his best work was developed as a young man, when he longed for a partner, a girlfriend, and found only frustration and heartache. He initially developed his sense of humor to woo girls, but the adolescent Charles was destined to be a loser in love. “I always did like comedy, you know, and poetry,” he told Robbie Robertson, “Comedy is too silly for love, poetry is too serious. So I was left out.”
His childhood cemented his love of storytelling and music, as well as the self-reliance he would practice almost as an art throughout his life. By age seven, he was frying eggs and running errands while his father, a carpenter by trade, worked odd jobs during the Depression and his mother recuperated from her latest childbirth. Even as a professional touring musical legend, he survived the road without a manager, a driver, or even a band, famously chauffeuring himself to gigs in his Cadillac or rented Lincoln and using whatever local pickup band the promoter could rustle up. No set lists, no rehearsal beyond instructing the wide-eyed ensembles that, tonight, they would be playing Chuck Berry songs. Everyone knew what that meant.
And at the heart of those songs was his humor. It’s not only in the lyrics to his musical stories, but in his very mannerisms and movements (partly lifted from the chitlin’ circuit stage moves of T-Bone Walker, with shades of Groucho Marx), and in his guitar playing, which alternated between forceful declarations and sly and witty call and response.
In “Reelin’ and Rockin’” the guitar is a sledgehammer bursting open the door. In “Too Much Monkey Business” it is a siren, a call to attention. In “Let It Rock” it is a train, alternatingly chugging down the track, and wailing its off-schedule whistle. In “Carol” it is a conversation, completing the singer’s thoughts like a dance partner.
Chuck Berry’s songs are short stories. He creates worlds. Worlds of flying cars and ephemeral women, dreary school days and railroad dice games, estranged fathers and newlyweds. Little worlds within America.
He invented his own words to occupy these worlds, not unlike James Joyce. Chuck Berry’s worlds are full of Flight DeVilles and Air-Mobiles. His protagonists motorvate up highways and go campaign shoutin’ down the sidewalks, besieged by botherations like the rollin’ arthritis, or uncontrollable hurry-home drops. He utilizes existing words seldom heard in song lyrics: the Coolerator (a brand of ice box) is crammed with TV dinners (and ginger ale). His six-year-old daughter Marie’s tears trickle down her cheek. His American folk hero Johnny B. Goode carries his guitar in a gunny sack. On a quick flight from Texas to California, he eats a T-Bone steak à la carte. He name-checks Tchaikovsky.
But unlike Joyce, Berry’s wordplay was designed not to obfuscate but to distill. “I tried to use (or make up) words that wouldn’t be hard to decipher by anyone from the fifth grade on,” he writes in his autobiography, “I hadn’t received any kickback about using ‘motorvating’ in ‘Maybellene,’ so why not compete with Noah Webster again?”
Chuck Berry’s worlds, even in their familiarity, are like nothing else. But there was no big bang. Chuck Berry was the first to point out, frequently, that “there’s nothing new under the sun.”
In addition to the gospel, country, and big band music that filled the Berry living room when he was a child, young Charles began to discover the enchanting world of the blues, through records like “Going Down Slow” by St. Louis Jimmy, Big Maceo’s “Worried Life Blues,” and “Romance In the Dark” by Lil Green. These were augmented with Ella Fitzgerald’s “A-Tisket, A-Tasket”:
She was truckin’ on down the avenue
With not a single thing to do
She went peck, peck, peckin’ all around
When she spied it on the ground
And one of the seminole records in his musical development – “T.D.’s Boogie Woogie” by Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra.
The boogie woogie changed everything. When he began to later develop his guitar style, his patented rhythm pattern was his attempt at playing the piano player’s left hand boogie on the guitar. His guitar heroes were single note lead players like Charlie Christian, T-Bone Walker, and Carl Hogan. The Chuck Berry guitar sound came by fusing these players’ six-string licks with the boogie of 88 keys. It is not a coincidence that Berry developed his sound working in clubs alongside Johnnie Johnson, the great blues and boogie pianist who graces most Chuck Berry records and who was an integral part of the Chuck Berry sound.
There was Louis Jordan, who perhaps more than any other artist bridged the gap between the swing era and rock ‘n’ roll. Jordan had a stripped down band, born from financial necessity as the big band swing era began to fade, hot guitar leads courtesy of the aforementioned Carl Hogan, and novelty songs with comical, clever lyrics that swung and rolled in a manner close to rocking. He wore wide-legged pants and moved his legs on stage in exaggerated and comical spasms.
There was Nat King Cole, with his sophistication and perfect diction. Here was a dark-skinned black man operating in the highest echelons of the white world. Cole managed to present himself and his music with dignity and class, appealing to the mainstream masses without watering down his artistry. Chuck Berry paid attention.
In a 1987 interview on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, an uncharacteristically amiable and open Chuck Berry explained the development of his sound:
“The main guy was Louis Jordan. I wanted to sing like Nat Cole, with lyrics like Louis Jordan, with the swing of Benny Goodman, with Charlie Christian on guitar, playing Carl Hogan’s riffs, with the soul of Muddy Waters.”
