One night in 1955, Chuck Berry played a show in Mobile, Alabama. His revved-up and revolutionary first hit, “Maybellene” – a joyful story that romped through cars, sex and class – had recently taken Berry from a St. Louis nightclub act to a national star unlike any other. He was tall, limber, smart, sly, incredibly inventive, and animated onstage in ways that helped flex his musicianship rather than detract from it. Plus, he was handsome and black. These were the early days of rock & roll. What the music seemed to stand for – a youthful refusal to defer to adult authority, a preference for turbulent sounds made from outsider forms like blues, boogie and hillbilly, and a willingness among young whites and blacks to listen to and adopt one another’s music, to gather and dance to it – signaled social change that both anticipated and corresponded to the emerging civil-rights struggle.
Berry’s charisma and sexiness, his lyrical and musical brilliance and his early edge in the game (Elvis Presley had not yet ascended) made him a natural point man for this change. His blackness, however, made him a natural threat to some, even black critics who decried rock & roll as a movement that debased the race. Berry didn’t present himself as a subversive, but he didn’t need to. The young, both black and white, thrilled to him every time he took a stage. Berry knew there was both risk and opportunity in this. “I’d been hearing of this sort of racial problem for years from my father,” he wrote in his autobiography, “except his stories were more severe.”
At the Mobile show, Berry was worried. Ropes ran down the audience floor, separating blacks from whites. Could he truly play music that appealed across this division? Would one audience resent him more than the other? “I skipped onstage,” he wrote, “and belted out my song ‘Maybellene.’ I put everything I had into it: a hillbilly stomp, the chicken peck, and even ad-libbed some Southern country dialect. Contrary to what I expected, I received far greater applause from the white side of the ropes. … Determined to retaliate, I bowed longer to the bored black side than I lingered on the left, let my fingers crawl into the introduction, and poured out the pleading guitar passage of ‘Wee Wee Hours.’ … I began hearing ‘uhmms‘ and ‘awws‘ as I approached the kissing climax and how beautifully the black side began to moan. I knew I was getting next to them. It was just like we were all then boarding da’ ol’ ribba-boat about to float into a land of flawless freedom.”
That night, Berry reached across the great American divide. “The palms of black and white,” he later wrote, “were burning as the producer signaled me to exit. …” Outside the Mobile theater, though, Berry found himself facing the bigger and scarier enduring reality of the historical breach he’d walked into: “It seemed the whole police force had surrounded our bus.” Were the police there to protect the musicians, or to keep them from mixing with the excited audience members who had also gathered? “The isolation ignited ill feelings in the fans as well as the artists,” wrote Berry. “I watched the officers taking the abuse and I thought, do in Rome as the Romans do. Fears that the police would reciprocate led me to board the bus.”
That was Chuck Berry’s ideal: He wanted both sides of the ropes, wanted to achieve a freedom that had not come easily to others. He tried this in his music, and in both his public and private life – that is, he attempted to navigate the dividing lines, even the ones inside himself. Sometimes his efforts were immodest and disastrous. Berry was a complex man: ebullient, guarded, embittered and licentiously flawed. Even some who most admired him – who would have been nowhere without his influence – didn’t much like him. Keith Richards once said, “I couldn’t warm to him even if I was cremated next to him.” But Richards and others couldn’t deny Berry’s importance as the most innovative guitarist and lyricist in rock & roll history. Leonard Cohen once said, “All of us are footnotes to the words of Chuck Berry.” Bob Dylan named him “the Shakespeare of rock & roll.”
The literary corollaries here are appropriate, because Berry himself was a literary figure, as a writer, as a character and as an idea. Though he took much from the music of T-Bone Walker, Louis Jordan, Hank Williams and Charlie Christian, among others, his true antecedents might be found in the work of poet Paul Laurence Dunbar and author Ralph Ellison. Dunbar was a late-19th-century black poet whose most famous work was “We Wear the Mask,” about how blacks had to hide their true selves and realities from the rest of America. Ellison’s nameless hero in 1952’s Invisible Man had to navigate between racism and radicalism and his own needs in covert ways. Both Dunbar and Ellison were important and praised, but they were also rebuked by some other black artists who thought they catered too much to white ideals of culture and behavior.
It could be said that Berry wore the mask, though he did it in trickier ways. When that mask really dropped, at the end of the 1950s, he lost just about everything. Yet such was Berry’s importance that if not for him, the Beatles, Dylan, the Rolling Stones and countless others wouldn’t have had a model or map. Rolling Stone wouldn’t be here without him. If ever there was an American who deserved the Nobel Prize in Literature, it was Chuck Berry. If ever there was an American who did not, it was Chuck Berry. If ever there was an American, it was Chuck Berry.
