Chuck Berry died on 18 March, 2017, aged 90. I saw him play four times: at Liverpool Stadium with the local band Rocking Horse, at the Wembley Rock and Roll Show in 1972, at Alexandra Palace, and at the Clapham Grand in 1995. On that last occasion there were hopes he would give me an interview, but the plan came to nothing.
Instead I wrote this piece, which reads now like a premature obituary; it appeared in the Q magazine issue of May 1995.
Don’t mention his Ding-a-Ling. Or the multiple prison stretches. Or the “other thing” with the you-know-what. Chuck Berry has plenty of convictions to be taken into consideration, but Paul Du Noyer would rather remember him as a living, duck-walking legend.
If we follow the life and adventures of Chuck Berry, they will take us to many strange places – from the toppermost of the poppermost to the interiors of several North American nicks. We’ll visit that legendary home of the blues, Chess Studios in Chicago, and the ladies’ conveniences in Chuck’s own country club at Wentzville, Missouri. But that last-mentioned destination will come at the end of our itinerary. The first stop is Clapham Junction.
At Clapham Junction is the Grand Theatre, the opening venue of Chuck’s British tour, 1995, and on stage he stands, tall and lean, unbowed and proud. Around him dance a quantity of rhythmically-challenged white people. The band chugs on. And then Chuck buggers off.
It was ever thus. Tonight’s show is no different to his British visits of the previous 25 years. There is a set of a certain length and not a minute longer; a back-up band with apparently no idea what Chuck will play next or in what key; tedious call-and-response routines; mock-astonishment as the crowd sings along unprompted; some trite, smutty number about a travelling salesman sung in cod-Mexican … Whatever becomes a legend least, rely on Chuck to do it. And yet, inside of all this lazy nonsense, are several of the best songs ever written, performed by a man who belongs to American history more surely than most of that country’s presidents.
It’s true. In his Clapham antics are flashes of proof. The man’s loose-limbed agility belies his longevity. Here is a star made famous at the same time as Elvis, in the mid-1950s, but he was 30 years old even then. When The Beatles first recorded he was already a bygone legend. If his modern gigs are below par then it’s his boredom that’s to blame, not frailty. He has this immortal back catalogue but he toys with it like he despises its simplicity. He’ll undermine Nadine, say, by singing staccato, each syllable half a breath behind the beat, or by strumming long, off-kilter chords, suddenly sweeping them back into the rhythm. It’s possible he’d rather be a venerated bluesman, moaning slow and low; but he’s a 69-year-old rocker repeating his snappy teenage anthems for the millionth occasion.
His biggest hit was his one truly terrible record – the infamous My Ding-A-Ling, recorded live in England long after his prime. But if rock’n’roll were a pair of underpants, Chuck Berry would be the very elastic holding them up.
Duck-walk with us a moment to the pre-war period. In 1926, Chuck Berry was born, a descendant of slaves and Red Indians, and he was raised in St Louis, on the famous Route 66. Blues passed through from Southern lands like the Delta, often fetching up in Chicago to the north. Hillbillies such as Hank Williams came over the Grand Ole Opry airwaves. There was Sinatra, Tin Pan Alley and Big Band swing. Chuck absorbed all these, and he cites especially bluesmen Elmore James, Muddy Waters and T-Bone Walker, the jazz guitarist Charlie Christian, humorous band leader Louis Jordan and his guitar-player Carl Hogan. And when Bill Haley broke big, Chuck’s soul may not have leapt, but his keen commercial brain paid close attention.
His musical blossoming was interrupted by his first spell in jail. With his teenage chums and a broken gun he tried to rob a shop – “I was nervous as a billygoat on a freeway”, he says – but the bungled heist got him three years inside. He came out in 1947, “free, black, 21, single and unbelievably horny”, and joined The Johnnie Johnson Trio, led by a gifted boogie pianist who would later enrich so many of Chuck’s recordings. But Chuck’s idea was they needed a name-change. How about “The Chuck Berry Trio”? Johnson accepted this. “He seemed to know more about business than I did”, the piano man concedes, glumly. By day, the ambitious guitarist worked to support his wife and family with jobs including cosmetician and painter and decorator. By night, the Trio mixed their black R&B with hillbilly material, and at the Cosmopolitan club in East St Louis, they began to draw a white crowd too. Nothing of this was lost on him.
Chuck’s break came with a trip to Chicago, where his hero, Muddy Waters, gave him the address of Chess Records. Here, Leonard Chess was thinking on similar lines to his southern counterpart, Sam Phillips of Sun Records in Memphis. In Elvis Presley, Phillips found a white hillbilly boy who could sing black. Conversely, Chuck Berry came to the blues label Chess with a pseudo-country song he called Maybellene. At Chess and at Sun, the experiment in racial crossover would re-route popular music for the rest of the century.
