The house lights went up at the Frederick Brown Jr. Amphitheater in Peachtree City, Georgia, and 2,500 souls rose as one, held flaming candles aloft and commenced singing "Happy Birthday" to the inventor of rock & roll.
But Chuck Berry was nowhere to be seen. The stage was empty. Only moments before, he'd been duck-walking and crashing through his old hits — or as many of them as could be played in precisely 55 minutes — but now Chuck was speeding through the backstage area behind the wheel of a golf cart.
As he finished the short drive to his dressing room, the final strains of the singing faded into the Georgia night. Chuck shook his head and said, "Man!"
Well, they should have known. It's not that Chuck was ungrateful — it's always nice to receive a kind gesture, especially when you're 75 years of age. But this business with the singing and the giant cake on wheels — that had all been settled earlier in the night, when the manager of the amphitheater gingerly approached Chuck with their plans for a nice little onstage birthday tribute. The man seemed well aware of Chuck's fearsome reputation. He knew that Keith Richards had called Chuck, his all-time hero, "a bitch sometimes. More headaches than Jagger."
But this would be no big deal, he assured Chuck: "All you'll have to do is stand there and smile."
"Stand there and smile?" Chuck replied, peering up from beneath the brim of his commodore's cap. "No, no. That would be out of character for me."
"But Mr. Berry," said the man, "we'd never ask you to do anything out of character."
Chuck narrowed the brown eyes of his still-handsome face.
"You're not going to try and tell me what my character is, now are you?" he said.
And they went ahead and did it anyway! Why would they do that, Chuck wondered as he peeled his sweaty shirt off his still exceedingly fit body back in the dressing room.
Standing there, the venue manager seemed chastened, and yet he had another request.
"Mr. Berry?" he began. It seemed the mayor of Peachtree City, and the chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, and one of former President Jimmy Carter's sons, all huge fans, were outside. Might Chuck do a quick meet-and-greet with them?
"Meet and what?" Chuck said. He threw his head back and smiled. It was a kindly smile, because as long as the rules are clear and spelled out in advance, Chuck Berry can be as welcoming and gracious as anyone. Sweetest guy you'll ever meet, in spots.
But there had been no discussion of meets or greets, not with the mayor, not with the judge, not with any president's son, especially not the president who was in office when the feds stuck Chuck in Lompoc Prison and made him play 1,000 hours of benefit shows due to a small income-tax oversight. From outside the dressing-room door came the sound of Southern voices, loud, boisterous, full of privilege. Chuck sat there a moment, fanning himself, listening.
"No, sorry," he said. "No time now. Just tell them I am in the midst of justifying this elderly frame of mine. That ought to explain it."
Which means: When you're Chuck Berry, and you're 75 years old, and you invented rock & roll, you can do — or not do — anything you want. Now go tell Tchaikovsky the news.
In the pantheon of outsize personalities who came together in the 1950s to invent the miscegenation music that Alan Freed named rock & roll, Elvis, the mythic white boy who could sing black, might have been the Zeus King, Little Richard the flaming Afro-dite, Jerry Lee Lewis the twice-born-again redneck Dionysus. But Charles Edward Anderson Berry, auto-didactic Homerian chronicler, out-of-left-field Orphic-Yoruban poet-trickster, was and remains the music's key dropper of science, the intellectual of the bunch. Combining the common touch of a former auto-assembly-line worker and a hairdresser's flair with pomade (with a diploma from St. Louis Poro School of Cosmetology to prove it), Chuck was the slick-pattered everyman, undermining the "up in the morning and off to school" workaday humdrum with the musical thrill of "hearing something that's really hot."
No teen sensation, he was 26 before he made a nickel playing music. Leonard Chess, master of the Chicago blues label where Chuck's schoolroom sagas formed frothy, lucrative counterpoint to the Muddy Waters/Howlin Wolf primal roar, used to speed up Chuck's tapes to make him sound younger on records, more of a heart-throb. Jerry Lee and Little Richard were wild men, standing on their pianos one minute and falling down in prayer the next. Chuck, a stone secularist – "My 12th year was the most Christian and most boring of my life," he says – was always cooler, cannier, closer to the vest.
