Chuck Berry performs onstage at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, May 1981.
Photo: Chuck Fishman/Getty Images
Editor’s note: This piece originally ran on December 20, 2016.
The origins of rock and roll were messy. The music didn’t evolve in a linear fashion; it’s never been clear who invented it, or what exactly the first rock and roll song was, so people have been arguing about it ever since. Some people will make a case for this or that early classic or moment — Ike Turner’s 1951 “Rocket 88,” say, or even something like (my nominee) Sister Rosetta Tharpe windmilling a solid-body electric guitar as a gospel group behind her sang to the heavens — but each of these in some way isn’t the full story. There are always progenitors doing something entirely different somewhere else. The best thing you can do, as the scholar Ed Ward does in the first volume of his just-released History of Rock & Roll, is to go back and track down all the folks who were doing those weird things, with the caution that it was not a linear tale. Phil Everly, of the Everly Brothers, sang professionally from the time he was in grade school and closely watched the music evolve. He put it this way: It was, he said, “like four or five avenues rolling toward one another.”
All that said, there’s a way in which this debate misses the point, and the way it misses the point always comes back to Chuck Berry. Berry is still around — he just turned 90, and even announced that he’s releasing a new album. He knew the blues, and he knew country, and he was there when rock started.
If you happen to need proof of his massive pop cultural influence beyond even music, just watch his impact on Hollywood:
But he also knew something that other people didn’t. The most important thing he gave us was something not musical. It was an idea.
But first, some context. Beginning as far back as the late 1930s and stretching to the early ‘50s, with varying amounts of nerve and gregariousness, a number of crackpots and journeymen started playing around with the extant musical genres of the day. Some played jazz or blues but started putting pop and even country in it. Others played country and started putting blues into it. Some even sang gospel, and put an electric guitar into that. Some had chips on their shoulders, looking for something new and explosive; others were just doing what came naturally and weren’t looking to offend. What some people like about rock and roll — one of the things I like about rock and roll — is that this messiness is a metaphor. Like the nation it was formed in, under an abstract conception it created itself and drew paradoxical strength from its differences.
It also ended up making a lot of money for a few people. It’s true, but a bit reductive, to say rock was just the proffering of a cash product to a new consumer. That doesn’t explain how these often confrontational sounds no one had asked for became a sensation. (A good definition of rock, in fact, is that it’s popular music that to a certain degree doesn’t care if it’s popular.) Those consumers didn’t know what they wanted either; it turned out they were just in the grip of an inchoate desire for something new. In some of the new sounds they could sense a stubbornness, a reflexive pushback — a bit defiant, a bit mischievous — against some of the artificial boundaries of the society. One of those boundaries, however artificial, had some pretty determined adherents, and in strictly sociological terms, the sound of the music aside, rock really began when records made by blacks started to get exposure to a white audience, and some white kids decided they liked it. Then, you might say, market forces began to shape the music. But that didn’t stop the innovation. Rock and roll was black music that let whites play it, and (not incidentally) vice versa; it was spiritual music that went carnal, regional music that went national (and then international), and rural music that went urban. (It was also sex music that came out of the bedroom.) There seems to be something inherent in the music that doesn’t like boundaries; it fed on the tensions that resulted.
“Rock Around the Clock,” by the New York group Bill Haley and the Comets, wasn’t the first rock record, but it was the first rock and roll record to indisputably become a No. 1 hit. I hear something rural and social in the song, but with a bit of mayhem in the mix — a guy calling a square dance, but with a deranged rhythm section behind him. The vocals, unruffled and matter-of-fact, are a masterpiece of droll pleasure incitement. The drumming, which ambles along in the background and then, now and again, snaps to the front of the speakers with a bark and a bite, is a work of art in itself. And then there’s the guitars! You can sneer at Haley, of course — he was bland, and kinda goofy looking, and he was unquestionably watering down older and better music. All that said, “Rock Round the Clock” is rock and roll, right? What else could it be?
