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Book World: Chuck Berry's complicated path to becoming a rock legend

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“Chuck Berry: An American Life” by RJ Smith

Chuck Berry was playing a concert in Paris once when the audience started to get out of hand. Instead of engaging the rowdy fans, security did nothing. Things went from bad to worse, and tear gas was fired into the venue. Everybody ran for the exits — everybody except one.

At first, Berry couldn’t run: He lay on the floor, rigid, face not moving, “as stiff as a board,” his tour manager recalled. But then Berry was on his feet, eyes glowing red, plugging in his guitar and cranking out “the most maniacal rock & roll riff you can imagine.” The fans were still rushing out, but when they heard these thunderous chords on the far side of the gas clouds, suddenly they were rushing back in. “It wasn’t dedication,” said the tour manager. “It was chaos.”

Actually, it was both. To some degree, all rock bios are about sex, drugs and rock ’n’roll, yet the biggest takeaway from “Chuck Berry: An American Life” has to do with a fourth element: sheer force of personality.

Berry, who died in 2017 at 90, didn’t invent rock — “he didn’t do it alone and he didn’t do it on purpose,” writes R.J. Smith, who has also written books on James Brown and photographer Robert Frank. But when you listen to his music, you wouldn’t be blamed if you thought that he could have.

There are scores of candidates for first rock song and rock musician, but music evolves the way everything else does. Einstein isn’t all there is to relativity any more than Monet is the only impressionist; both built on the work of others and saw their work extended by others. Drummer Earl Palmer says that when it came to speed and power, Berry and Little Richard were tied: “I don’t know who played that way first.”

At the same time, in the mid-’50s, Berry was duking it out with Ike Turner for rock supremacy, with the latter sticking more to R&B as the former borrowed from that tradition and musicians as different as Harry Belafonte, Muddy Waters and Nat King Cole.

If you’re wondering what the frenetic soul shaker could possibly borrow from Cole’s velvet-toned balladeering, it was diction. “When I went into writing ‘Maybellene,’ I had a desire or intention to say the words real clear,” Berry said. “Nat Cole taught me that. Nat Cole had a diction that was just superb.”

Progress didn’t come easy to the rock pioneers, and Berry had it harder than most. A lot of his problems came from him being a charismatic Black man doing well in a world where a lot of white men were just scraping by. Smith regularly steers the reader back to Berry’s never-ending harassment by authorities, pointing out, for example, that he often drove a Toyota Avalon around his hometown of St. Louis because, in the singer’s words, “in a Toyota, the cops don’t stop you as much.”

Female fans threw themselves at him, many of them white, and Berry never seemed to meet a woman he didn’t say “yes” to. In midcareer, he received a three-year sentence for transporting a woman across state lines for immoral purposes, but he used his prison time to get his high school diploma and take business classes that allowed him to keep an eye on the shady accounting practices of record company execs. Even better, he wrote some of his biggest hits behind bars, including “Nadine,” “No Particular Place to Go” and “You Never Can Tell.”

He always had an edge, but after prison, a grimmer, easily angered and more driven Berry appeared.

Yet, out of his rage came “Johnny B. Goode,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” and a dozen other additions to the rock canon. Most saints aren’t artists, and the reverse is even more true.


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