Despite the country music and jump blues that informed his early musical development, Berry was most fond of old, sentimental ballads of the Great American Songbook. “I was always moved more deeply by sentimental music than faster tunes,” he told Robbie Robertson.
One of Berry’s contradictions is the dichotomy of his sensitive and inquisitive interior encased by a hard and guarded shell. The shell comes from enduring three stints in prison (for armed robbery as a teenager, violation of the Mann Act at the height of his career in the early 1960s, and for income tax evasion in the late 1970s. A later charge of secretly videotaping the women’s restroom at his restaurant was settled with a costly civil suit and a six month suspended sentence), and the injustices of the music business, as well as from being an upwardly mobile black man in segregated, mid-century America.
He confessed to Carson that all he really wanted to do as a young musician was “comp chords behind a big band.” He taught himself guitar from a Nick Manoloff chord book, from which he learned dozens of popular love songs he performed at parties, and music theory from a textbook.
He quickly discovered that many old popular tunes were based around the same few chord progressions. Using the economy that became a trademark of the way this child of the Depression lived and worked, he figured out how he could add several songs to his repertoire just by learning the changes to one. With this basic knowledge he began hanging around the home of the neighborhood barber whose brother was a local jazz guitarist who taught Berry some chords and licks. Throughout his life, Berry would revert to playing these old, sentimental Songbook standards, with their little worlds and witty lyrics, as his go-to musical comfort. These early American ballads were Berry’s refuge among the realities of this reeling and rocking world.
Like Ringing A Bell
Chuck Berry’s songs seem to have arrived fully formed, immaculately conceived, riding an effortless rhythm. It is as if they have always been. Phil Everly, who toured with Berry on package shows with his brother Don as the Everly Brothers, recalled watching Berry backstage, pencil and paper in hand, slaving over his lyrics, getting them just right. This lesson in songwriting was a revelation for Everly, who learned from watching Chuck Berry that songs don’t just come out fully formed – it is a craft, it requires work.
Berry discusses his early writing process in his autobiography. When he was first beginning to write songs, he would take a popular song he liked and write new lyrics to go over the existing melody. Eventually, he took it a step further and reworked the melody after the new words were written to create an entirely new composition. This is a very common process for budding songwriters – Bob Dylan made a whole career out of it – and it was the same process practiced by a developing teenage composer in Hawthorne, California named Brian Wilson, who turned “Sweet Little Sixteen” into the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ U.S.A.” Berry was rightly given co-credit for the Beach Boys song after a lawsuit by his publisher. Berry himself was incarcerated at the time, but he later told members of the Beach Boys that he liked “Surfin’ U.S.A.” (the newly acquired royalties couldn’t have hurt). With this understanding of the writing process – the same process Berry and Wilson both practiced – the ”Surfin’ U.S.A.” origin becomes more nuanced and innocuous than the oversimplified narrative often pushed of a white kid stealing a black man’s music.
In that Tonight Show interview, Carson observed that many musicians “stole” from Chuck Berry, but Berry quickly, and sincerely, corrected Carson: “borrowed,” he stressed.
There are countless examples of Berry lifting directly from other sources: Louis Jordan’s “Ain’t That Just Like A Woman,” Big Joe Turner’s “Feeling Happy,” Nat King Cole’s “Calypso Blues” and “Wabash Cannonball” by Roy Acuff come to mind. This is simply how songwriters work.
There’s nothing new under the sun.
And he wasn’t above appropriating different cultures, singing in exaggerated ethnic accents in (mostly failed) attempts at novelty hits (“Havana Moon,” “La Juanda (Espanola),” “Anthony Boy”).
While heavily praised for his brilliant use of detail – the coffee-colored Cadillac, the message written on the wall, the two-room Roebuck sale, the T-bone steak – one of Berry’s most effective techniques as a writer is his ambiguity. By leaving many of his stories open-ended, he allows them to breathe while invigorating them with a sense of continual wonderment. Listen to “Havana Moon” six or ten or twelve times and it is still unclear if the American girl of the narrator’s lament actually did come to look for him while he was asleep, or if her ship sailed without her making the effort, or if it was all a rum and sun soaked dream.
What exactly happens after the narrator catches up with Maybellene at the top of the hill? Does he woo her back with his valiant motorvating skills? Does the Ford overheat again, careening to the side of the road in a cloud of radiator steam and her descending dust?
Is the long distance operator moved enough by the narrator’s plea to put him through to Memphis, Tennessee? And, if so, does anyone answer? Who answers? Is he able to speak to his daughter? If so, what do they say to each other? “Memphis” is interesting in that Berry’s keen detail here fuels his ambiguity. He describes Marie’s house as “on the south side, high up on a ridge, just a half a mile from the Mississippi Bridge.” No such place exists.