But Alan Freed — the irrepressible Cleveland DJ, the doomed true believer who did so much to popularize the music — had been spinning rock and roll records for years before Haley came to prominence. He began what he called a “rock ‘n’ roll radio show” in 1952, and hosted rock and roll concerts with some of the more daring performers of the day. Those acts were mostly jazz — players from an evolving (devolving, some said) arm of the music, heavy on the blaring sax and based on a heavier, much less sophisticated beat. But there was straight blues and doo-wop — street-corner black pop, heavy on the vocals — too. Kids across the country started hearing all of this on shows like Freed’s. Then they discovered a truly insidious force — music a lot like it on the local black radio stations their parents had paid no mind to. The first Freed concert in Cleveland — the “Moondog Show,” he called it — caused a riot and was canceled. Rock and roll, whatever it was, became something scandalous.
Except Fats Domino was on the bill, too, and he wasn’t scandalous. He played a magnanimous, open-armed form of sui generis New Orleans music. In partnership with his producer and co-writer Dave Bartholomew, he crafted something that wasn’t really jazz and wasn’t really blues; it was really an instantly likable, energetic new form of classic pop, but it was also, somehow, still rock and roll. It’s another example of the different pieces coming together in different ways.
Around the time Haley was recording his big hit, another interesting figure was coming out of Georgia: Richard Penniman. Little Richard, as he called himself, was a pianist and singer possessed by religious and sexual demons. On his piano Richard bashed out something like boogie-woogie, too, but with an unheard-of fervor. Over this chaos he sang — screamed, mostly — lyrics that were often, you might say, one entendre short of a double. (“Good golly Miss Molly,” the opening line of one number went. “She sure like to ball.”) He was the most unbridled singer of the day, which is saying something. Meanwhile, that Memphis studio Ike Turner recorded in was run by producer Sam Phillips. Phillips’s studio, called Sun, would specialize in a form of music that came to be called rockabilly — it was white music, but a roughed-up country sort of thing, a lot dirtier than the crisp rhythms Haley was purveying. Philips recorded Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, and Charlie Rich, among others. One of those others was Jerry Lee Lewis, who had a rumbling, molten style of singing and piano playing. Lewis was never sure he wasn’t playing the devil’s music; he conjured up a wild drama of desire and guilt that could provoke theretofore unknown urges in teens. Phillips also recorded Elvis Presley, beginning in 1954. Presley’s music in the so-called Sun Sessions was special because it seemed to somehow encompass blues, country, pop, and something akin to gospel, or spirituals. Presley had exceptional good looks, and in performance gave off a seemingly involuntary kinetic force that seemed to buffet onlookers physically. He was white; the racist strictures of the day gave him entrée to bigger radio stations and, eventually, a major record label. The songs on his first RCA album, in 1957, were toned down in certain ways from his rockabilly origins, and a bit more cartoony. But there was a new emotional shudder in them, and they rattled and shook when they had to. His personality embodied a sexuality of a nature and a depth not seen before out outside of all-black clubs, and even there you got the feeling Presley hadn’t got the memo about playing the sex stuff for laughs.
During all this time blues was evolving too. In the black mass migration north after World War II, a number of musicians made it to the northern cities. Among many others, Chess Records in Chicago and Atlantic in New York began to record the smoother blues singers of the late 1940s, and gradually found acceptance for rawer songs as time went on. We romanticize these labels today, but at the time the blues was not ladled out to a sophisticated audience appreciative of its heritage or its resonant place in the American experience. Records were disposable products, deliberately, sometimes desperately, designed to catch the ears of (mostly black) fans and buyers. Then as now, novelty, silliness, and superficiality often won the day, but along the way something deeper was created — over at Chess, for example, in the work of Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf, with the help of producer and songwriter Willie Dixon. (Chess, in fact, released “Rocket 88.”) These were electric blues artists, plain and simple. Chess also recorded an absurdist, undeniable sui generis showman, Bo Diddley, who plainly transcended the blues. Where Waters and Wolf created high drama with dynamics and subtlety, Diddley’s approach at his most distinctive was massive, much of it based on his brutal appropriation of an old “shave and a haircut two bits” riff. He created tsunamis of sound.
Anyway, all of this was happening at roughly the same time — the dumbed-down jazz, the lava-like blues, the doo-woppy stuff, the boogie-woogie, the blaring R&B, the gospel and spirituals, the rockabilly, that ineffable pop from New Orleans. All of these guys were doing something remarkable: They were forcing a recalcitrant world to make room for them, and pretty quickly that room was filled with people playing rock and roll.
