Chuck Berry: "Sweet Tunes, Fast Beats
And A Hard Edge"

By Bernad Weinraub - Published on 2/23/2003
           St. Louis - Chuck Berry is seated backstage listening to the crowd gather at Blueberry Hill, a club on this city's west side. Once a month, Berry, known universally as the father of rock 'n' roll, performs downstairs in the cramped Duck Room, named for the duck walk he made famous in nearly 50 years of performing.
           Still lean and handsome at 76, Berry remains as guarded offstage as he is mesmerizing on. In a life overshadowed by three prison terms, his inner demons and the humiliations of racism, he now carefully avoids any public hint of the resentment that seems to lurk just beneath the surface.
           His eyes narrow as he speaks. "Had I been a white boy like Elvis, sure, it would have been different," said Berry, who was the first to fuse the blues, country music and rhythm-and-blues with a creativity and wit that spoke directly to American teenagers.
           "But look," he said. "The last 10 years have been the best. I've had more awards, more praise. My highest dollars have come in. I'm satisfied."
           He became famous with "Maybellene" in 1955. It was followed by "Roll Over Beethoven," "Brown Eyed Handsome Man," "Johnny B. Goode," "School Days," "Nadine" and "Rock and Roll Music."
           Berry's songs went beyond formulaic boy-meets-girl lyrics to appeal to white adolescents dealing with issues like parents, dancing, cars, lust and new tastes in music.
           He forged the style for rock 'n' roll guitar that is still popular, and his influence is so sprawling that virtually every rock great owes him a large debt. John Lennon once said, "If you tried to give rock 'n' roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry."
           When Berry recorded "Maybellene" for the Chicago-based Chess Records, he was inspired, he said, by a country-western song, "Ida Red."
           With the help of a disc jockey, Alan Freed, the record became one of the first by a black artist to outsell its cover versions by white performers.
           It also gave Berry his first taste of music-industry bitterness. Initially he was listed as the writer. Once the song hit the charts, two other names were added: those of Freed and of Russ Fratto, the landlord of the Chess Co. offices in Chicago. Berry won his battle to reclaim the rights, but only after three decades.
           Asked if he felt robbed, Berry said tightly: "It's been years ago, man, and so many good things have happened to me." But within moments, when asked about his biggest disappointment, Berry said: "When I discovered that I didn't get the entire credit for something that I created when I should have - that's a disappointment."
           There were other issues, sexual and racial, that intertwined and in some ways dominated his life. He once accused the St. Louis police of singling him out because he owned a nightclub that catered to an interracial clientele. His autobiography, "Chuck Berry," (Harmony Books, 1987), is packed with sexual escapades, although he's been married since 1948 to Themetta Berry, called Toddy.
           But the most devastating episode in Berry's life was his trial and conviction in 1961 for violating the Mann Act, which prohibits the transportation of women or girls across state lines for the purposes of prostitution. Berry was convicted of charges involving Janice Norine Escalanti, a 14-year-old whom he met in Mexico and brought to St. Louis.
           Berry was tried more than once: The first conviction was thrown out because of the judge's incendiary racial comments, including his constant use of the expression "nigra."
           By the time Berry left federal prison after 20 months, he was broken and outraged.
           "Never saw a man so changed," Carl Perkins, the songwriter, singer and guitarist, once told Michael Lydon, a journalist, as he recalled a 1964 tour of Britain with Berry. "He had been an easygoing guy before, the kinda guy who'd jam in dressing rooms, sit and swap licks and jokes. In England he was cold, real distant and bitter."
           The changes, reflected in Berry's often difficult personality and his demanding requirements on the road, have often exasperated his admirers.
           Keith Richards, the Rolling Stones' guitarist who idolizes Barry, said in 1986 at Berry's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, "I lifted every lick he ever played." But by some accounts, Berry views Richards' superstardom as more of an affront than a tribute.
           Berry once kicked Richards off a stage in Hollywood for playing too loudly and once punched him backstage after Richards tapped him on the shoulder. Berry also threw a lighted match down Richards' shirt at the Los Angeles airport.Backstage at Blueberry Hill, dressed '70s-style in a sequined aqua shirt and tight flared black pants as he waited to go on, Berry professed to have little interest in the praise given him by rock 'n' roll stars like Richards, Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen and Eric Clapton.
           "People said I was king, but I was never king, and I say I'm the prime minister," Berry said, reflecting his view that he never achieved the megastardom he deserved.
           "I wrote songs white people could buy, because that's nine pennies out of every dime," Berry once said. Recently he emphasized: "I made records for people who would buy them. No color, no ethnic, no political - I don't want that, never did."
           Still, some of his most famous music, like "Brown Eyed Handsome Man," carries subversive overtones. In that song Berry mocks racial and sexual taboos by explaining how the Venus de Milo had "lost both her arms in a wrestling match/to get a brown eyed handsome man."
           By the late '60s, Berry had lost ground to breakthrough improvisers like Clapton, Mike Bloomfield and Jimi Hendrix, who all paid tribute to him while venturing away from his formulas. But in 1972 he unexpectedly struck gold with a silly and risque song, "My Ding-A-Ling."
           Berry's life in the 1980s and '90s was an erratic mix of concerts, honors and scandals. In 1987 he was arrested at a New York hotel, where a woman said he had beaten her. Eventually Berry pleaded guilty to harassment and was fined $250.
           In 1990 several women sued him, claiming that he had videotaped them in the bathroom of a restaurant he owned in St. Louis. His biographer, Bruce Pegg, estimated that it cost Berry $1.2 million plus legal fees to reach a settlement.
           In the recently published biography "Brown Eyed Handsome Man: The Life and Hard Times of Chuck Berry," (Routledge), Pegg further describes what he calls a truly enigmatic personality through stories from the road. Berry performs about 50 shows a year, and his demands are unusual: He generally earns about $30,000 to $35,000 for an arena show, but the money must be placed in his bank account before the show.
           He will give no encores unless he is paid extra. A contract with each club stipulates the exact times he will appear and depart. If a show is delayed, he generally walks away. He demands a Lincoln Town Car that he drives himself.
           He also demands a Fender Bassman amplifier, and if one is not provided, he demands a fine of $2,000, paid before the show.
           Berry has not made a record in 22 years, but says he is working on one now.
           Does he consider himself an architect of rock 'n' roll? "I don't think that way," he said coolly. "My music is simple stuff. Anybody can sit down, look at a set of symbols and produce sounds the music represents."
           "A song is a song," he said. "But there are some songs, ah, some songs are the greatest. The Beatles song 'Yesterday.' Listen to the lyrics."
           He began to sing softly:
           Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away.
           Now it looks as though they're here to stay.
           Oh, I believe in yesterday..."

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