He dropped out of St. Louis' Sumner High after the tenth grade, but still, Chuck is snobby in his way. He's been known to carry Albert Einstein's autobiography on the road, and he makes sure you appreciate the distinction between him and his fellow old-timers: "It's not like I'm on the phone talking over world events with Little Richard and Bo Diddley every day." He rails about interviewers who misquote him using words like lawdy, a rank "Southernism" that his schoolteacher mother taught him to rise above. In his way, Chuck is in the mold of a Ralph Ellison, or an early Chester Himes character, never losing sight of his unalterable place in the nation's racial divide yet forever playing footsie on the color line. "That black hillbilly" (as he was described in his early career), Chuck has spent his life playing almost exclusively for whites. In the right light, he remarks, "people say I even look white."
This is how it is with Chuck Berry, a big topic who arrives with enough skittish race discourse and cool-breeze codes to keep whole Amercian-studies departments knee-deep in subtext for semesters on end. If the story of this country is one of crossover, Chuck's epic-length Behind the Music episode bears retelling.
Case in deeply nuanced point is the story of how Chuck came to write "Sweet Little Sixteen" — Number One on the R&B charts, Number Two on the pop — one of the hallowed Great Twenty-eight, the name of Chuck's most comprehensive greatest-hits package, which includes such iconic fare as "Johnny B. Goode," "You Can't Catch Me," "Brown Eyed Handsome Man," "Memphis," "Rock and Roll Music," "Nadine" and "Havana Moon." These are the songs, perhaps more than any others, that configured rock's template. Chuck talks about "Sweet Little Sixteen" in his endlessly entertaining, fabulously dirty autobiography (among musician tell-alls, only Charles Mingus' sexed-up Beneath the Underdog comes close), published in 1987.
The song came out of an incident after a show up in Ottawa, Canada, Chuck writes in his Victorian-hipster prose: "A small German doll was in flight, mainly interested in getting autographs in her fat little Mickey Mouse wallet that she held like the torch on the Statue of Liberty." There were other autograph hounds, but it was this "pretty little tot" who was "actually around seven or eight" who "molded" in his memory, says Chuck, who was "one year past 30 at the time."
By the time he got around to writing the song's lyrics, Chuck recalls now, "I was playing in Kansas City, staying in a four-story brick-faced hotel. It wasn't high-class. I was a star, but still this was the sort of place we had no choice but to stay in those days. You had to strain to throw open the windows. I sat there on the bed and wrote out the verses: 'Sweet little sixteen, just got to have about half a million framed autographs — Sweet little sixteen, tight dresses and lipstick, sportin' high-heel shoes? Sweet little sixteen, with the grown-up blues.' "
So there you have a peek into the petri dish of the alchemical Dr. Berry: "Sweet Little Sixteen" and many more of the founding tropes of the Great (White) Teenager, as synthesized in a Jim Crow hotel room by a 31-year-old black man. A 31-year-old black ex-con, it might be added, because back when he was 18, a self-described "downbound trainee in bandido-ism," Chuck helped rob a bakery, a barber shop and a clothing store, for which he received a three-year term in Missouri's Algoa Reformatory. A singular ex-con he was, too, with a well-developed Nabokovian sex/race fantasy in which a little eight-year-old was transmuted into a spike-heeled American Bandstand rump-shaker whom "all the cats want to dance with."
It is kinky, but then again, anyone who ever heard of that possibly apocryphal home video of Chuck banging a groupie suspects his kinkiness. Chuck may not drink or do drugs, but he does, in his autobiography, jokingly (or is it?) admit to "have had a desire since childhood to be houseboy on a Southern plantation, preferably during the Civil War." Nastier are the tales about how he reputedly installed video cameras in the women's bathrooms of his Southern Air restaurant, in Wentzville, 30 miles west of St. Louis, home to Berry Park, the 100-acre erstwhile amusement-park/campgrounds where Chuck once hosted picnics for 50,000 hippies at a time and imagined a rock & roll Disneyland.
Yet somehow, after all these years and all we know of Chuck, and through many, many cursory performances, "Sweet Little Sixteen" has never ceased to imbue a mystic, sweet, sock-hop innocence, a dreamworld of adolescent longing, both roused and doomed by "the grown-up blues." Which, of course, is the essence of Chuck Berry's unassailable achievement. The world may be a big place and full of strange trips, but there's hardly a sentient being alive, then or now, who doesn't get a little bit happy when a Chuck Berry song comes on the radio.
