Chuck Berry: An American Life
“Definitive, highly readable, and unusually revealing, this biography gives us the remarkable Chuck Berry in full.”
John Lennon once said, "If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry.’"
As it turns out, Charles Edward Anderson Berry (1926–2017) was one of the best known and most enigmatic performers in the early years of rock ’n’ roll. In his excellent Chuck Berry: An American Life, music journalist RJ Smith writes that the Black singer, songwriter, and guitarist celebrated for such classic songs as “Maybellene” and “Johnny B. Goode” made it “impossible to know” what he got out of performing. “It was almost as if he did not want to be understood.”
Berry’s agent remarked that he “wasn’t personally friendly with anybody. Who knew him? Anybody with a record player.”
Said a longtime lover: “Either he was a very complicated man, or there was no there there. I’m still not sure which.”
A charismatic Black performer who grew wealthy—thereby offending many mid-20th century whites—Berry was one of the first rock pioneers inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He was also a “lifelong tinkerer” (especially with cars—Cadillacs), an adept negotiator, and a convicted felon who served three years in prison for transporting a 14-year-old girl across state lines for the purpose of having sexual intercourse.
Born into a middle-class family in St. Louis, Berry showed an early interest in music. After serving three years in a reformatory for armed robbery, he began performing professionally. In 1955, he met blues singer Muddy Waters, who suggested he contact Leonard Chess at Chess Records. There Berry recorded the song “Maybellene,” which sold more than a million copies.
Smith does a fine job of showing how Berry took his rhythm and blues (so-called race music) into the mainstream, attracting white audiences with songs like “Sweet Little Sixteen,” aimed at teenagers under the careful guidance of New York disc jockey Alan Freed, who presented the music as rock ’n’ roll—a euphemism for sexual intercourse.
Berry’s mentor, Freed once played “Maybellene” for two hours straight on his Rock & Roll Party radio show heard throughout the country.
In his late 20s, Berry “tore down the house” with that song at Freed’s live rock ’n’ role stage show at the Brooklyn Paramount in New York. His performance included his trademark guitar-strumming “duckwalk” across the stage.
Smith not only details Berry’s musical rise and bad-boy antics in the 1950s, but offers sharp assessments: “He was creating a body of work that would build a musical, rhythmic, and lyrical vocabulary for rock and roll.”
In short, Berry was a founding father of the driven music—a celebration of fast cars, teen romance, and above all freedom—that would sweep the country and the world. “He was a prophet of Black mobility,” writes Smith. “He was himself in flight, taking Black music to white audiences across the country with a fury.”
He always insisted on being paid in cash before taking the stage. “The religion I have is ‘yourself,’” he would say.
His biggest hit, released in the 1970s, was “My Ding-A-Ling,” a novelty song about masturbation that reached No. 1 on the charts and drew much criticism. Berry said the song made his wallet “so fat and happy.”
There is much more in Chuck Berry about “the often triumphant, sometimes anguished details of his life.”
Definitive, highly readable, and unusually revealing, this biography gives us the remarkable Chuck Berry in full.