Does Johnny B. Goode ever become a famous musician? His mother said maybe – maybe – his name will be in lights someday. We know from its sequel – 1960’s “Bye Bye Johnny” – that his mother “drew out all her money from the Southern Trust, and put her little boy aboard a Greyhound bus” bound for Hollywood, where he meets a girl. But the country boy’s fate, even after two songs, is still unclear.
Chuck Berry brings us into these vivid worlds of his imagination, filled with fully formed characters and detailed settings, and then abandons us before the resolution. Even “Promised Land,” perhaps his only song with a fully fleshed-out final act, remains uncertain. Why did the poor boy leave his home in Norfolk? Is he calling from Los Angeles to let them know he’s safe, or to gloat? And how did he get out of Louisiana?
A characteristic source of Berry’s humor are his proposed, often absurd, remedies.
In “Too Much Monkey Business,” he considers suing the telephone operator when the payphone eats his dime.
In “Thirty Days,” the narrator gives his estranged lover an ultimatum that, if ignored, he plans to enforce by going to the sheriff’s office to sign a warrant. From there the proposed remedies escalate:
If I don’t get no satisfaction from the judge
I’m gonna take it to the FBI as a personal grudge
If they don’t give me no consolation
I’m gonna take it to the United Nations
I’m gonna see that you be back home in thirty days
Eddie Cochran was a student of Chuck Berry, and must have had this in his head when he had the idea to call his congressman for a cure to his “Summertime Blues” a few years later.
In “Have Mercy Judge,” the B-side continuation of Berry’s 1970 single “Tulane,” the narrator finds himself on the business end of a familiar judge’s authority:
I go to court tomorrow morning
And I got the same judge I had before
In “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” he doesn’t need to seek a remedy – the judge’s wife takes the initiative, calling up the D.A. herself!
Most of Berry’s songs, even his fantastical ones, are based at least in part on real experiences, emotions or observations he had playing Missouri clubs and touring the country on rock ‘n’ roll package shows after he started cutting records at Chess.
His protagonists’ quests for justice must stem from these experiences: cheated by his label, by his manager (whom he promptly fired and never replaced), and by multiple promoters (the genesis of his infamous real-life anticipatory remedy of insisting on being paid his fee, in cash, before going on); as well as the general sense of injustice any black man in St. Louis in the first half of the 20th century would have experienced, such as the time a cop threatened to smash Berry’s head in with a baseball bat for sleeping with a white woman, or the practice of the local police of hauling in interracial couples for forced venereal disease shots, or being refused tickets to see A Tale of Two Cities at the Fox Theater, the venue which would later host his 60th birthday celebration.
Sometimes he takes matters into his own hands:
Well I’ma write a little letter, I’m gonna mail it to my local D.J.
Yeah and it’s a jumpin’ little record I want my jockey to play
I caught a loaded taxi, paid up everybody’s tab
Flipped a twenty dollar bill, told him, ‘Catch that yellow cab!’
Sometimes he fantasizes about desired remedies:
Everything is wrong since me and my baby parted
All day long I’m walkin’ ’cause I couldn’t get my car started
Laid off from my job and I can’t afford to check it
I wish somebody’d come along and run into it and wreck it
And sometimes, ever self-sufficient, he foregoes help to just be left alone:
If I go buy a Cadillac convertible coupe
And all I got at home to eat is just onion soup
It’s my own business
I don’t run around with no mob
Got myself a little job
I’m gonna buy me a little car
Drive my girl in the park
Don’t bother us, leave us alone
Anyway we almost grown
The Promised Land
Chuck Berry lived the best and worst of America, and this dichotomy certainly affected his personality, which could fluctuate between cold and courteous almost simultaneously. In Taylor Hackford’s 1987 documentary-concert film, Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll, there is a scene where Chuck and band, led by Keith Richards, are rehearsing “Carol” and Chuck keeps stopping the take, correcting Keith on how to properly play the lick. It becomes almost tedious as Chuck publicly strikes down his most devout and successful disciple.
Keith had suggested that Chuck stick to the rhythm and vocals and let Keith take the lead. Keith’s reasoning was well-meaning, but the look on Chuck’s face says it all – I’m Chuck Berry! Chuck acquiesced, but before Keith can get through the intro he stops the band, repeatedly, to point out how Keith is playing it wrong. He then shows Keith the proper way – the Chuck Berry way. “You wanna get it right, let’s get it right,” Chuck says. It is hard to watch in its brutality but, at the same time, Keith was missing the subtlety in the slur the way Berry plays it, and who wouldn’t want a lesson in licks and tricks first hand from the master? Chuck was punishing Keith, while giving him a gift.
Similarly, when Berry sat in with John Lennon on The Mike Douglas Show in 1972, the two legends praised each other on camera and there was a palpable camaraderie. Berry has spoken often about Lennon in almost exclusively favorable, sometimes reverent, tones. But what the TV audience couldn’t see was that Berry changed the key to “Johnny B. Goode” from what they had rehearsed at the last minute, leaving Lennon unable to find his place. Prior to taping, Berry unloaded on Lennon about his belief that he had been cheated out of royalties from the Beatles’ covers of his songs. Lennon would have had no control over that, but it didn’t stop the sabotage.