Iconfess to schizophrenia," he has said. "There is me, Charles Berry, and there is me, Chuck Berry. Sometimes you get the overlap, sometimes not. It is a controlled kind of schizophrenia, and I'm controlling it."
Sort of, he is. For years, Chuck swore straight-facedly, even defiantly, that he had never served a single day of jail time after his infamous 1959 arrest under the Mann Act, for supposedly transporting Janice Escalante, a 14-year-old Apache prostitute, across state lines for "immoral purposes."
"Nothing really came of it," Chuck told Patrick William Salvo in a 1972 Rolling Stone interview. "You see, there was two or three different trials, and one was thrown out of the courts because the judge was fairly biased, and finally I was acquitted, you see. That's the misconceptions that people have, that Chuck Berry went to jail."
But, of course, Chuck Berry did go to jail. It is true that Chuck's first conviction was appealed after it was found that U.S. District Judge George H. Moore "intended to disparage the defendant by repeated questions about race during the trial." But a year later, on October 28th, 1961, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported the affirmation of "the conviction of Charles E. (Chuck) Berry, rock & roll singer and former night-club owner" for violating the infamous Mann Act. Escalante testified that Chuck "had been intimate" with her "in each of four states." Judge Roy W. Harper sentenced him to three years in prison and a $5,000 fine.
The last paragraph of the Post-Dispatch article said simply, "Berry is a negro."
In his 1987 memoir, Chuck wrote movingly of his bus ride to Federal Medical Facility in Springfield, Missouri, an address he describes as "somewhere near the Ozarks of Misery.... I was 35 years old, really set back, feeling more black but still intact." As he waited to be handed his prison clothes, he wrote a poem: "Down from stardom, then I fell, to this lowly prison cell/Far from fortune, far from fame, where a number quotes my name." He'd stay inside until October 18th, 1963, his 37th birthday, when his wife, Themetta; father, Henry; and brother Hank picked him up in his Cadillac, which he drove home.
Today, Chuck maintains his innocence — he says people were out to get him because the nightspot he owned, Club Bandstand, catered to an interracial crowd. Still, he doesn't want to discuss the case. No jail stuff, no sex stuff — these were the ground rules of our conversation. But Chuck rubs his newly grown goatee in pleased surprise when he hears that others who ran afoul of the notorious Mann Act include the great black heavyweight champion Jack Johnson (who had to leave the country) and Charlie Chaplin, whose prosecution was personally instigated by commie-hating FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover.
"Some trio," Chuck says, and yet he will not abide hearing his prosecution referred to as him being "railroaded."
"This is the greatest country on earth," he says, suddenly irritated. "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. You know 'Back in the USA,' don't you?"
This is how it is with Chuck Berry: You put him up there with Jack Johnson and Charlie Chaplin, and he looks at you like you're some kind of terrorist, insufficiently loyal to the long freeways and those hamburgers sizzling on the grill night and day.
Chuck remains steadfastly aloof from any talk of his own cultural importance. For example, his song "Promised Land" is praised in W.T. Lhamon's book Deliberate Speed — The Origins of a Cultural Style in the 1950s, as being "as apocalyptic as Martin Luther King Jr.'s last speech, improvised in Memphis at the Mason Temple ... the night before he was killed."
But if you tell him that, Chuck only rolls his eyes. "People think up all kinds of things," he says.
Or mention that Russell Simmons, the hip-hop impresario, sees an unbroken line connecting "Johnny B. Goode" and crossover avatars such as Jimi Hendrix, P-Funker George Clinton (also a hairdresser) and "street talk of a hundred rappers," and Chuck is not pleased.
"All those m-words and f-words, don't blame me for that," he says. "I'd rather hear Tommy Dorsey or Artie Shaw any day."
Finally, he exclaims, "Look, I ain't no big shit, all right?" In Chuck's book, he has always fallen short of true greatness: "Nat King Cole's diction, Maya Angelou's poetry, Duke Ellington's elegance…... My music, it is very simple stuff. I told you all this before. I wanted to play blues. But I wasn't blue enough. I wasn't like Muddy Waters, people who really had it hard. In our house, we had food on the table. We were doing well compared to many. So I concentrated on this fun and frolic, these novelties. I wrote about cars because half the people had cars, or wanted them. I wrote about love, because everyone wants that. I wrote songs white people could buy, because that's nine pennies out of every dime. That was my goal: to look at my bank-book and see a million dollars there. That satisfy you?"