Berry traced his forebears back to pre–Civil War days, at the Wolfolk plantation in southernmost Kentucky. The wife of Master Wolfolk, Berry wrote, inherited the plantation upon the death of her husband in 1839. She didn’t push the slaves, in comparison to other owners, and was lenient to her favorites. Berry, in fact, believed the woman had an affair with a house servant and gave birth to an illegitimate “mixed-blooded female child,” Cellie. Cellie served Mrs. Wolfolk alone. John Johnson, a young slave from the nearby Johnson House plantation, was attracted to the light-skinned Cellie and worked at both plantations to be close to her. Master Johnson, like Wolfolk, was what Berry called a “good master.” One day, he came home and told John that President Lincoln was likely to enact laws that would put an end to slavery. In a short time, the young slave and Cellie would be free. The couple moved to Ohio and married. They returned to Kentucky, but later fled to Missouri after drunken white men tried to rape Cellie. Living in a one-room cabin, they raised four children. The youngest, Lucinda, was the mother of Chuck Berry’s father, Henry William Berry, born in 1895. Before he was even born, the rock & roll singer’s history had already moved between complex worlds of white violence and white benevolence, between black bondage and black hope.
In 1919, Henry William Berry was living in St. Louis when he married Martha Bell Banks. “My childhood was not so good,” the singer once said in an uncharacteristically candid moment. “My parents were getting divorced.” That divorce never materialized, but the couple certainly had different ambitions for their family. Martha had studied to become a schoolteacher, but Henry effectively discouraged her from pursuing the profession by having a large family. Charles Edward Anderson Berry, the fourth of six siblings, was born October 18th, 1926. By then, Henry was working as a carpenter, as he would for the rest of his life. The family sang at the Antioch Baptist Church, and at home they heard country music on the radio, Gene Autry and Bill Monroe.
Berry’s parents settled the family into the area known as the Ville, where working-class blacks lived alongside black elites, including owners of St. Louis’ black newspapers, lawyers and doctors, heads of the NAACP. Yet St. Louis had long been a place of racial resentment and limitations. The first time Berry saw white people, as a child, he said, was when a fire brigade arrived in response to a burning building in his neighborhood. Berry also long remembered the day he and his family were refused tickets to see 1935’s A Tale of Two Cities because they were black.
Berry’s parents shared two visions for their children. They wanted them to be literate – to be aware of poetry, classical music and proper diction. The poetry and diction became important to Berry. He later said that he had not been a good reader but had developed a natural flair for poesy – for how to construct lyrics – and his insistence on proper diction remained obsessive throughout his life. In part, this stemmed from a concern that many middle-class blacks shared: Proper enunciation worked against a stereotype that blacks were uneducated. In conversation, his locution was intentionally – even a bit haughtily – proper. In his songs, he would always sing clearly, but his voice was also true to the story – whether yearning, sly, sexy, blue, angry or euphoric.
The other thing the Berrys wanted for their children was religious propriety – perhaps not full-out piety, but Christian moral decency. The notion didn’t appeal to Berry at all. He later said he felt church was a place he was always “dragged in.” He loved his parents, feared his father’s discipline, but later, he wrote, “I began to wiggle from under what few restrictions Mother and Daddy had at home.” A nurse – a white woman – would sometimes visit when a family member was ill, and she scolded the young Charles when he would explore her medical bag. He worked to please her, to get a kiss from her. “The feeling of her lips,” he wrote in his autobiography, “the same lips that forgave me after once punishing, has yet to leave my memory. … My mother’s nurse had a profound effect on the state of my fantasies and settled into the nature of my libido.”
To keep his son occupied, Henry would bring him along on carpentry jobs. Henry did repair work for a realty company, and the company’s contracts often took him – as well as Charles and his brother Henry Jr., who worked for their father – to “the white neighborhoods.” Berry noted his father paid deference to white females, avoiding any glances or conversations that might be misinterpreted as an advance or insult. He once told Charles, “Black men have often dreamed their last dream where they thought they had a right to be.”
It was around this time that Berry’s interest in music intensified. All his siblings listened to blues and R&B singers Lil Green, Buddy and Ella Johnson, to the jazz orchestra recordings of Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Count Basie, Henry James, Glenn Miller and Glen Gray. Berry developed a special liking for boogie-woogie, swing and jump blues. Among his favorites at the time were pianist Big Maceo Merriweather, gospel singer and guitarist Rosetta Tharpe, blues player Arthur Crudup, bottleneck innovator Tampa Red, soft-toned and slow-paced pianist and blues vocalist Charles Brown, pianist and balladeer Nat King Cole, jump-blues bandleader Louis Jordan, and guitarists T-Bone Walker and Lonnie Johnson. The latter two – along with Jordan’s guitarist Carl Hogan – had great impact on Berry’s own later style, sometimes right down to the riff. (John Collis, in Chuck Berry: The Biography, cites Johnson’s “left-hand playing [as] the unacknowledged root of the Chuck Berry sound.”) All of the music shared a corresponding backbone: the tonality, experience and melodic patterns of blues music, as it had been developed in different places, over decades, by black musicians and singers. Whether mournful, defiant, seductive or celebratory, blues was the American musical language of fortitude. For many who sang and played it, it was a lifting of the mask.
In 1941, Berry ventured to perform “Confessin’ the Blues,” a hit by Jay McShann, at his high school revue. A friend, Tommy Stevens, accompanied Berry on guitar, and his driving effect inspired Berry. He borrowed a friend’s four-string and practiced for hours, learning to match his voice with the instrument’s mix of rhythm and harmonic construction.
He also went looking for a bit of trouble. Berry drank a half pint of whiskey one night, and though it didn’t make him drunk, it did make him sick and he swore off alcohol for the rest of his life. By the summer of 1944, he had effectively dropped out of high school. He and two friends, Skip and James, piled into the 1937 Oldsmobile that Berry now owned and headed for California.