But history was not on Chuck’s mind when he watched Maybellene romping up the record charts. What bothered him was the way that Chess had shared Chuck’s writing credit with two other men, so reducing his royalty payment by two-thirds. One of the men was DJ Alan Freed, who was genuinely rock’s greatest champion in those early days, but his enthusiasm for a disc could be made even greater by a slice of its profits. (The other phantom writer of Maybellene was just a crony of Mr Chess; it would be 1986 before Chuck won full royalties to the song.)
Meanwhile, Chuck Berry toured and duck-walked (a childhood party piece; add the red Gibson guitar and it’s an inexplicably thrilling sight). He joined the elite of rock’n’roll’s first wave: Bill Haley, Fats Domino, Elvis Presley, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. In between, he’d stop off at Chess Records to cut those classic early singles. Johnny B. Goode may have subsequently suffered death by a million bar-bands, but it’s difficult now to imagine a time when that song did not exist. (They changed the high-achieving “colored boy” of its original version to “country boy”, to keep the Caucasian vote.) School Day shrewdly exploits the small frustrations of teen America; Brown Eyed Handsome Man, Too Much Monkey Business and Memphis Tennessee are universal story songs; Little Queenie is about the boy too slow to move in on the girl (“Meanwhile, I’m still thinkin’…”); You Can’t Catch Me is the essential car song, from an era when the car was still a symbol of liberation as well as a clandestine sexual location. Back In The USA is patriotism with a backbeat (you can hear the 20-year-old Marvin Gaye on backing vocals).
And there was a whole category of Chuck Berry songs – Roll Over Beethoven, Sweet Little Sixteen, Rock And Roll Music – that for the first time mythologised this music and celebrated its young audience. In so doing, he gave pop something nobody else had ever given it: a sense of its own destiny. It mattered. It was glorious. No matter that it was ridiculed and vilified. “Hail! Hail! Rock’n’roll! Deliver me from the days of old!”
Schools, cars and romance were his great themes. It was not that his muse inspired him that way, it was just demographic good sense. And if his uniquely clear diction helped him to sell more widely to the white audience, then so much the better. He wrote to sell, and sell to anyone. The music was not original, as he is quick to acknowledge, but nobody had ever played it with such slickness and yet preserved its urgent, primitive thrust. The lyrics were Chuck’s special pride. Models of satirical wit and picturesque precision, they still make every other wordsmith in rock seem lumbering and vague.
When the dollars arrived in serious amounts, Chuck bought a piece of land in Wentzville, near St Louis, and he founded Berry Park, an entertainment complex to serve as his home and a country club for paying guests, complete with guitar-shaped swimming pool. He’s lived there ever since. His second venture was a racially-integrated nightclub in St Louis, called The Bandstand. Of all the problems this enterprise would cause him, none was more disastrous than the 14-year-old Apache girl, Janice Escalante, whom he brought back from El Paso to work as an Indian-costumed hatcheck person. Once installed, Janice resumed her earlier calling of prostitute. And though Chuck fired her, he was hauled up under the US “Mann Act” forbidding the transfer of minors across state lines for immoral purposes. He protested his innocence. The first trial was notoriously biased: being black and a figurehead of the new Devil Music, his chances were slim; but even on re-trial he was unsuccessful.
So, in 1962, Chuck for the second time found himself with No Particular Place To Go and prison bars to keep him there. He served two years. It’s often suggested that this was the experience that so embittered him. He denies it, pointing out that he used the period of incarceration to study management and accountancy, skills so useful to him afterwards. What’s certain is that he wrote a batch of songs that count among his most exquisite. These include Nadine (“Pushing through the traffic tryin’ to get to where she’s at / And I was campaign shouting like a southern diplomat”), You Never Can Tell (“C’est la vie, say the old folks” over Johnnie Johnson’s most deliciously skipping piano fills), Promised Land (compiled with the aid of a prison atlas) and, indeed, No Particular Place To Go.
When he emerged in 1964, the outside world of pop had been transformed. He was now a revered elder and enjoyed the endorsements of The Beatles, the Stones, Dyland and The Beach Boys (though he had to sue them, so sincere was the tribute to Sweet Little Sixteen implied by their song Surfin’ USA). But he never really got the hang of the 1960s. His chart career dwindled, and he threw away a golden opportunity to revive it by turning down the Monterey Festival in ’67; it was a charity event and therefore against his principles. Fortunately, 1969 saw a general move back to rock’n’roll, and he played with John Lennon at the Toronto Festival.
Lennon would honour him consistently, offering the following soundbite on a US TV show: “If you tried to give rock’n’roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry.” In 1963 he’d been even more direct: “Don’t give me any of that sophisticated crap. Give me Chuck Berry.” (Lennon’s admiration got him into trouble when he quoted from You Can’t Catch me on the Abbey Road opening track Come Together. The old song’s publisher claimed plagiarism, and in settlement John pledged a new LP of rock’n’roll cover versions, to contain some of that publisher’s copyrights.)