But if that’s all it had been, we might not be talking about it today. Something still was missing. Pop music had had a model for decades. Guys — sometimes women — sat in a room and wrote songs. They then found bands to play the music, or men or women or groups to sing it. Just about all of the lyrics they wrote were pretty dumb: received, romantic, sourced in a remarkably small number of ideas or situations, and reflexively constructed out of the simplest rhymes possible. (“Rock Around the Clock” falls easily into that category.)
Here’s where Berry comes in. Of the original people who were there when rock was formed, he’s the only one who not only wrote most of his own material, but wrote substantive material. He was writerly. He filled his songs with meanings and subtexts that resonate still today by means of a somewhat jokey but always intent poesy. And with those talents he added one thing to rock and roll it didn’t have before, and this thing he added might well be the thing that makes us talk about it, still today.
He wrote about a lot of things, but also this one special thing, which again puts him on a different plane from those who would otherwise have been his peers. Only one of the creators of rock and roll articulated this: That there was something new and important in the music he was playing, that the music itself, in a wild, potent way, meant something. He could see beyond the stylistic and personal differences of the players. He intuited — and again, he alone did this — that the music was big: bigger than any of its practitioners, bigger than anything that had come before.
With grace and wit, his lyrics reflected back on themselves a world flawed but full of potential, and somehow made more joyous and meaningful when matched to the implications of the music he was playing. His great contribution was not to invent rock and roll, but invent the idea of rock and roll: that with the verities of truth, imagination, and a backbeat, it held secrets, and promises.
* * *
Berry’s life story is told in two places: His own garrulously poetic, intermittently disclosive self-titled autobiography, and a superb serious-minded biography, Brown Eyed Handsome Man, by Bruce Pegg, an academic, currently at New York’s Colgate University, from the U.K. Berry was born in the attenuated black equivalent of a middle-class family in an insular African-American enclave of St. Louis called “The Ville.” His father, a construction worker, and mother both had slaves for grandparents; they raised four children. After he got out of high school, Berry helped him paint houses and often worked two jobs, most notably as a cosmetician. (Pegg notes that beauty services were an important route to black self-sufficiency at the time.) Berry had an interest in photography from a young age, and music as well, but it wasn’t until he was in his mid 20s, having bought a house and a car, married with two children, that he began playing music in local clubs. His favorite guitarists, he said, were Charlie Christian and Carl Hogan, from Louis Jordan’s jump-jazz outfit. In time, he joined, and then took over, a small combo named after its remarkable but alcoholic piano player, Johnnie Johnson. The combo played in local clubs, and sometimes would even play in surrounding cities. Berry loved the blues — his idol was Muddy Waters — but for some reason never felt bound by the music. Berry’s approach to his audience was unapologetically canny: he did all sorts of things on stage and watched what worked. He was black, playing in black clubs, but he noticed that crowds liked his mugging and showmanship in his goofy renditions of white country — “hillbilly” — songs. (A key lesson he took away, incidentally, was the accompanying “distinct diction” of such songs; no blues slurry for him.)
Berry wanted to be popular because it made him more money; for the rest of his career he would insist it was as simple as that. But he must also have sensed something in himself, enough that, on a trip to Chicago, he went to see Waters playing in a local club, introduced himself, and told him he’d been writing songs. Waters referred him to Chess Records, back when it was at its original location, way down on Cottage Grove on the South Side of Chicago. Told to bring back some recordable compositions, he did. One of them was a variation on an old country number. It was upbeat, and somewhat comical, but with deeper intentions. Berry called it “Ida Red,” after its predecessor, but it eventually had its name changed to “Maybellene.” It was a slightly weird tale about a guy whose gal has been unfaithful; his insecurities, complete with hints of sexual dysfunction, are turned into a car chase. The singer’s Ford finally catches Maybellene’s Cadillac at the top of the hill … and there the song ends. Berry’s singing is crisp and controlled over the song’s boisterous two-step backbeat. The song’s sprightly attack didn’t sound much like the blues.