By the time the three reached Kansas City, their tires wore out. It was cold sleeping in the car, and they missed home, but had only two dollars between them. Skip told them he’d raise some money, and to wait for him in the car. In “less than half a minute,” Berry said, Skip came running back with money he’d robbed from a bakery. It was so simple, the three thought. Why not keep doing it? They would commit two more robberies and a carjacking, with Berry brandishing the remains of a useless pistol he’d found in a used-car lot, before state troopers grabbed them just outside Kingdom City, Missouri.
They spent five days in county jail before Berry was allowed to call his father. Berry told the authorities everything. Henry paid for his son’s defense, as well as that of Skip and James. Twenty-two days later, their lawyer advised all three to plead guilty and throw themselves on the judge’s mercy. But these were young black men who had been terribly foolish. The trial lasted 21 minutes, and the judge sentenced each adolescent to 10 years, the maximum allowed. Berry ended up in Algoa, near the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City.
“He could not have loved me much less,” Berry wrote of one white guard he encountered at Algoa prison. “But then I couldn’t have hated him a little more.”
In Algoa, Berry made friends with a prison ringleader, and that helped keep him safe. Black and white inmates were housed in separate dormitories, governed respectively by black and white guards. It was compulsory to call the white guards sir, and black inmates received greater punishments for infractions than whites, and fewer privileges. One white guard, “from the lynching city of Sikeston, Missouri,” scared even Berry’s ringleader. Berry later wrote of the guard: “I could feel the noose around my neck that it seemed he so hungered for in his gazing gray eyes. He couldn’t have loved me much less, but then I couldn’t have hated him a little more.”
Berry organized a singing quartet for church services (Berry sang bass) and took up boxing, traveling to St. Louis for a Golden Gloves tournament. He won a medal for being the heavyweight-novice runner-up from Algoa – but in the championship bout, he got knocked out by a bigger man, leading him to quit the ring. Back at Algoa, though, he did something even more dangerous: He danced with an assistant superintendent’s wife, a white woman who showed Berry kindness and attention. When 30 white inmates noticed, they turned into a mob and rushed for Berry. He escaped through a hall, but he and the woman had to avoid each other after the incident. She sent him a verse: “I can never have you, darling/But I’ll go on loving you.”
A model inmate, Berry was paroled three years into his sentence, on October 18th, 1947 – his 21st birthday. He returned home to St. Louis and resolved to do better, to find work and romance. He started by doing carpentry with his father and made a down payment on a 1941 Buick Roadmaster. Berry was an automobile man – cars were central to the mythos he made (and that he installed permanently in rock & roll), and they represented freedom, luxury, standing in the world, as well as the allure of sex. Young women noticed him in his new car, and though he couldn’t take any into his room at his parents’ house (where he again lived), he could take them into the back seat.
At the 1948 May Day festival in Tandy Park, he spotted Themetta Suggs licking an ice cream cone. He was immediately attracted. He spent all his spare money on her that day and, come evening, drove her around in his Roadmaster. He called her by the endearment Toddy. By this time, he had also acquired his own nickname: Chuck. He was taken by her kindness as much as her beauty.
They were married on October 28th, 1948, and lived for a time in the waiting room of his sister’s beauty shop. Berry wrote that, early in the marriage, every night was a time of new sexual activities; he was able to indulge fantasies and fetishes with her. Chuck and Themetta’s marriage has often appeared strange to some. Though he was candid about it at points in his autobiography, he was also fiercely protective and private at other times. Berry, in fact, strayed from fidelity maybe countless times, and more than once, it led to the biggest troubles and humiliations of his life.
The encounters and affairs started early. Because Themetta worked some hours daily that Berry did not, the time apart left him free to ramble the neighborhood, where one woman caught his eye. “My regret started before the incident was even over,” he wrote. He admitted it, in shame, to Themetta that same night. “I was overtaken,” he would write, “with intentions to thenceforth live the full life of loyalty that her love deserved.” It was not a promise he would keep.
Berry worked for a time as a janitor and later studied to become a hairdresser. But he also learned that playing guitar and singing alone at clubs and parties would make him $4 a night. By the time Berry first played St. Louis clubs, big bands had largely faded, due in part to the expense of taking them on the road. Also, smaller ensembles could accomplish the same volume and effect with electric instrumentation. As they did, swing, blues and jump melded with other sounds, dance styles and audiences, resulting in what was eventually termed rhythm & blues. In the early 1950s, St. Louis was rife with music that moved around or into that style, though boundaries weren’t clear-cut. Sounds became punchier, crooning turned much sexier, and both worked well in smaller dim-lit clubs where bands played for dancers and lovers.