So you take Chuck Berry as he comes, and how he comes is alone, a solitary traveling salesman/cowboy of rock & roll, arriving in one city after another with nothing more than his guitar and his contract, one of the shortest and most ironclad in the music business.
"I require two things," says Chuck. "A Lincoln Town Car at the airport and a Fender Bassman amp." If the promoter sends a stretch limo, or even a 50-foot Mercedes with UFO running lights, and says, "Chuck, forget the Lincoln, this is much better," Chuck sends it back. "I didn't say better, I said a Lincoln. If they do not provide the proper amp, there is a $2,000 fine, paid in advance."
One more item he asks for is "to be provided with able musicians, that is, musicians able to play Chuck Berry songs." Back in the day, at the St. Louis Cosmopolitan Club, when he was the newest member of Johnnie Johnson's Sir John Trio (which would become the Chuck Berry Trio), Chuck often traveled with his own band. Once he even led an orchestra, 29 pieces, on a tour of Canada. But he hated dealing with the drummers who got drunk, the saxophone players asking for meal money on off-days. So now Chuck almost never brings his own band. Besides saving money, the rationale is this: Any band in any garage in America knows how to play Chuck Berry songs. After all, how can you play any rock & roll song unless you can play a Chuck Berry song?
On a recent evening, hanging out in a dressing room with the night's group of able musicians — able to play Chuck Berry songs — it was half an hour to showtime, but Chuck was nowhere to be seen. The concert promoter was beginning to pace, but the band, which had played with Chuck before, knew he'd show.
"He always does," says Dick Alen, who has been Chuck's agent (also Little Richard's) for nearly 50 years. "If the money's up, Chuck will be there," says Alen, who clearly loves his difficult client. "Once, Chuck was booked to play Philadelphia. But there was a blizzard. The town was under ten feet of snow. The airport is closed. So Chuck flies to Pittsburgh, rents a car, drives 300 miles. He gets to the Philly theater, and the place is closed. The whole town is shut down. But Chuck demands to be paid. He is ready to sue to get paid. And why not? He was there."
Nowadays, Chuck gets something like $35,000 for a decent-size gig, and sure enough, here he comes, tearing into the parking lot in his rented Lincoln, looking extra fine in his white slacks, blue blazer and captain's hat. Yes, he is cutting it a bit close, but he took a later flight because his sister needed a tree removed from her backyard in St. Louis, so Chuck spent the morning pulling the thing out with his backhoe. And anyway, the show isn't due to start until nine, and it's hardly past 8:40.
Then, after smacking forearms with the band, his usual greeting, Chuck suddenly remembers something. Pivoting on the heel of his patent-leather shoe, he goes back out the door and walks across the parking lot. It's raining lightly now, with streaks of lightning high in the sky. Through the half-drawn blinds, the vision can take your breath away: watching Chuck Berry stride through the slanting rain, pop open the Lincoln's trunk and take out his guitar.
Rolling through traffic on I-170, west of the St. Louis neighborhood where he was born, you'd figure Chuck to be in a brand-new De Ville, something low and sleek with "jet off-take" and "a Murphy bed in the back seat," like in his song "No Money Down." Or at least something with a V-8. Instead, Chuck was behind the wheel of a Toyota Avalon with the radio tuned to NPR.
Sure, he had a fleet of vehicles out at Berry Park, Chuck acknowledged. There was also a Mercedes at his house in St. Louis' posh Ladue section, in case he was of a mind to burn a little rubber. But as for driving around town, the Toyota was best.
"In a Toyota, the cops don't think about stopping you so much," says America's leading poet of things automotive.
A few minutes later, Chuck is inside the Four Seasons recording studio. It is a momentous day. Chuck Berry, rock & roll inventor, has not been in a studio in 17 years. He hasn't recorded an album of original material in more than 20. In fact, not counting the stirring fugitive narrative "Tulane," released in 1970, and the fluke toiletry item called "My Ding-a-Ling" two years after that (the ironies of the sexually rococo Chuck finally getting to Number One with a high school jack-off song are too dense to cut through here), Chuck hasn't put out any sides of artistic or commercial significance since the middle 1960s, adding to the theory that the Mann Act imprisonment did much to take the heart out of what had been one of America's greatest songwriting careers.