Alan Freed played the song enthusiastically, and “Maybellene” — the 28-year-old Berry’s first single — became a top-ten R&B hit. (Sometime later, Berry says, he was surprised to see songwriting credit on the song shared with both Freed and Chess’s record-pressing-plant operator.) Berry was soon a star, appearing on hilariously diverse road-show bills across the country; he and his backing group would play two or three songs and get off stage. His second single became a top-ten hit as well. A great number of the songs he recorded for the label are familiar to almost any music fan today. A 1982 compilation album, a two-LP set back then, was appropriately called The Great Twenty Eight. His actual studio albums from the period are haphazard even by the standards of the time. One cover has a garish picture of whipped cream with some strawberries on it. The awkward name of the album is Berry Is on Top.
Everyone knows that Berry, attentive to his potential audience, sang about cars (“You Can’t Catch Me”), sang about girls (“Carol”), sang about school (“School Days”) — and sang about driving around in a car with a girl after school (“No Particular Place to Go”). But his great subject was something different.
The words “rock” and “roll” had been a staple of blues titles for nearly two decades, and of course Alan Freed popularized the term “rock ‘n’ roll.” Berry brought to the phrase what I guess you’d call a philosophical base. He gave the words meaning. Early on he tapped in to rock’s euphoric potential, and more than anyone else he trafficked in tribe-building. Another early hit was called “Rock and Roll Music,” a defiant line in the sand. (“It’s gotta be rock ‘n’ roll music / If you wanna dance with me.”) “Sweet Little Sixteen” is about a young music fan; “Sweet Little Rock and Roller” is about an even younger one. (“Nine years old and sweet as she can be.”) “Carol,” among other things, is about finding a “swinging little joint where we can jump and shout.” Virtually everyone’s heard “School Days,” Berry’s jaunty description of a quotidian day at school (“Ring, ring goes the bell,” etc.) and the slow movement of the kids to a local “juke joint” at three. The song ends with a sudden out-of-nowhere outburst: “Hail! Hail! Rock and roll!” The implication seems to be that the music has delivered the world the kids were living in.
Rock in this song and in some others became something otherworldly. Another Berry song is about a railroad crew — three verses, no chorus — disrupted by an unscheduled train. The title of the song, for some reason, is “Let It Rock.” Berry seems to have coined the phrase, complete with its Biblical underpinnings.
This felicity — a timeless combination of the colloquial and the ineffable — set him apart. Berry’s compositions and delivery were of a caliber and focus substantively different from the more unbridled paroxysms of emotion that defined Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Bo Diddley at their best. Each of the three were defined a single element: those titanic waves of sound, in Diddley’s case; a priapic scream of desire and delight, in Richard’s; a smoldering, devilish implacability, in Lewis’s. In terms of inventing rock and roll, each was limited. Elvis Presley was as well. The difference came down to a simple ingredient, one that in Berry’s hands became a shaping force of unprecedented power: the words.
Berry’s writing is almost always deceptively simple. You can see it in the jokey first line of his first single — and in the second line, too, which slyly slips the song’s drama into gear:
As I was motorvatin’ over the hill
I saw Maybellene in a Coup de Ville
His wordplay was sometimes benign, but it also is rife with giddy moments that could have come out of the Cole Porter songbook: “Roll over Beethoven / And tell Tchaikovsky the news.” His mastery of meter and rhyme is total. Even the flaws are there for a reason. You might notice, for example, that the first couplet of “Rock ‘n’ Roll Music” has a forced rhyme: “I got no kick against the modern jazz / Unless they try to play it too darn fast.” Then you notice that virtually every couplet in the song’s verses is similarly off: “Melody”/”symphony,” “rocking band”/”hurricane,” and so forth. The discordance captures the crudity of previous musical sounds compared to the sublimity of the new rock and roll. (In the celebratory chorus, the rhymes have Berry’s usual snap-and-lock flair.) Just as with the climatic final lines of “School Days,” Berry’s interests start with the superficial and the predictable — the timeless prerogatives of pop — and hint at the cosmos. Take the rushing rocker “Promised Land”; it too has no chorus, and no repeated lines, just four verses detailing a breakneck cross-country trip from Virginia to California via the Deep South. The singer makes it to L.A., and calls home. This is the last line: “Tell the folks back home this is the promised land callin’ / And the poor boy’s on the line.” It’s a personal tale tied to manifest destiny.