In June 1952, Berry’s old friend Tommy Stevens invited him to play with his trio on Saturday nights. Berry introduced a country style into their sets, singing songs like “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain” and “Mountain Dew.” He developed an animated style of performing – using his long frame and spirited facial expressions as an extension of the music. The shows drew big crowds – black patrons were curious about the guy who sang hillbilly songs. The day before New Year’s Eve 1952, boogie pianist Johnnie Johnson called Berry and invited him to play with him and Ebby Hardy in a trio at East St. Louis’ Cosmopolitan Club; Johnson’s saxophonist had fallen through, and he needed a leading melodic instrument. He got more than that: He got Berry’s big personality, his swagger, his desire to sing Nat King Cole songs, country songs and blues that could drive hard one moment, then turn rivetingly elegiac. Not long after, the trio were renamed for Berry, but he and Johnson would retain a crucial musical telepathy, a call-and-response style, trading lines, prodding or finishing each other’s musical thoughts.
Berry knew he wanted to make records. In May 1955, he drove to Chicago with a friend. They visited blues joints, saw Howlin’ Wolf and Elmore James, and ended the evening watching Muddy Waters at the Palladium. After the show, he asked Waters who he should see about making records. “Why don’t you go see Leonard Chess over on 47th?” Waters replied. Chess and his brother Phil were Jewish immigrants from Poland and had made Chess into America’s greatest blues label, with artists like Waters and Wolf, among others. The next morning, Berry approached Leonard as he was entering the studio building. Chess was impressed with his enthusiasm but told him he needed to hear some new music. Berry went back to St. Louis and tossed off four songs – including a nocturnal blues, “Wee Wee Hours,” and a revved-up rock & roll-style song with country overtones, “Ida May” (sometimes known as “Ida Red”). “Ida May” had been Berry’s most popular number at the Cosmopolitan Club. Writer Glenn C. Altschuler, in All Shook Up: How Rock ‘n’ Roll Changed America, believes it began as an improvised take on the country song “Ida Red,” recorded by Roy Acuff in 1939. There had also been a jazzy version by blues singer Bumble Bee Slim in 1952. Brown Eyed Handsome Man author Bruce Pegg wrote that Berry’s rendering may have been influenced by a 1949 recording by Bob Wills, “Ida Red Likes to Boogie,” which highlighted the sort of double-stopped guitar bends Berry learned from the music of T-Bone Walker.
Whatever the case, Berry returned to Chess a week later with a demo of his four new songs. In “Ida May,” Chess immediately heard a hit – an unusual piece of writing in all respects. It was a funny but complicated narrative about a man racing a woman in her Coupe Deville Cadillac with his V8 Ford. It’s also a tale about class and maybe race: a dark horse trying to push past a symbol of privilege and haughtiness. Plus, it’s an allegory about the rhythms of dynamic sex.
The music, though, was a story all its own, opening with guitar clusters that sounded like the car’s honking horn, propelled by pushy and insistent drumming that was rock-steady yet anticipatory, launching Berry into a frenzied and slurry guitar solo that fused the economy of Carl Hogan with the feverishness of T-Bone Walker and the imagination of Lonnie Johnson. It would become the most famous and influential guitar break in history. It not only set a standard for all of Berry’s subsequent signature playing, but was also an inescapable template of form and style for artists that followed, from the Rolling Stones through Prince.
Chess knew straightaway it was unlike anything else on radio. But he thought the title – whether “Ida Red” or “Ida May” – sounded too rural. According to legend, either Berry or Chess spotted a mascara tube that had been left in the studio and changed “Ida May” to “Maybelline,” then finally to “Maybellene,” to avoid copyright troubles. The song’s relentless rhythm drove it to Number One on the rhythm & blues charts, and in September 1955 it reached Number Five on the pop charts.
In the days after Berry’s death, many writers and reports cited him as the man who invented rock & roll. The term had been around for several years, and many artists – including Fats Domino and Bill Haley – had already made music under its umbrella. In rock & roll, young listeners heard a sound made for them. It also inflamed cultural watchdogs who saw the music as incitement to crime and riots, and, more fearfully, as a gateway to race-mixing.
Berry tapped into rock’s sense of rebellion, but slyly. His songs were celebrations of youth’s new sovereignty; they were also demarcations. His lyrics didn’t flash switchblade imagery – rather, they drew lines by issuing rally cries: “Early in the mornin’ I’m a-givin’ you a warnin’/Don’t you step on my blue suede shoes/Hey diddle diddle, I’m a-playin’ my fiddle/Ain’t got nothin’ to lose/Roll over, Beethoven, tell Tchaikovsky the news.” Berry recognized other changes in youth culture (which had never been called a culture before). He wrote about cars as symbols of freedom and acquisition; they afforded autonomy and a private place to listen to the new music while also looking for, and making, love. Teenagers had more money, license, leeway, and that metamorphosed into political capital. An age of deference was ending. The moment was epitomized by that V8 Ford motorvatin’ over the hill in “Maybellene.” “Cadillacs don’t like Fords rolling side by side,” said Berry, “because they hide half their beauty.”
More important was how Berry said these things, the language he used. It was poetic, vivid, sometimes hilarious and sexy, but also implicitly threatening – and utterly original. His imagination and flair set the groundwork for Dylan’s breakthroughs in “Maggie’s Farm” and “Subterranean Homesick Blues” – yet the genius of Berry’s lyrics hid in plain sight. “When I first heard Chuck Berry,” said Dylan in 2015, “I didn’t consider that he was black. I thought he was a white hillbilly. Little did I know he was a great poet too. ‘Flying across the desert in a TWA/I saw a woman walking ‘cross the sand/She been walkin’ 30 miles en route to Bombay/To meet a brown-eyed handsome man.’ I didn’t think about poetry at that time – those words just flew by. Only later did I realize how hard it is to write those kind of lyrics.”