This dual-edged sword affected Chuck Berry’s approach to America itself – a country he helped to define in ways.
Chuck Berry’s Promised Land isn’t California, as the song suggests, it is bigger than that. It is his idealized America, whether the worlds of his mind – the settings of his songs – or of his actual creation – his failed Berry Park and Club Bandstand – or a hybrid, as in his poem, “My Dream”:
The roof of it will have peak lines
And contours that dip
And form shadowy eaves
Where the little raindrops can drip
That sweet pitter patter
Of raindrops at play
Is such a beautiful sound
On a quiet gloomy day
Even his inventing words is part of this world creation. In Chuck Berry’s worlds he can escape a pursuing state trooper by flying his Kustom Air-Mobile with the push of a button. How he must have longed for such a machine on more than one occasion.
Berry did not sugarcoat or whitewash his experiences as a black man in America, growing up in Missouri and touring the South in the 1950s (living in St. Louis and recording in Chicago, he did not consider himself a Southerner). But he also seemed to hold no contempt for America itself. Berry blamed the racism he encountered on a frustrating and unfortunate nurture, not on an inherent nature. Chuck Berry saw, and wrote, people as they were. In his autobiography, he talks of the phenomenon of being asked for an autograph by an “innocent child [who] has been trained in historical southern attitudes toward race relations.” Trained, not conceived from. Chuck Berry’s very existence was a way of breaking that training cycle. In another chapter, freshly released from prison, he describes racism as, again, not an inherent trait but a “barrier of practiced tradition.”
His race was one part of his outsider’s eye. Chuck Berry was a perpetual underdog, ever the observer.
He watched dances as a teenager at his all-black school, but did not participate. He longed for a girlfriend to share his adolescent years, but never found a partner. He had a car in high school – a broken-down, ragged ‘34 Ford – which he bought with dreams of cruising and necking with no particular place to go. But the football team would borrow his car while he was in class to drive their own girlfriends around. He even bought seat covers so girls would not be bothered by the exposed springs. But only the jocks’ girls benefitted from this comfort.
His songs of teenage alienation are in some ways allegories of the black experience in America. Songs like “Come On” take on different meaning depending on the listener – a petty annoyance to a suburban teenager such as a car that won’t start becomes an existential threat to a working man.
This is the same phenomenon in other early rock ‘n’ roll songs, such as The Silhouettes’ “Get A Job,” which would have meant different things to a white teenager and a 30-something black father of three when it poured through the radio speakers in 1957.
“School Day” is easily a blue-collar (white or black) anthem when the school bell is replaced with a factory’s, the mean teacher with a hardnose boss, and the jukejoint that serves as the scene of the laying down of burdens dispatches booze instead of malts.
Berry said he wrote the song based on memories of what school was like for him in the 1940s, unsure if it would still resonate with teenagers in 1957. It did, of course, but there is something else happening here – something ritualistic, something menacing even – with its aggressive beat and sinister, biting guitar licks, its descending masses, and the final, declarative pagan wail – Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll!
Chuck Berry admits he started writing songs geared toward teens because that’s where he saw the market. His first few sides have all the rock, roll and wit, but they weren’t teenaged songs. “Thirty Days” calls on the gypsy woman to lay down some hoodoo. “Too Much Monkey Business,” although one of his best, and best-remembered, songs, and a direct influence on Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” laments bills, menial jobs, and Army service. Sure, there is a concessionary verse about having to get up and go to school every day, but “school” here seems code for “work,” and what teenager in the 1950s could relate to its opening couplet?
Runnin’ to-and-fro hard workin’ at the mill
Never fail in the mail here come a rotten bill
He found immortality by ordering Beethoven to roll over and dedicating songs not to Depression-era mill workers like his father, but to the Sputnik age’s “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Sweet Little Rock ‘N’ Roller” and “Little Queenie.”
But even his most obviously targeted songs lack cynicism. Berry doesn’t mock “Sweet Little Sixteen” as sheltered or privileged. There is an affection for his characters, even the ones he claims he created merely from commercial motivation. Touring the country on those early package shows, Berry played his music to mixed black and white audiences. Despite the segregating of audiences he encountered in the South (sometimes with a rope down the center of the theater), Berry seemed to have an idealized vision of America. He noted in his autobiography his dismay at these segregated Southern venues, but also his inspiration from the mixed venues in the rest of the country, even East St. Louis, just across the river. His short-lived nightclub, Club Bandstand, and his ill-fated Berry Park were designed with the utopian purpose of providing a place for blacks and whites, for lovers of rock ‘n’ roll – for Americans – to commingle.