Elements like these mark Berry’s three greatest songs and show the breadth of his subjects. One is a simple love story. “Memphis, Tennessee” is based on an unadorned rhythm-guitar riff and an indelible stairstep of a melody. It’s sung with a humility and earnestness unexpected in such an animated performer. The singer, boarding with relatives somewhere, is talking to a telephone operator as he tries to return a call from his Marie back in Memphis. The pair had been separated by her mother: “Her mom would not agree / She tore apart our happy home in Memphis, Tennessee.” There’s no chorus here, either, just another four simple four-line verses, interrupted only by a plaintive guitar interlude. The last two lines have an O. Henry twist:
“Marie is only 6-years-old; Information, please
Try to get in touch with her in Memphis, Tennessee.”
Those words vaporize a clichéd love plaint and turns the tale into a complex portrait of separation, a foreshadowing of the social complexities to come in the 1960s. (Tammy Wynette’s “D.I.V.O.R.C.E.,” incidentally, is more than a decade away.) Once you know what the song’s about, the opening part about Marie’s number scrawled on the wall — the pathetic signifier a young girl trying to find her father — is quite poignant.
“Johnny B. Goode” is Berry’s greatest song about rock and roll. After an opening of guitar fanfare (an homage to — some would say a theft of — a similar riff in an old Louis Jordan number), Berry tells the story of a backwoods “country boy,” who, as he puts it in an inspired bit of doggerel, “never learned to read or write so well / But he could play guitar just like a-ringin’ a bell.” Goode practices near the railroad tracks, capturing the rhythms of the passing trains. When the chorus comes, Berry leaves the narrative to yell, “Go, Johnny, go!” and we hear Goode himself deliver a blistering guitar riff. It’s hard not to think that “country boy” is code for “colored boy”; “Johnny B. Goode” is a dream of a world in which a kid — one like Berry once was — could draw hope from the idea of America, which I think is what the train is all about. As with “Promised Land,” Berry’s art is explicitly based in the sweep and promise of both the American century and an individual American: “Maybe someday your name will be in lights,” Goode’s mother says, “Saying, ‘Johnny B. Goode tonight.’” If Berry didn’t invent rock and roll itself, he here certainly created the mythos of the rock and roll star as we knew it for decades — a solitary figure with a guitar. Berry himself, the character, the archetype; all merge. His musical colleagues created a space for themselves in the world; Berry redefined it to put this new archetype at its center.
Race hides in plain sight in “Johnny B. Goode.” For Berry it was a complex issue. In his autobiography, he doesn’t overly dwell on race, understanding, perhaps, he doesn’t have to. It’s a fact of life, albeit one deserving to be challenged. (He notes that he was not, as a young married man and father, able to “color bust” the local AAA to get car insurance on a new station wagon.) Berry and many black stars found that, even as their fame was growing, they were refused the basics. Berry once showed up at a club for a gig, only to be turned away when the owner realized he’d inadvertently hired an African-American. Bo Diddley has recalled the shows he played in which the auditorium was divided with a rope down the middle, to separate black fans from white. (“It was the stupidest thing I ever saw in my life,” he said.) And black acts touring the country learned to hire a white bus driver — someone who could run in and get carry-out food from restaurants that refused to serve blacks. Berry, as we shall see, was never what you’d call a humanitarian, but we can’t forget that he grew up in a world architected in sweeping and grim fashion to pretty much ensure people like him wouldn’t live to see their name in lights.
One other song Berry wrote in his classic period deserves mention. No other early rocker wrote a song anything like it, and no one would until Dylan. It’s a parable of sorts, told in six short verses. The central figure is powerful but elusive, a jester and a shaman. After the first verse, he sits offstage, until he makes a sensational appearance in the last. Here’s the beginning:
Arrested on charges of unemployment
He was sitting in the witness stand
The judge’s wife called up the district attorney
To say “Free that brown-eyed man
“If you want your job you’d better free that brown-eyed man.”