Today that is supposed to change, and Chuck is — totally out of character — a little nervous about the prospect.
"For many years," he says, "I've been reluctant to make new songs. There has been a great laziness in my soul. Lots of days I could write songs, but I could also take my $400 and play the slot machines at the riverfront casino. In a way, I feel it might be ill-mannered to try and top myself. You see, I am not an oldies act. The music I play, it is a ritual. Something that matters to people in a special way. I wouldn't want to interfere with that. So, yes, it is a little risky. Because I have been so educated in the past, and now it is so far in the future."
Chuck arrives at the studio with six cardboard boxes full of half-inch tapes containing various demos, stuff he's done on his own in the past few years. There are also piles of sheet music, stacks of loose-leaf paper. A page slips out and flutters to the floor. Dog-eared, it is the original lyric sheet of "Havana Moon," Chuck's languorous three-minute rock opera of lost love ("Me watch the tide easin' in/Is low the moon, but high the wind"). The song, one of Chuck's greatest, hasn't generated much in royalties, a fact Chuck attributes to "Fidel Castro, the whole communist-Cuba thing." Noting that he's been thinking of rewriting the tune as a less-controversial "Jamaica Moon" for inclusion on the new record, Chuck takes the lyric sheet and tosses it back in the box.
A moment later, Chuck, the pearl buttons of his billowy white cowboy shirt and his string-tie clasp shining in the vaporous light, is behind the studio glass making a speech.
"I am not going to be paranoid," he announces to Dave Torretta, his engineer, and Joe Edwards, a St. Louis cultural patron and owner of the nearby Blueberry Hill club, where Chuck plays once a month. "I am not going to be pushy or bossy or use the f-word," Chuck says. "I am an employee here just like anyone."
This said, Chuck begins to record the vocal track for "Dutchman," an expressionistic hip-hop campfire tale/talking blues about a bunch of guys sitting in a bar "half the day, telling jokes, lies and fairy tales to pass the time away" when the Dutchman, "this huge, dark dude, cracks the barroom door" and tells the story of his life. From there, Chuck runs through bits and pieces of "Lady Be Goode," not quite a remake of the old hit; "The Big Boys," a rocker; and "Loco Joe," a rewrite of "Jo Jo Gunne," a story set "way back in evolution, 4,000 B.C./Back in the jungle, up a coconut tree."
Chuck's light-timbred tenor is as sly and nimble as ever. It is no great leap to imagine yourself back in Leonard Chess' Chicago studio, with Chuck running through "Maybellene" one last time. Some aging has taken place, however. "Darling," a slow ballad, contains the lines "Your father is getting older, each year strands of gray are showing bolder/Here been fame and fortune, heartache combined/Hear me now as I cry: Oh! Good times come but not to stay, they'll go fast away."
After another couple of numbers, some new, some old, Chuck is ready to call it quits. He's been working through a version of "Downbound Train," originally called "Hellbound Train." It goes, "Ninety addicts blow the whistle/Only three could ring the bell/They got off to change for heaven/And the rest rode into hell."
One more take and Chuck stops, looks through the glass.
"You know," he says, "maybe it is true what they say, that playing these Chuck Berry songs is easy. But try singing them. The words come out hard, like bullets."
That's not the only discontent troubling Chuck's old age. Last year, Johnnie Johnson, Chuck's famous piano player, filed suit against his old boss, contesting the authorship of many of Chuck's best-known songs, including "Roll Over Beethoven," "Rock and Roll Music" and "No Particular Place to Go." The suit alleges that Chuck "took advantage" of Johnson's chronic alcoholism and good nature to cheat the pianist out of his "rightful share" of royalties.
Back home in ol' St. Loo, where the faces of both men adorn the University Loop Walk of Fame, the dispute is a hot topic. Most people side with Chuck, pointing out that Johnson, while quite beloved, never wrote any hits prior to his association with Chuck and hasn't written any since. There's widespread feeling that Johnson, who has recently been touring under the outrageous billing "Father of Rock & Roll" (despite the fact that he does not even play on Chuck's supposed tribute to him, "Johnny B. Goode"), has uncharacteristically over-stepped his bounds.