“Maybellene” made Chuck Berry a star, but he recognized that there were limits, and he always intended to work around them. He was a black man blazing a course in a white world, and it wasn’t easy. Right out of the gate, before the song was even pressed as a single, he lost two-thirds of the songwriting credit to people who had nothing to do with its composition (though one of the people who appropriated credit, Alan Freed, also did a great deal to make the song a hit). He also found himself in a contract with Chess Records that he didn’t fully understand or trust. He said of Leonard and Phil Chess, “They weren’t honest, but they were very helpful in my career. They gave me the first chance. That’s a beauty. To rob somebody or to not give somebody what belongs to them is not honest. So they’re both, you know. But they were good to me and cool.'”
Race, of course, was always the mitigating factor. In his autobiography, Berry recalled one incident early in his career when he showed up at a Knoxville, Tennessee, club where he had been booked to perform. The club’s manager was shocked to see him. “Maybellene” had melded its black and white identity so well that in some markets listeners assumed the singer was Caucasian. “It’s a country dance,” the manager told Berry, “and we had no idea ‘Maybellene’ was recorded by a nigra man.” He told Berry he couldn’t permit a black person to perform, as it was against a city ordinance. Berry left, then came back at showtime and listened to another band play his music.
“I thought it would seem biased to white fans to say ‘colored boy,'” Berry would say of 1958’s “Johnny B. Goode.” “So I changed it to ‘country boy.'”
Berry never wrote overtly about race in his songs, though he sometimes coded the subject cleverly. With 1956’s “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” in some of his most outrageous and bold lyrics, he sang about the victorious allure of a black man for white women (“There’s been a whole lot of good women shed a tear/For a brown-eyed handsome man”), and ended the song with a celebration of baseball’s Jackie Robinson – who broke the game’s color barrier – hitting a home run. In 1958’s “Johnny B. Goode,” Berry essentially wrote a version of his own proud autobiography: A young black man dreamed of becoming a guitar hero with his “name in lights.” The original lyric ran, “Oh, my, but that little colored boy could play,” but, Berry said, “I thought it would seem biased to white fans to say ‘colored boy’ and changed it to ‘country boy.’ ”
Some listeners – especially black listeners – didn’t always know how to place or regard Berry. Critic Gerald Early, writing days after Berry’s death, commented, “Berry is, like, say, Jimi Hendrix, a curious artist in that I can never recall him being as beloved by blacks as he was by whites, cannot recall blacks finding his music essential to their understanding of black music. Berry’s was a kind of assimilationist music that the Ville, in the diversity of its blackness, inspired: a new way of seeing blackness as universal in its sources.” In real life, Berry wasn’t always so veiled on where he stood on the matter. He told a reporter, “You’re trying to say, ‘Is Chuck Berry black or white?’ Well, I’ll tell you, Chuck Berry is black, and he’s beautiful.”
In late August 1959, while playing an Army barracks in Meridian, Mississippi, Berry let a young woman hug and kiss him a moment too long onstage, and it brought everything to an immediate halt. Young white men, who’d been thrilled to meet him before the show, surrounded Berry after the show. “I’m a Mississippian,” one man told another who was trying to protect Berry, “and this nigger asked my sister for a date!” A policeman had to rescue Berry; then, at the station, a sergeant relieved Berry of $700 he found on him, to “cover the fine for peace disturbance I was being charged for.”
But Berry wouldn’t accept proscriptions about race and sex. Two months before the Meridian incident, on the night of June 2nd, 1958, he was driving a peach-colored Cadillac in St. Charles, Missouri, with a 17-year-old brunette, Joan Mathis, when he got a flat tire. As he was changing it, a state patrol officer pulled up, and after checking Berry’s license, searched the car. He found $1,900 in cash and a revolver that Berry brought along when he carried large amounts of money. Berry was arrested for possession of a concealed weapon, and the police encouraged Mathis to make a statement that Berry had molested her. Berry believed that local authorities wanted to charge him with violation of the Mann Act – a 1910 law claiming to combat forced prostitution and “debauchery.” The law was seldom enforced, but it had been used to prosecute boxer Jack Johnson in 1913, and was now being used against Berry. Mathis, though, insisted that Berry had not molested her. On June 20th, he received minor fines, and the matter seemed abandoned.
But Berry eventually ran out of luck and demonstrated an appalling moral lacuna. On the afternoon of December 1st, 1959, during a visit to El Paso, Texas, he took his band to Juarez, Mexico, to visit strip joints. That evening, while he and the musicians were sitting in a cantina, Berry met a young woman, Janice Escalanti. He was attracted to her quietness and olive skin (he mistook her as black, but she was in fact Apache). He later claimed he believed he could employ her at his new venture, Club Bandstand, an interracial music spot he had opened in St. Louis. Berry took Escalanti back to the United States with him, and everything went to hell for a long, long time after that.