“My aim [with Club Bandstand] had been to draw a biracial clientele like that I had seen around New England,” he wrote in his autobiography, “It lasted a year.”
Some ignorant social critics look at rock ‘n’ roll as an appropriation of black music (an argument with so many fallacies it requires a separate response). Chuck Berry proved it is far more nuanced than that. Rock ‘n’ roll is not about appropriating, it is about integrating. Chuck Berry was as vital a rock ‘n’ roll originator as anyone and he praised the country music and white pop music that influenced his brand of rock ‘n’ roll at every chance. Chuck Berry breathed in all the many strands of American music and blew them out as a single commingled cone of smoke.
There is a deliciously awkward outtake from Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll, where Chuck Berry and Eric Clapton are casually discussing music. Chuck asks Clapton if he likes country music. Clapton reflexively answers no. Realizing he may have committed a faux pas, Clapton quickly corrects himself, uttering some inchoate thought about liking the “good stuff,” whatever that is supposed to mean. Chuck, an avid chess player, seems to have an air of checkmate in the way he tells Clapton that country music is almost all he listens to.
Rather than buying into the simplistic accusation of white artists appropriating black music, Berry credited what he called the white “transister-radio teenagers” of the late 1940s and early 1950s with helping to launch black artists into the mainstream.
The prison stints, the racist cops and hotel proprietors, and stick-wielding Mississippi frat kids he encountered in his travels as an early rock ‘n’ roll star must have had an effect on Berry’s vision of America, but it did not destroy his affection.
In the opening pages of his autobiography, Berry traces his lineage back to his slave great-grandparents (he can also trace Native American and German immigrant ancestors). Even in this telling of his roots, he romanticizes his slave ancestors’ lives. His great-grandfather’s master was “…a good master and, though seldom present on the plantation, was sympathetic of his slaves and their welfare.” The descriptions of the courting and subsequent marriage of his great-grandparents, who worked on neighboring plantations, read like characters in one of his songs, a sort of prequel to “You Never Can Tell.”
“John had for years had his bright eye on the light-skinned Cellie, looking at the beauty of her. He dreamed of marrying Cellie as soon as he could. John was seen often working at both plantations, they said, for the chance only to be near her.”
Berry did not resent white people. His early experiences with white people were pleasant. “The whole world was ‘colored folk,’” he writes of his first three years on Goode Avenue. The first white people he ever saw were St. Louis firemen who showed up on his street to save his next-door neighbor’s shed. He wrote affectionately of the Italian family who lived next door when he and Themetta were first married, and who handed the newlyweds a pot of spaghetti over the fence (how that detail escaped inclusion in one of his songs, one never can tell). Not to mention the hoards of young white women who threw themselves at the star guitar player, much to his satisfaction, despite his father’s repeated warnings of the consequences.
“Back in the U.S.A.” is Chuck Berry’s unmitigated love-letter to America. In his book, The Heart Of Rock & Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made, critic Dave Marsh argues that the song is ironic, suggesting that the narrator sings about searching for a corner cafe, “because it was so tough to find one that would serve a black man.”
Although the point he is trying to make is a valid and essential one for understanding the full depth of Chuck Berry’s artistry, Marsh may be reading too much here into the wrong song. Berry certainly infused his songs with his experiences as an African-American. The “country boy” Johnny B. Goode, for example, was originally a “colored boy” before Berry changed the lyric, “in order to be more inclusive.”
When asked by Mike Douglas if Berry believed, as Lennon said, that his songs have a message, Berry answered, “I really try. I can’t sing a song, ‘oh baby, oh oh baby don’t go, don’t go because you know I love you so,’ I mean, it’s understood.” (Even when making up a parody of a trite love song on the spot, Berry’s language shines – the simple inclusion of “you know” adds an extra rhyme and flow.)
In his book Rebels Wit Attitude: Subversive Rock Humorists, Iain Ellis expands on this, suggesting that Berry “…realized the necessity of playing in enemy territory as a successful crossover artist, applying his skills as a trickster humorist both to reach and to subvert mainstream terrain.”
The most obvious example of this is “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” which is clearly code for brown skinned. Berry wrote it after touring California where he noticed, for the first time, large numbers of Mexican fans and realized they shared a similar complexion and, perhaps, experience. But other than using one body part to stand in for another, “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” is not veiled at all. From the “charges of unemployment,” to the sands on the way to Bombay, to the final verse – Berry purposefully makes it a baseball game to unequivocally evoke Jackie Robinson – there is no question what the brown eyes mean.
“Back in the U.S.A.” is different. First, a reading of the lyric on its face suggests the narrator is overseas while he’s “searchin’ for a corner cafe.” While the first three verses are told from the point of view of having returned to America, the fourth verse seems to flash back to foreign lands where the narrator is:
Lookin’ hard for a drive-in, searchin’ for a corner cafe
Where hamburgers sizzle on an open grill night and day
Yeah, and a jukebox jumpin’ with records like in the U.S.A.
