Book Review – Chuck Berry: An American Life

Way back in history, 3000 years
In fact, ever since the world began
There’s been a whole lotta good women sheddin’ tears
Over a brown-eyed handsome man
It’s a lot of trouble for the brown-eyed handsome man

When asked “How did you want to be remembered?” “After I’m gone,” Chuck said, “I want you to just speak the truth. Be it pro, con, bad, good… Whatever it be. I just hope it’s real.”

Thank you, Chuck, for the liberty,” author RJ Smith said. What ME says is this – if you want to maintain a purist vision of an idealized ‘Father of Rock and Roll,’ stop reading now. And don’t read this book. Chuck did it his way. For good or ill.

This post is not specifically about Chuck’s music or life so much as it’s a review of this biography. You can read a previous post about Chuck here.

The words ‘iconic’ and ‘legend’ get thrown around routinely, especially in the arts. But I think it can generally be agreed that those words apply to Charles Edward Anderson Berry. Ever since “Maybellene” – a takeoff on Bob Wills’ “Ida Red” – Chuck has been one of the most influential singer/songwriter/performers of the Twentieth Century.

There are other words that get thrown around as well – “asshole,” “sex offender,” “inconsiderate,” and “self-centered,” – alas, these words apply to Chuck as well. Hey, I’m a guitar player and I love the blues and I would just about die for rock and roll and Chuck Berry in particular. But I am also a person who sees things in a clear-eyed fashion.

Whenever I read a book about Black performers from the “old days,” I always get depressed reading about how performers like Chuck and Bo Diddley and B.B. and Little Richard were treated. I won’t belabor but suffice it to say there were “sundown” towns where they were warned to be out of town by sundown. There were restaurants that refused to serve them and hotels that refused to give them a room. America’s better than that now but by how much? Ask a Black person, not me.

What this book does well – and it’s a damn good read – is to delve as deeply as the author can into the mind of a man he never met. He made frequent trips to Berry’s birthplace and interviewed everybody he could find that knew him, liked him, hated him, or slept with him. And the result is that ..

It’s complicated. Chuck had the typical hardscrabble upbringing but a lot of his behavior appears to be generated by his treatment as a Black man. (For the record, all musicians are treated like shit). He was crucial – indispensable – to the creation of rock and roll. And yeah he got rich pretty quick. And then he watched bands like the Stones take his material and make far more money in one night than he could.

And yet at the same time, bands like the Stones, Yardbirds, Cream, etc. helped revitalize the careers of many of these guys. The Stones refused to go on a pop show unless Howlin’ Wolf came on. They constantly promoted their heroes. My friend Bill went to see the Stones with an opener named B.B. King many years ago. He never heard of B.B. After the show he ran out and bought every B.B. album he could find.

So that situation – along with his own cantankerous personality – pissed him off and put up a barrier to people. He trusted no one. He could be warm and friendly one minute, cruel and callous the next. When he went to a gig, he insisted on being paid in advance. If someone asked for an encore, he’d ask for more money before playing. And then he’d put on a hell of a show. It’s complicated!

No one can take those great, great songs away from him – “Maybellene,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Too Much Monkey Business.” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Brown-eyed Handsome Man,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Johnny B. Goode.”* “School Days,” “Carol,” “Little Queenie.” “Back in the USA,” “Memphis, Tennessee,” “Promised Land,” “Nadine,” “No Particular Place to Go.”

What I learned from this book is that the last four in that list were all written while Chuck was in prison for violation of the Mann Act. The Mann Act said it is a felony to engage in interstate or foreign commerce transport of “any woman or girl for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose.”

Chuck spent 1 1/2 years (February 1962 to October 1963) of a three-year sentence there. Until I read this book, the Chuck fan in me said “Trumped-up charges!” I wish. Effectively while on tour he met a girl in either El Paso or Juarez. She was turning tricks at the time and Berry invited her up to his St. Louis club to be hatcheck girl. All of which would have been fine if A) she wasn’t 14 years old and B) he wasn’t fucking her. He was 33 at the time.

What this book brings out is Chuck’s extraordinary weakness – he called it an addiction – for women. He would bang anybody and people in his St Louis suburb said he was screwing mothers, daughters, and anybody he could get his hands on. Again, all well and good if he hadn’t had cameras in his nightclub and filmed women using the toilet. This is not some random tabloid bullshit. It’s well-known, it went to court and the writer read all the court records.**

One of things that I think the book doesn’t do a good job of is explaining that period when Chuck was in jail, Elvis was in the army and Buddy Holly died. (Check knew Buddy and there is literally not even one paragraph about it.) That was the sleepy period prior to the Beatles arrival. Major oversight in my mind.

It also doesn’t do a good job – maybe author’s reticence-  in talking about how irrelevant Chuck’s output was past the early 60s. He tells you about each new album that came out as if we were all on the edge of our seats. Ever hear of these albums –  Chuck Berry (1975), Rock It (1979), or Chuck (2017)?

Yeah, me neither. Not that it matters whether they were good, bad, or indifferent as Chuck had nothing left to prove. But don’t act like he was still current.

It DOES mention the fact that – unfortunately – the egregious piece of dogshit known as “My Ding a Ling.” That became a number-one hit in 1972 and it’s all I could do back then from putting my head in the oven when I heard it. It makes “Sometimes When We Touch” sound like a fucking masterpiece.