Escalanti was a runaway and a prostitute, which Berry claimed not to know. She was also 14, though Berry said he thought she was of age. In Denver, she slept nude with him in a hotel bed; Berry said he never had sex with her, though she claimed they had sex in four states. Back in St. Louis, he tried to launch Escalanti as an “Apache hostess,” but, by Berry’s account, the young woman was never much interested in the work. She didn’t show up at the job when he was out of town. He fired Escalanti, gave her money for a ticket home and left her at a bus station. But Escalanti didn’t want to leave. She tried to return to the club, but Berry wouldn’t accept her back. Finally, desperate, she went to the police. Detectives believed that Berry had carried the young woman across state lines for sexual purposes – a violation of the Mann Act – and arrested him on December 21st. The news went nationwide.
Berry went through three trials before the matter was settled. Much to his surprise, he was convicted in the first trial and cried at sentencing. The judge told him to stand up. “I’ve seen your kind before,” the judge said. He handed down the maximum five-year sentence but said it wasn’t enough for what Berry had done. He also imposed a $5,000 fine and wouldn’t allow bail. “I would not turn this man loose to go out and prey on a lot of ignorant Indian girls and colored girls, and white girls, if any. I would not have that on my soul,” the judge said, adding, “I’ve never sentenced a more vicious character.” The appeals court overturned the verdict – the judge had used the word “nigra” so constantly during proceedings that his judgment was seen as racially incendiary – and ordered a new court case. Then, on May 31st, 1960, Berry stood trial for another Mann Act accusation – this one involving Mathis, who never concurred with the prosecutor’s charges. When the prosecutor asked if Mathis – who was then married – was in love with Berry, she replied, “Well, yes, I am.” By August, Berry was acquitted of all charges.
But Berry still faced retrial in the Escalanti case. “Remember,” the prosecutor said in his summation, “this is Charles Berry, Chuck Berry, an entertainer. His music and entertainment is directed to who? The teenagers of the country.” Berry was again found guilty, and sentenced to three years and a $5,000 fine.
Berry never admitted to any sexual impropriety with Escalanti, and years later he would grow cold or angry when interviewers brought it up. He would sometimes go so far as to deny he’d done any jail time on the matter – but he did: He served one and a half years in federal prison. He believed he’d been targeted by the press and by Missouri powers that weren’t happy with his interracial Club Bandstand in St. Louis. In early 1960, Berry closed the club, then in August the same year, opened a larger facility, Berry Park, to the public. Spread over 30 acres, conceived as a country club – with an amusement park, concert area and guitar-shaped pool – and located 40 miles northwest of St. Louis (out of reach of the bias and hostility the club had received), it was an expansion of Berry’s vision of an integrated site. Berry Park thrived for years before closing in the mid-1970s. Years later, Berry sometimes lived there; it was his private refuge, and it’s where he died.
Some obituaries said that after prison Berry never regained the remarkable momentum and creativity he had enjoyed in the 1950s. In truth, Berry certainly had a second life – if anything, more complicated than the first, though at moments at least as rich. In 1964 alone, he released four of the best songs he ever wrote: “Nadine (Is It You?)” (every bit as nimble musically and lyrically as “Maybellene”); “No Particular Place to Go” (the title could have been taken as a summary of where Berry now found himself in life, plus it was a tale of thwarted sexual desire); “You Never Can Tell”; and “Promised Land.” The last title is maybe Berry’s most paradoxical song. Written while in prison, it’s a tour of America and a man’s determination to seek a place and covenant in it. The singer is in flight in the lyrics, both running from trouble and to refuge: “Somebody help me get out of Louisiana/Just help me get to Houston town/There are people there who care a little ’bout me/And they won’t let the poor boy down.” It is not a bitter song, especially coming from a man who believed the U.S. justice system had just railroaded him. It was full of fear, to be sure, but also brimming with strength.
After Berry left prison, he enjoyed unexpected recognition that restored his musical reputation. The Beach Boys scored a Number Three hit with “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” so musically similar to Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” that Brian Wilson later gave Berry co-writing credit and royalties. Berry also enjoyed godsends from England: The Beatles recorded “Roll Over Beethoven” in 1963 and “Rock and Roll Music” in 1964 (“If you tried to give rock & roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry,’ ” John Lennon later said), and the Rolling Stones recorded several of his songs, including “Carol” and a terrific rendition of the song that Berry had failed to chart in 1961, “Come On.”
Berry’s mid-1960s respite, though, was short-lived. He would score one more big hit, “My Ding-a-Ling,” in 1972. The single, a call-and-response song about masturbation, proved an anomaly: It was the biggest smash of Berry’s career – Number One in the U.S. and U.K. – yet it wasn’t like anything else he’d recorded: Both the melody and lyrics were juvenile, but Berry regarded it as one of his best songs because it made him newly rich.
He left Chess for Mercury in 1966, bounced back to Chess in 1970 with Back Home, then to Atco for 1979’s Rock It. None of the music along the way, except “My Ding-a-Ling,” was a commercial success, but much of it was good nonetheless, especially Back Home, San Francisco Dues (1971) and Bio (1973); Berry’s lyrical style stayed sharply poetic and original – “Tulane” (from Back Home), in particular, was as unexpected, dexterous and heartening as his best 1950s work, and there were gems, strewn and forgotten.
