Chuck Berry, the Father of Rock, Turns 75
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.”
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