For the 1950s, this strikes me as a fairly potent bit of ribald social comment. The implication that the (presumably white) wife of a judge would be calling up the DA to get a handsome (presumably black) defendant off the hook is something out of a comic southern Gothic that had yet to be written. The conceit spills out over the following verses, which travel physically (to India) and cosmically (back to antiquity). In each, the brown-eyed handsome man is the catalyst for antics of one sort or another. Berry never mentions the man’s race, of course, because he didn’t have to. The last verse seems to be a hymn to Jackie Robinson, then ending an extraordinary career:
Two-three the count, with nobody on
He hit a high-fly into the stands
Rounding third he was heading for home
It was a brown-eyed handsome man
That won the game; it was a brown-eyed handsome man
* * *
Given his guitar prowess, bracing intelligence and riveting writing gifts, Berry could have been the dominant performer of his time. But his initial career was cut short — and his name ultimately tarnished — by a wounded, perhaps cracked psyche. As a teen he was incarcerated for robbery; in his autobiography he acknowledges he and two friends had taken to robbing businesses and cars at gunpoint; he came out of a reformatory at 21. This might have been adolescent fun and games — except to the folks who had guns stuck in their faces — but there is some evidence he wasn’t above stealing from his friends, either. Johnnie Johnson, in his memoirs, says Berry once took the group’s tip jar home for himself. When Johnson challenged him, Berry defiantly contended that the audience was there to see him, not the rest of the group. Johnson had to fight him to get the money back.
In 1959, at the height of his fame, Berry got in trouble again. The Mann Act was a federal law from the turn of the century about taking women across state lines for what the law called “immoral purposes.” Berry and his bandmates, on tour in El Paso, met a woman who was apparently a street prostitute. I reflexively use the word woman, but the girl was said to be 13 at the time. (She was Native American.) They ended up taking her along with them, to help out on show nights, and wound up back in St. Louis. Berry eventually gave her $50 to take a bus back to El Paso. The girl, angered, went to the police. There’s a complex backstory; a year or two previously, Berry had been pulled over with an adult white woman and faced similar charges, but was not prosecuted. The DA in this case, feeling that Berry had been giving a pass the first time, went after him ruthlessly. Berry could make the argument that the earlier arrest was a product of racial harassment, and that the law in any case was preposterous. That may be true, but all in all Berry’s actions aren’t exactly the makings of an after-school special. He was sentenced to three years in prison.
We might as well go into the rest of Berry’s troubles with the law. Having watched his pay be taken, shaved, and outright stolen from him by labels, agents, and managers over many years, Berry’s attitudes toward money calcified. He played only for cash, which he required to be paid in full before each performance. This unorthodox method eventually came to the attention of tax authorities, who, after a 1979 prosecution, put the fiftysomething Berry in prison for the third time, for four months.
Memories of those incarcerations grew dim as the years passed, and Berry might have spent his later career enjoying the fruits of his prodigious legacy. In the 1960s, the biggest groups in the world — the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones — recorded Chuck Berry songs. (“If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry,’” John Lennon famously said.) Homages to a single Berry track (“You Can’t Catch Me’) would turn up years later in songs by Lennon (in “Come Together”) and Bruce Springsteen (two different tracks on Nebraska).The Grateful Dead played “Johnny B. Goode” on the last night of the Fillmore West. In the 1970s, kids buying albums by artists as diverse as the Electric Light Orchestra, Bob Seger, and the Sex Pistols would have heard Chuck Berry songs. You could turn so white and retro an affair as The Porter Wagoner Show and see Jerry Reed doing a Chuck Berry medley. The American dreams and hymns to rock and roll conjured up by artists like Springsteen, Seger, and Tom Petty in the 1970s owed a lot to Berry. (For example: think of the title character in Petty’s powerful “American Girl”—“raised on promises,” and gazing pensively over a highway, the modern railroad.) As late as 1978 Linda Ronstadt had a sizable hit with Berry’s “Back in the U.S.A.” It seemed like just about everyone understood Berry’s role remaking our world. In 1977, NASA launched the Voyager spacecraft to the edges of the solar system. Among other things, the ships carried a disc containing images and sounds about life on earth. Included in that data, drawing from the achievements of billions of people over millennia, was a song made by a guy whose great-grandparents were born slaves. The song was “Johnny B. Goode.”
* * *
But in his later years, Berry managed to do two things that would occlude his image and that legacy. By the time he had reached his late 50s, he had become cranky and combative in a destructive and peculiar way. In the early 1980s Keith Richards devoted himself to assembling a 60th-birthday concert for Berry; he enlisted Eric Clapton and next-generation bluesman Robert Cray, among others, to help him honor his progenitor’s achievements. The scene would be the ornate Fox Theater in downtown St. Louis — a venue Berry had been denied admission to as a child. Soon a film crew was attached to the plans, led by director Taylor Hackford, known for having helmed An Officer and a Gentleman.