After prison, Berry seemed resentful. “Never saw a man so changed,” said guitarist Carl Perkins, talking about a 1964 tour of England he had shared with Berry. “He had been an easygoing guy before. In England, he was cold, real distant and bitter. It wasn’t just jail. It was those years of one-nighters; grinding it out like that can kill a man. But I figure it was mostly jail.”
Berry showed up five minutes before showtime. “Well, Chuck, what songs are we going to do?” a nervous Springsteen asked. Berry replied, “Chuck Berry songs.”
Berry would now grant few interviews. He had long before fired his trio members, Johnson and Hardy. They were heavy drinkers, and Berry didn’t like alcohol users, plus he found it much cheaper to tour without the expense of a band. He insisted in his contracts that booking agents or tour managers provide him with a backing band at the venue, though he would never rehearse with – and barely spoke to – the other musicians. In the early 1970s, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band were one of his backing groups. “It was five minutes before the show was timed to start,” Springsteen later said. “The back door opened, and in he came. And he was by himself. And he’s got a guitar case. And that was it. I guess he pulled up in his own car.” Nervous, Springsteen asked, “Well, Chuck . . . what songs are we going to do?” Berry replied, “Chuck Berry songs.”
So it went. Berry toured without bands and demanded cash in advance for years, until that cash policy landed him in trouble. In the 1970s, the Internal Revenue Service pored through Berry’s earnings and accused him of having evaded income taxes. He pleaded guilty, and in 1979 he was sentenced to four months in prison and 1,000 hours of community service – performing benefit concerts. A month before entering Lompoc’s Prison Camp in California, Berry played for President Jimmy Carter at the White House, for the Black Music Association. “A very warm feeling for my country came over me,” said Berry. “I think I’m a different person.” He began work on his autobiography while at Lompoc.
In 1986, he was among the first group of musicians admitted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. At the Hall of Fame dinner, Keith Richards, Berry and filmmaker Taylor Hackford began a conversation that resulted in Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll, a documentary centered around Berry playing the Fox Theatre in St. Louis for his 60th birthday. Richards assembled and led a band that included Eric Clapton, Johnnie Johnson, blues guitarist Robert Cray, and vocalists Etta James and Linda Ronstadt.
Richards planned the shows for months, but one day, according to biographer Bruce Pegg, Berry’s mood seemed to turn abruptly and he stormed off the rehearsal set at Berry Park, leaving people looking at pianist Johnson in dismay. “Hey,” Johnson said, “you all know Chuck as good as I do; I’ve just known him longer.” The bad temperament carried over to the first of two concerts at the Fox. Berry again got furious, at a sound adjustment, and yelled, “These are my songs! These are Chuck Berry songs! I’m Chuck Berry, we’re going to do it my way!” One of the crew told Pegg, “At that point, all six weeks of rehearsal goes right out the window.” Richards managed to salvage things for the second show, but nonetheless Berry came off terribly in the film, as unreasonable and capricious. Yet he was the most magnetic figure on the stage – the stage of a theater that he had once not been allowed to enter as a black person – and he was right: These were Chuck Berry songs, and he indeed was Chuck Berry. By the time the film was over, many came to hate Berry, but Richards was more sympathetic. “He’s a very lonely man. … After living that secluded one-man show for so many years, he probably wasn’t prepared himself for how he was gonna act.” Richards also said, “He opened a door . . . and goddammit the whole world came in.” Berry loved the film.
Chuck Berry had a way of working against himself. He was not, like his heirs the Rolling Stones, somebody who pissed on gas-station walls in public or denounced the petty morals of those who would judge him. He was more circumspect, more closemouthed than that, but at the same time, he wanted to get by with what he could: keeping money for himself and taking pleasure in violating taboos against interracial sex. That last one was a big one: Fear of it had driven racial hatred in the antebellum South straight through the rise of Berry’s initial stardom. Berry’s ambition was a mix of fetishism and resistance – it could even be seen as idealistic, except it didn’t seem to dissuade him when others, like his wife, got hurt, or when he exploited and then tried to cast aside the underage and lost-in-the-world Janice Escalanti. Of course, Berry went to prison for it; he suffered a fall that he never quite recovered from, yet later claimed himself a better person. It’s hard to say, though, what he really learned about himself, or even to say what truly happened. Had he been railroaded in the Escalanti incident, or had he been, as some have described him, diabolical?
In December 1987, Berry was charged with misdemeanor assault in connection with an incident at New York’s Gramercy Park Hotel. What is known, as Pegg pointed out, is that Berry hit a woman in the face, causing “lacerations of the mouth, requiring five stitches, two loose teeth, [and] contusions of the face.” Berry never addressed the matter, though in November 1988 he pleaded guilty to a lesser degree of harassment and paid a $250 fine.
That same year, Berry bought the Southern Air Restaurant outside St. Louis. He had long thought of property investment as a means of income that might allow him to tour less. What eventually resulted was perhaps the worst disgrace of his life. Berry’s application for a liquor license was denied, due to his record. He felt thwarted again by others’ judgments and a community’s bias. It developed, though, that Berry was accused of having installed cameras in the restaurant’s restroom, secretly recording females – some quite young – in states of undress. Pictures also emerged of Berry posing nude with young white women. Berry sued the magazine that published them, claiming that the damning images had been stolen from him. Then, dozens of women who’d been caught unwillingly in the restroom videos sued Berry. He ended up paying settlements totaling roughly $1.2 million.