In the seven years I’ve been blogging I’ve discussed with various people what our relationship should be to an artist once we find out he or she is not quite the role model one would like. For me, I can compartmentalize. I can still listen to Michael Jackson and watch Woody Allen movies. Eric Clapton is one of my greatest musical heroes. He went on a racist rant years ago and recently acted like a complete jerk vaccine-wise. I listen to him all the time and learn his solos.

Bottom line – is this book worth reading? Fuck, yeah. But you are gonna hear about Chuck 360 – the good, the bad, the totally fucked up. Personally I no longer put anybody anywhere on any sort of a pedestal. I have musical heroes but I don’t expect them to be model citizens. If they are, bonus.

Here’s an interesting passage from the book:

“… we have a choice of threading through the details of his life or working around them completely – your call!!- and simply hearing him. To pull the joy and poetry out of the music he created and have it take us where it wants to go – not where he went. To live out lives with it, and not live his life.” Amen. I’m still digging Chuck’s music. And I’m off to rewatch Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll.

*”Johnny B. Goode” is included as one of the 27 songs on the Voyager Golden Record, a collection of music, images, and sounds designed to serve as a record of humanity. Chuck was born on Goode Street.

**It gets worse than that but I’ll save you the debauchery. You can dig that up online I suppose.

Chuck Berry statue in St. Louis

12 thoughts on “Book Review – Chuck Berry: An American Life

  1. Sounds like a good read. I think it’s a good thing RJ Smith apparently doesn’t try to glorify Chuck Berry.

    There’s no question this man has written some of the best classic rock & roll tunes. “Chuck Berry Is On Top” is just an incredible album. If I recall it correctly, another famous music artist called it “the greatest hits of rock & roll”.

    Berry’s guitar playing was pretty cool, though I understand his live performances could be hit and miss – in part because he typically toured without a standing touring band, insisting that concert promoters find local musicians to back him.

    Not only was Berry a complicated character, but he definitely had his dark sides.

    The truth is most if not all of our music heroes aren’t exactly angels.

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    1. Not only did he play with local pickup bands, he would intentionally try to fuck them up by changing keys several times during a song. His entire instruction was typically “watch my right foot.” Why he would sabotage his own shows just to troll other musicians is part of his weird mystery. He was a nice guy one minute, casually cruel the next. This is how he treats Keith Richards in ‘Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll.’ Having now read about him in depth, it doesn’t make more sense to me. But it is definitely a lifelong pattern. I don’t think Chuck appreciated being loved or admired. His relationships were transactional. Pay me, fuck me, whatever. BTW, a fun fact is that Mr. Rock and Roll considered the big band era to be ‘his’ era. Makes sense considering he was born in the 20s.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I still have a Chuck bio on my shelf that I havent got to. Reading your take it amazes me how many times Bob Wills name comes up in my musical journey. I can pop off a bunch off people he’s influenced. It covers a wide spectrum of people I like. Not that I’m a Chuck expert but from what you say about the book its’s just more of the same of what I kind of know. Tidbits like the one on Wills always interest me.

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    1. A few broad things stuck out – one is what a revolutionary artist he was. Look at that Spotify list. Then there was his guitar playing and overall showmanship. He influenced everybody. Massive.
      The other is he was an even bigger jerk than I thought – to other musicians, to women, etc. He was cold, callous, and cruel. You wouldn’t want to know him unless you were somehow on his wavelength. But his music will stand the test of time, and I’m still a Chuck guy. Had to read it quickly ‘coz my fellow Chuck-maniac Bill can’t wait to get his hands on it.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. The name I hear a lot from that era is Nat Cole. Chuck and Ray Charles thought he was the man. Ray spent a lot of his early career trying to sound like Nat till he found his own style.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Hey have you ever seen Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll? I hadn’t seen it in years. It’s fucking great. Chuck and Keith play together and Chuck gives him shit. There are interviews with Chuck, Bo and Richard together. They interview Jerry Lee, Roy Orbison, Springsteen and Wilie Dixon. Clapton, Ronstadt (steals the show) and Robert Cray show up. Both Chucks show up but mostly the good one. It’s the greatest movie of all time, way better than Citizen Kane.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. Yes. Always thought it was cool that Joey Stampinato from NRBQ was in the band. Im not going to argue with your love, I did enjoy it
          ‘We’re going to play Chuck Berry songs”

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  3. I’ve been away so behind on blog reading, but this was interesting.

    While I was on holiday I was reading an autobiography of a NZ musician whom I don’t care for, but it was interesting. They had a ridiculously tough childhood which involved getting raped regularly by their 16-year-old cousin when they were 8, and getting their stomach removed due to cancer in their mid-twenties.

    I’ve barely heard ‘My-Ding-A-Ling’ before – I’m sure I’d get sick of it very quickly but at this point I’d take it over ‘Sometimes When We Touch’.

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    1. They both deserve a special place in musical hell. As a result of reading the book I went back and re-watched the documentary ‘Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll.’ It’s half interviews with Chuck, half celebratory concert. It’s mostly the good Chuck and pretty entertaining. For me it was worth the price of admission just to see Bo Diddley, Little Richard and Chuck reminisce about the old days.

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