It’s in the word “like.” Like in the U.S.A. Not here in the U.S.A. One of Berry’s traits as a writer is to play around with traditional story arch without losing the narrative. “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” for example, tells six completely separate, self-contained stories in as many verses, while remaining one cohesive statement. “Reelin’ and Rockin’” reels, rocks, and rolls until “the break of dawn,” yet the story unfolds over only an hour and eight minutes, leaving everything between 10:29 pm and “the break of dawn” unaccounted for.
While looking hard for a drive-in that has a jukebox like in the U.S.A., it is clear the narrator in the fourth verse is away from America at the time he is longing for this American institution. Why would he long for something he could not enjoy back home? By 1959, Chuck Berry had traveled all of America playing rock ‘n’ roll, and only in a specific part of the country was service based on race an issue.
That is not to minimize that outrageous and sad history, and Berry discusses it in his autobiography (using his characteristic humor to note that the upside to having to use the colored take-out window was bigger portions on your paper plate) and inventing one of his trademark words: Southern Hospitaboo, a hybrid of “hospitality” and “taboo” which, Berry explains, means, how do you do, but don’t you dare. Marsh is correct that Berry suffered all the indignities of Jim Crow, especially when it came to acquiring food and lodging on the road in parts of the South.
But in 1959, Chuck Berry also owned his own nightclub, a home, and a 30-acre property in Missouri he planned to develop into a mixed-race theme park, a rock ‘n’ roll Disneyland. One of the more poignant sequences in Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll is the montage of Berry reading his poem, “My Dream,” over footage of the dilapidated Berry Park of the 1980s, with its tombstone sign, dirty pool, broken down buses and paint-peeled empty buildings. Chuck Berry’s grand vision of a mixed-race rock ‘n’ roll utopia was never fully realized – “I wanted it to be Six Flags, turned out to be one flag” – but that doesn’t mean he believed in its ideal any less.
In 1959, Chuck Berry was at the height of his career and having a ball touring America to throngs of adoring fans (and groupies), well paid, well fed, a healthy young family and all the successes – and excesses – of the American Dream.
Marsh’s instinct that sizzling hamburgers represented something more significant than mere meat and bread was right – but he had it backwards.
Berry wrote “Back in the U.S.A.” after a January 1959 tour of Australia where he saw the institutional racism affecting the black Aborigines which, to Chuck Berry’s eye, was worse than in America. The grass is always greener, but there was no magical place for black people in the world then. Even some of the African-American jazz musicians who fled to Europe seeking artistic and racial freedom found themselves pining for America, even though in certain parts of their homeland they could not be served at certain corner cafes. In Bill Moody’s book The Jazz Exiles, saxophonist Nathan Davis recalls being accosted at gigs in Paris by racist French musicians who accused him of stealing their work because he was black. In the same book, trumpeter Art Farmer recalls longing to be back in the U.S.A. after moving to Vienna, “If you want to buy a car you can buy a car Sunday night, at least in California.” Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis had a similar experience, lamenting how moving to Europe from America was “like going back twenty-five years in progress.”
“This is the greatest country on earth, of that there is no doubt,” Berry told Mark Jacobson in a 2001 interview for Rolling Stone, “I was in Australia, and I found out they wouldn’t even let a black man become a citizen there. That’s why I wrote that song, ‘Back in the U.S.A.’”
Marsh hedges his argument by suggesting that even if the song was recorded earnestly, less than a year later Berry was ensnared in a racially-motivated Mann Act charge and therefore the song took on an ex post facto sardonic quality, despite Berry’s later comments to the contrary. The Mann Act conviction, like the breadth of Chuck Berry, is complicated. The Mann Act (White-Slave Traffic Act) is an obscure federal law designed to combat human trafficking by prohibiting the transport of women across state lines for the purpose of prostitution or any other immoral purpose. It was this vaguely written part of the law that allowed it to be used at will to target men, especially black men with a penchant for white women, like Chuck Berry and Jack Johnson. (The law was used against several prominent white men as well, including Frank Lloyd Wright, Charlie Chaplin, and a young Charles Manson.)
The girl at the center of this ordeal was a teenage Apache prostitute Berry picked up in a Juarez strip club, brought back to St. Louis, dressed up as Pocahontas and put to work in his nightclub. Everything was fine until he fired her for continually missing work, and she took revenge by running to the cops. He maintained throughout his life that he had no knowledge of her history of prostitution or that she was 14 (he claims that she claimed to be 21, and further claims the federal government never offered proof of her age at trial, but also confesses that he suspected she was younger than she said). He also claims he never had sex with her, contradicting her story that they had intercourse in four states, and in contrast to his own admitted difficulty in resisting tempting young females.
It is true that Berry’s prosecution and, especially, sentence (three years, commuted to 20 months served) would probably not have happened if he were white (the judge in the first trial was so biased, it was overturned). But at the same time, the 34-year-old Berry did pick up a teenager in a Mexican strip joint and did take her home to St. Louis to work in his nightclub, and admitted to sleeping next to her in the nude, if denying anything further.