Berry might have used the concert to make his name known to a new generation; even a guy with dollar signs in his eyes would have leveraged the gala to collect higher concert fees and burnish his permanent legend. Instead, the star’s mix of insecurity and peevishness turned a celebration into one of pop’s greatest PR cataclysms. For both the producers behind the cameras and his admiring co-stars in front of them, he was bizarre, churlish, and uncooperative. At a meeting at a Hollywood restaurant to discuss plans for the film, Berry showed up with a bag of McDonald’s, which he pulled out and ate at the table. Hackford says that Berry didn’t appear for the first scene set for shooting, a morning visit to a local club where he’d played his earliest shows. The film crew stewed for several hours, until a corner pay phone began to ring. It was Berry — calling to tell the producers he wouldn’t show until he was paid several thousands of dollars in cash. Relations deteriorated from there. Later on in the production, Berry abruptly left town to play an outdoor concert on the East Coast, and came back with a damaged voice. Berry’s condition contributed to the horrible reviews the birthday concerts received. (His vocal parts had to be redubbed for the film.) And he clashed pointlessly with the stars who’d come to pay him homage. Hackford finally made Berry’s behavior the focal point of the film; in an early example of what has now become a trope of reality TV, Richards is recorded solo, away from the rehearsals, to express his exasperation over Berry’s antics — and even explicitly saying that Berry had stolen songs from Johnson. The final work, Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll, is engrossing, but for all the wrong reasons. (On a later DVD release, Hackford includes an extended “video diary” he had made at the time detailing how Berry’s bizarre behavior had derailed the production.)
In 1993, Berry’s reputation took a final hit. Spy magazine, then at the height of its outrageousness, published a story detailing the particulars of a legal case against Berry in Missouri. The resort Berry owned and oversaw northwest of town had cameras hidden in the women’s restrooms; a recorded archive of the bathroom videotapes were stolen, apparently from Berry’s possession at the ranch. (This was back in the days of VHS.) Also leaked was Berry’s personal pornography stash. According to Spy, the trove included film of Berry himself doing things that are typically not spoken of in polite society — and in this case acts that would make most in impolite society blanch as well. Berry settled a class-action suit from those filmed and pled guilty to some lesser charge. Berry had managed to place himself on the outside once again.
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Seen from the perspective of today, rock and roll seems a juggernaut; it took over the world, didn’t it? Still, in the beginning, it was a fragile thing. In the late 1950s, in one way or another, the first big stars of the music all immolated themselves; Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis disappeared after sex scandals; Little Richard, unable to square his Baptist upbringing with rock and roll (not to mention sleeping with men), retreated back into religion; Elvis Presley entered the Army. It’s surprising to see how few important singles were released through much of 1959 and 1960. But then Bob Dylan, who came out of folk tradition — a tradition that was of course not without its own meaning and subtexts — began to conjure shuddery indictments and parables out of the music, just as Berry had. Energy came from pop visionaries like Berry Gordy and Phil Spector. Rock got up off the ground and gathered its strength, and you know what happened next. The Beatles were inspired by Elvis, to be sure, but given the opportunity John Lennon and Paul McCartney didn’t do what Presley did, which is sing other people’s songs. They followed Chuck Berry’s example. They wrote their own songs and stories, taking ownership of the sound and meaning of their art.
Today, we don’t really know what, in the end, rock and roll is — or was. Berry’s final sex scandal came a full thirty years into his career, and it has now been another three decades since then. Now 90, he still lives outside of St. Louis, and we may yet see that promised album. But the tour dates that remain are close to his home, and there is a sense that his world is becoming circumscribed. When, inevitably, he passes away, the obituaries will note a vast artistic legacy, albeit with a stunted artistic career; the blunt ones will limn a stunted man, as well. But they might also mention that, if Chuck Berry did not invent the music synonymous with his name, he sensed something large in it, and, in a way no one else did, put that sense into words. In his hands, rock became something mythopoeic, and for a not-insignificant number of years, this exalted perception of itself reigned. Most of the significant artists of the last half-century or more didn’t just make rock and roll records; they made records that in one way or another hinted at something bigger. It was something Chuck Berry told them they could do.