A rock star’s rogue sex adventures were hardly uncommon, nor was home pornography. But surreptitious taping had no license by anybody, and some of the images that made it out of Berry’s collection were pretty unforgettable, even if they involved consensual activity. One video showed a young woman nude in a bathtub while he urinated in her mouth. When Berry was done, she asked him for a kiss. “Baby, I can’t kiss you,” said Berry. “You smell like piss.”
Berry’s treatment of women is the most problematic aspect of his life. In “Sweet Little Sixteen,” the excitement of young women enabled the success of male rock & roll stars. By the time of the great “Tulane,” in 1970, he was encouraging a woman to assert control over her own success: “Go head on, Tulane, he can’t catch up with you/Go, Tulane, he ain’t man enough for you.” In truth, Berry didn’t seem to respect many women in the domain of his own desires, and combined with his well-documented volatile temperament, it could discourage those who romanticized his early heroism. This was ugly stuff. Could we still enjoy or respect his art knowing what we knew? In the days after Berry’s death, academics Catherine Strong and Emma Rush wrote, “We often connect to music because we identify with something about it, and therefore with the people who create it. To acknowledge their misdeeds can detract from our enjoyment of music. … At the same time, however, there is a moral imperative to include the darker side of Berry’s, like in historical accounts, obituaries and even discussion of his music. To exclude it sends the message that abuse of girls and women is unimportant and that it can be outweighed and perhaps even justified by claims of musical genius.”
Berry played live well into his eighties. In November 1996, he began performing regularly – typically one Wednesday each month – at a friend’s St. Louis restaurant, Blueberry Hill. He’d play an hour, and though he was getting older – and his style of guitar was more demanding than his vocals – he still proved matchless, given that he’d invented the music he was playing. Bob Dylan said, “If you see him in person, you know he goes out of tune a lot. But who wouldn’t? He has to constantly be playing eighth notes on his guitar and sing at the same time, plus play fills and sing. People think that singing and playing is easy. It’s not. It’s easy to strum along with yourself as you are singing a song and that’s OK, but if you actually want to really play, where it’s important, that’s a hard thing, and not too many people are good at it.”
In his later years, Berry often played with his family – including daughter Ingrid and son Charles Jr. “He was not a tough bandleader,” said Charles Jr. “Those shows were straight up, right on the spot, no rehearsals, nothing. We didn’t know what my dad was going to do next. When we saw the guitar neck drop, everybody stopped. When he drops his foot on the ground, stop. My dad was an 80-year-old man, although he acted more like a 50-year-old.
“In January 2007, we did 17 shows in, like, 18 days. We started in Moscow. We were four hours late getting to the show. We’re pulling up, and I’m not kidding, there were 3,000 people outside. I was like, ‘They’re gonna kill us.’ But those were the people that couldn’t get in. It was sold out. We do the show, we’re worn out. We go from Moscow and do all these shows, end up on the Canary Islands – below zero to 80 degrees in two weeks. It would wear on him, but when it was time to do the show, he was rolling.”
Berry gave his last performance on October 15th, 2014, at Blueberry Hill. He spent much of his time at Berry Park, doing yardwork like mowing the lawn and pouring cement. By then, it was more of a ghost town than a proud dream. As Hail! Hail! showed, he didn’t like prying eyes, or younger stars telling him what to do. In later years, he liked to watch the St. Louis Cardinals as Themetta sat reading her Bible. She, at least, proved loyal to the end. On March 18th, 2017, Chuck Berry was found dead of natural causes.
Most everybody thought Berry had already made his last new music decades before. But in October 2016, Berry announced the completion of his final album, Chuck, 38 years in the making. Even across such a span of time, there’s a wholeness about it, beginning with the funky blues of “Wonderful Woman” (in an aged but proud voice) and culminating with two masterpieces. “Dutchman” is the account of an old man thought to be a derelict but who was instead a great artist: “In my day and time, my music was considered superb/I wrote a song about a poor kid, raised down in New Orleans.” You come to realize that the narrator wrote that song about himself, how he squandered his genius and got destroyed. It is witty, like much of Berry’s music, but the narrative and atmosphere are spooky, almost like the man who’s telling the story got blown in from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” another tale of a man haunted by his own deeds, in need of an absolution – or at least a hearing – before his end.
“Eyes of Man” is another blues groove, this
time about vanity and impermanence, and derives from a poem that Berry’s father
taught him, by Civil War–era poet and abolitionist Theodore Tilton, that ends
every stanza with “Even this shall pass away.” Both of the latter
songs are spoken, not sung, and they are shadow tales – that is, they navigate
territories, just as Berry did all his life, this time between fall and rise,
life and death. Berry anticipated his own shadow, his own legend, long ago. He
knew what his final words and sounds would be. He measured his last gift, and
its relationship to – and expansion of – his earlier gifts. On Chuck, he
rages against the dying of his light, but in a vulnerable and tender way his
earlier music had not prepared us for. In the end, there was only one of him,
monumental in his beauty and transgression, in his creation and fall.
Watch Chuck Berry’s greatest collaborations.