Pointing out that the suit was announced only days before Chuck was due to be honored at the Kennedy Center as a great American (along with Clint Eastwood, Angela Lansbury and Mikhail Baryshnikov), Joe Edwards, who has booked both men at his club, says, "This is a shame. I'm all for Johnnie getting whatever credit is due him, but he shouldn't do it at Chuck's expense. I think we know who created that sound, and it wasn't Johnnie Johnson."
Chuck seems unperturbed by the suit, even by news that his friend and collaborator now calls him "two-faced."
"The lawyers are handling that," Chuck says with a shrug. "The judge already dismissed something like 29 of the ones he claimed he wrote. I like Johnnie. He was a friend of mine. I hired him to come play on some things for this new record. He played, got paid. This is just more dirt tossed on what I've done. I can't spend time thinking about that."
Certainly it's not on his mind tonight, at Edwards' Blueberry Hill. It has been a long day, with the morning spent at the former site of Berry Park, working alongside his good buddy James Williams (they were partners in crime before going to the Algoa reform school 50 years ago), digging a drainage ditch. But Chuck says he's "feeling fine, ready to rock." Seventy-five might be a minor milestone in Chuck's life, considering how longevity runs in his family. His maternal grandfather lived to be 104, "and he smoked," says Chuck, who quit years ago and now figures he's good for at least 105.
"And maybe more!" he shouts, pointing at the ceiling. "Hey, Elvis! Still here, man!"
Blueberry Hill, something of a Chuck shrine, with old show posters, mounted guitars and framed Alan Freed contracts, is "a sweet job," says Chuck, who loves to play for the hometown crowd and the sprinkling of Euro tourists stopping in to see the master at twilight. Chuck even gets there half an hour early, to chow down on a couple of chicken wings.
"Can't beat this," Chuck says, picking at the wings in the tiny dressing room beneath a black-and-white photo of him in his prime, duck-walking in a silk suit.
For Chuck, however, the best thing about the Hill gig is that he gets to play with his children, the fabulous Ingrid, a singer and schoolteacher, slinkily attired in the manner of Billie Holiday, and Chuck Jr., a systems analyst/guitar player in a George Clinton T-shirt. Chuck Jr., outgoing and regular, sports studious-looking horn-rim glasses, which prompts his father to say, "Who you think you are, Malcolm X?"
"It's been wonderful, really," says Ingrid, herself a mother, about life as Chuck Berry's kid. "It's true, there were hard times, and a lot of traveling. But he was still Father. We still felt watched, we still felt loved, we still obeyed."
The show — as they always are at Blueberry Hill — is tremendous. Chuck even duck-walks across the stage during "Johnny B. Goode." The first time he duck-walked, which he calls "scooting," was under the dining room table of his youth: "I was about nine. I guess I did it to get attention." It wasn't until nearly 20 years later, while playing the Brooklyn Paramount, that he scooted in public. "I just did it," he says. "It wasn't planned. People liked it, so I kept it."
And so it goes, on and on, because at Blueberry Hill, the timer inside Chuck's head, the one that buzzes after exactly 55 minutes, has been turned off. At one point, Chuck, Chuck Jr. and Ingrid (on the harp) step forward and wail away.
"You don't know how good this makes me feel!" Chuck shouts to the crowd, unguarded at last.
After the show, Chuck gladly does a meet-and-greet for the line of fans snaking away from his dressing-room door. One by one they enter for autographs, and to get their picture taken with the first man ever inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
"Saw you in '57 and again in '58, in Philly," says a retired plumber. "Saw you open for the Dead at the Fillmore," says a ponytailed pet-store owner.
"Got every single you ever made," says someone who drove in from Kansas City, handing Chuck a 45 of "Nadine." "
When did I record this? 1844?" Chuck asks with a grin, affixing his flamboyant autograph to the disc, then adding a happy face.
"You're the best," somebody says.
"Lies!" Chuck replies.
"You're the handsomest man in the world," a middle-aged woman in lime-colored polyester pants says, sitting on Chuck's lap.
"Finally, a bit of truth," he says, bouncing her on his knee.