The shame of it all was that Berry’s conviction robbed him of his best years and incapacitated a true American genius at an important time of social and musical change. The real loss is incalculable. Although he wrote what would become some of his best singles while in prison – “No Particular Place To Go,” “Nadene,” “You Never Can Tell,” “Promised Land” – Chuck Berry and his career were never the same after his release.
While he believed his mixed-race nightclub made him a target of the establishment, Berry did not seek to lay blame for his own mistakes. Even if one defers to his account, the incident showed a serious, but characteristic, lapse in judgment. He wasn’t without sin and even if she was consenting, she was also 14. Berry was partly railroaded by a corrupt system, and partly simply caught in morally – and legally – murky waters. (See James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son for a lesson in the French criminal justice system and ask yourself, black or white, which you would prefer.)
“There’s no other place I would rather live, including Africa, than America,” Berry said, “I believe in the system.”
In his autobiography, he writes of having just been released from prison: “I was back home for sure and not feeling offended at the system for whetting me down for going against the racial barrier of practiced tradition.”
Marsh then seems to revert back to his original point, suggesting, oddly, that Berry had to have meant “Back in the U.S.A.” cynically when he recorded it because “after a scintillating opening guitar run, Chuck basically turns the song over to pianist Johnnie Johnson and drummer Fred Below.” Johnson shines on this cut (as he does on “Almost Grown,” from the same session). It may be his finest hour. But to buy into Marsh’s somewhat tenuous theory, one must ignore entirely, as he does, Berry’s exhilarating guitar solo between the verse about missing skyscrapers and long freeways and that of the corner cafes.
With Johnson’s jubilant piano rolls, the Marquees’ “ooos,” “ahhs,” and “yeah, yeah, yeah, yeahs” and Chuck’s joyous shouts channeling Big Joe Turner, “Back in the U.S.A.” is the closest thing to a Chuck Berry gospel song – a celebration, void of irony or cynicism. Chuck Berry saw first hand the black experience in Australia in 1959 and came home declaring, “I’m so glad to be living in the U.S.A.!”
And he meant it.
About those missed skyscrapers. On July 4, 2002, the first Independence Day celebration in the wake of the rubble of the World Trade Center, while many Americans were still shell-shocked by the pops and booms of fireworks, it meant something when Chuck Berry sang “Back in the U.S.A.” on national television from the U.S. Capitol in his red sequins, white sailor cap, and blue guitar strap. Even if he was terrible – he often was.
Like A Cool Breeze
Chuck Berry’s songs were about freedom, or the urge for freedom: racial, sexual, generational, personal. Chuck Berry helped to shape the automobile as a symbol of American freedom. He certainly did not invent the phenomenon. Kerouac and Cassady were burning up American roads in the 1940s. (When Robbie Robertson observed to Berry that none of his peers in the 1950s rebel culture used poetry the way he did, Berry pointed out the beats.)
Hank Williams had a “hot rod Ford and a two-dollar bill” back in 1951. That same year, Ike Turner’s band bragged about their “Rocket 88” Oldsmobile at Sun records. “Hot Rod Lincoln,” a country story-song about a Southern California drag race, was first recorded in 1955, the same year as Berry’s first record, “Maybellene,” which was Berry’s attempt at writing a hillbilly song. “Hot Rod Lincoln” itself is a “sequel” song to a 1950 drag race hillbilly record by Arkie Shibley and his Mountain Dew Boys called “Hot Rod Race.”
But something was missing.
Berry used his observational detail and humor to fuse cars, sex and movement into one unstoppable force – like an old steam drill. Unrestricted movement is the fuel of the American brand of freedom, and Berry harnessed it, put his foot in his tank, let out his wings, blew his horn, and unleashed it like a cool breeze.
It used to be trains. When the Transcontinental Railroad first connected America, it stretched curious veins of tracks into unknown worlds. The great American songwriter Mickey Newbury, who grew up in Houston town and wrote about trains the way Chuck Berry wrote about cars, and whose immersion in R&B and country music informed his literate songcraft in a way similar to Chuck Berry’s, said, “The track could make a penny larger than a silver dollar…It was symbolic of a way out of town.”
But a train was tied to its tracks. Automobiles truly kicked America into gear in the 20th century. In the 1930s, rivers of Fords took countless poor boys to the Promised Land. By the post-war boom, the Interstate had become the Jet Age Transcontinental Railroad, and cars had evolved beyond a rich man’s toy or a working man’s tool, into a magical, middle class escape machine. And cars had something trains lacked: a special portal into the weird and wondrous worlds of limitless possibility and allure – the radio.
Like America itself, the cars in Chuck Berry songs are a source of continual freedom and frustration.