As to black music, Berry’s influence was not so great as James Brown’s (soul composer Dan Penn dismissed him in a recent interview with the comment “He never went to church”, meaning he lacked emotional depth). But his lyrics stand supreme in the black tradition of street-and-prison rhyming that would culminate in rap.
Even if his best compositions were behind him now (Tulane from 1969 is a rare exception), he was still in demand live, not least in Britain. Here, in Coventry in 1972, he recorded the in-concert novelty number My Ding-A-Ling and topped the charts with music that was a travesty of his gifts. Some Berry devotees are shifty on this, the Ding-A-Ling difficulty. They will avoid your gaze, or attempt some defence. Have none of it. Stand your ground. The song is crap.
Even so, Chuck was now officially a Grand Old Man of Rock. It’s thought he has never quite grasped his mythic status among younger musicians, but he certainly understood about pick-up bands. He’d dropped his early touring group because, he claimed, they drank too much, but it was also cheaper if local promoters supplied a backing band. By the 1970s Chuck’s legacy was worldwide. In every town were players whose very conception of rock’n’roll derived from Chuck Berry. He’d employ them on the spot, often without rehearsal (on one occasion their number included the young Bruce Springsteen). It did not make for great shows. Nor did his distaste for encores or for playing any more than he’d contracted to.
Worst of all was his insistence on cash up front. Tales abound of desperate promoters feeding used banknotes under his dressing room door as concert crowds grew restive. Historically, most musicians have been cheated, but few others took their counter measures to such extremes. The policy came unstuck when America’s tax authority, the IRS, suspected Chuck was not declaring all his concert income. They took him to court and they won.
And so at the age of 53, in August of 1979, Chuck drove himself north through California to check in at Lompoc Prison Camp, for his third tem inside. While he drove he looked, with a pang of envy, at the motorists headed in the other direction. During his 120-day stay at Lompoc he wrote the first draft of his life story, published in 1987 as Chuck Berry: The Autobiography. The tale is so preoccupied with Chuck’s sexual adventures it comes a some surprise when he reveals his plan for another volume dealing with just that area of his life. His tendency to voyeurism is unsettling, but the frankness of his sensuality is not without charm and his unique writing style is strangely elegant. Drug casualties, for example, are described as “proven wrong in taking too strong and rolling too long.”
Nobody, not even John Lennon, has been more forthright in accepting an artistic debt to Chuck Berry than Keith Richards. In a magnificent act of gratitude, Keith organised an all-star show for Chuck’s 60th birthday, held at the Fox Theatre in St Louis (a venue where Chuck, as a black youth, was once refused admission). If Chuck was touched, he conceals it entirely, as can be seen in the movie of the event, Hail! Hail! Rock’n’Roll! From first rehearsals to the gig itself, Keith Richards is offered grief deluxe. “He gave me more headaches than Mick Jagger,” the Rolling Stone admits, shaking his head in disbelief, but I cannot dislike the guy.”
Alas, there are people in this world who can “dislike the guy” and will go to court to prove it. Sad to record, as Chuck Berry nears his 70th year his reputation is less as musical genius than as King of the Dirty Old Men.
“Every 15 years, it seems I make a big mistake,” he remarks wryly of his first three convictions. By that reckoning, he predicted light-heartedly in his 1986 book that that the next disgrace was due in 1996. In fact, it occurred a little sooner. A 1990 police raid on Berry Park uncovered guns, cannabis and hard-core pornography, and there were other allegations of cocaine and child abuse. In fact he was acquitted, save for a two-year probation on cannabis charges. But he could not quash further accusations that he made secret video films of women in bed – with others or with himself, in scenarios “too appalling to be described in a family newspaper” (News Of The World) – and, worst of all, in the women’s toilets.
On this latter count, Chuck was recently ordered to pay 60 female complainants a total of $830,000. His attorneys claimed a conspiracy was afoot “tantamount to an economic lynching of a uniquely American icon”, but to no avail. If each of his previous convictions had at least some shred of outlaw glamour, the latest one did not. It must be said that it lacks a certain something in style.
Of his supposed defects in character it is not for us to judge. He may be mean to an Olympic standard, but in the context of an avaricious business, his self-protection is not unjustified: “A man who can’t take care of his own money deserves what he gets,” is his opinion. And: “You don’t let the same dig bite you twice.”
Is he cantankerous and difficult? It’s widely said so. But again, his life was that of a very proud, very intelligent black man in 20th century America – studded with daily slights, petty humiliations and, indeed, some monumental acts of injustice. Their accumulated impact on his outlook can only be guessed at. Who’s to suggest he take the chip off his shoulder?
That is the life and those are the adventures of Chuck Berry up to this point. It is a horrible note to end upon and one must hope and pray there will be some better times left to him yet.