No particular place to go
So we parked way out on the Kokomo
The night was young and the moon was gold
So we both decided to take a stroll
Can you image the way I felt
I couldn’t unfasten her safety belt
Ridin’ along in my calabaloose
Still trying to get her belt a-loose
All the way home I held a grudge
For the safety belt that wouldn’t budge
Crusin’ and playin’ the radio
With no particular place to go
Climb into my machine so we can cruise on out
I know a swingin’ little joint where we can jump and shout
It’s not too far back off the highway, not so long a ride
You park your car out in the open, you can walk inside
They bought a souped-up jitney, it was a cherry red ’53
They drove it down to Orleans to celebrate their anniversary
It just don’t have the appetite for gas somehow
And, Dad, I got four carburetors hooked up on it now
I tried to hook another see if it’d do a little good
But ain’t no place to put it ‘less I perforate the hood
Run, run Rudolph, Santa’s got to make it to town
Santa make him hurry, tell him he can take the freeway down
Sweetest little thing I ever seen
I’m gonna name you Maybellene
Flyin’ on the beam set on flight control
Radio tuned to rock ‘n’ roll
Although the Flight DeVille remained an invention of his imagination, the automobile reached its stylized height during Chuck Berry’s initial reign. Today, we have reverted back to its utilitarian origins, choosing efficiency over aesthetics. But anonymity can have its advantages.
When Mark Jacobson interviewed Berry for Rolling Stone in 2001 – the same interview where Berry proclaimed America the greatest country on earth – Jacobson was surprised, and disappointed, to discover Chuck Berry drove a mundane Toyota Avalon.
“In a Toyota, the cops don’t stop you as much,” Berry explained.
When asked by Jacobson if the cops still stopped him, Berry answered, “Shit, yeah. They stop me. They’ll let me go after they see it’s me, but they stop me. Always have, always will.”
Swing Low Chariot, Come Down Easy
In a 1978 Today Show interview, Jane Pauley asked Chuck Berry who was the greatest singer of all time. The father of rock ‘n’ roll – the man who subverted, perverted, enlightened and emancipated an entire generation – answered that there were two: Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra.
As incongruous as it seems (a significant part of Berry’s appeal to the sweet little sixteens of the 1950s was his seeming rejection of adult sensibilities as personified by Frank Sinatra) much of Berry’s essence seems to come from a similar driving force as that of Sinatra. They were both born into stable families, but with an outsider’s view: Berry’s childhood home on Goode Avenue had no indoor toilet; Sinatra’s tenement, no hot water. Berry lived in a segregated black neighborhood, and had to be mindful when venturing into the white world; Sinatra grew up on the Italian side of ethnically segregated, immigrant Hoboken, and he and his father used the name O’Brien when venturing across town to the Irish section. They were both driven by a true artistic calling, as well as by a stubborn sense of dignity and pride, a longing to join the privileged classes, the haves. And they both, perhaps from insecurity, kept chips on their shoulders despite their clambering to the heights of mainstream success and acceptance. And while Sinatra became the king of hepcat swing, and Berry the father of rock ‘n’ roll, it was in the sentimental American songbook ballads where they both sought solace and refuge.
Even Berry’s last single – the posthumously released “Big Boys,” from his final album, CHUCK – continues with his outsider’s eye.
I was bright in school but my future looked dim
‘Cause the big boys wouldn’t let me party with them
Before he began writing songs, Berry studied photography, even constructing a makeshift darkroom in his parents’ basement. His songs have the same observational quality as photographs. They are vivid snapshots – voyeuristic, even when told in the first person. He documented America in his own image, in turn embedding himself into its very fabric, affecting the way we all see ourselves.
In the final pages of his autobiography, Berry ruminates on individuality and perspective. Chuck Berry never played the same song twice the same way, and this is how he saw people. He ultimately reasons that no two individuals can have the exact same reaction to the same song, because no two people can have the exact same experiences. In detailing the chain of command from his experiences to the public’s perception, Berry describes a four-generation journey: “First, it happened; second, I conceived what happened; third, I reproduced what I conceived; and fourth, you will conceive what I have reproduced.”
By writing the America he saw, Chuck Berry helped conceive it. In populating his canon with its dreamers and losers, its struggles and rewards, he enabled his songs to speak across race and place and time.
Chuck Berry was as contradictory as America. He experienced the injustices of racism, and he was the beneficiary of just reward. He said, almost in the same breath, that you never get over the indignity of racism, and that America is the greatest country on earth. For all his run-ins with corrupt cops who threatened and degraded and stole from him, at the center of his three convictions was a willful, wrongful act on his behalf. “It’s as easy to count my blessings as it is to count my misfortunes,” he said.
He was flawed and mean; gracious and gifted. He created untold beauty and happiness from the varied experiences and perspectives that shaped his elusive and contrary demeanor. The essence of America was unapologetically reflected in his very being, and filtered through his work into the world, and – with the inclusion of “Johnny B. Goode” aboard Voyager 1 – across the universe, ten billion miles to date with no particular place to go, drifting unheard, awaiting discovery among the stardust.
(c) 2018, Matt Powell