Part One: Chuck Berry was, in so many ways, the iconic Missourian. He told tall tales and reveled in language, especially the poetry of vernacular. His seeming close-mouthed cussedness in later years was an attitude that kept many a Missourian alive during the tumult and confusion of the Civil War. And despite everything, he shared with his neighbors an enormous pride of place. St. Louisan T.S. Eliot wrote that “between the idea and reality falls the shadow” and such is the contradiction you face again and again when reviewing the life and career of Chuck Berry.
Berry was raised in “the Ville,” a historic African American community in north St. Louis. His upbringing was solidly middle-class and the young Berry was a gregariously honest and especially hardworking young man.
Like Miles Davis in nearby East Alton, Chuck Berry benefited mightily from the support of church and community, but it was the (still segregated) school system that seems to have done most to nurture both of their musical inclinations. In the late 1940s, his teen years were interrupted by a two-year stint at the old Allen Prison Farm near Jefferson City. Berry spent a lifetime failing to elaborate on this misstep, except to admit his culpability.
This crime, presciently, involved a joyride down then US 40 in a “borrowed” car and a night in the Boone County jail — more on that later. Chuck was, however, a model prisoner and emerged more eager and industrious than ever. (Berry maintained good relations with that no longer existing farm, famously bringing it to a near riot while paying a surprise visit there during the filming of Taylor Hackford’s “Hail, Hail Rock & Roll”). He was released in 1948.
By the early ’50s, Chuck was back in St. Louis, now married with a small family. The ever cautious businessman in Berry compelled him to hold down two jobs while putting himself through the prestigious, black-owned Poro School of Cosmetology (established by St. Louis’ Annie Turnbo Malone) as a back-up plan should the music business fail him.
Like Daniel Boone among the Indians, Chuck Berry spent the 1950s on the road, building rock and roll from his outlier position between Blues and the proto-rock rhythms of Jimmy Liggins and Bill Haley. Then, as always, music was at least partially “business” to Chuck. His entrepreneurial side eventually dominated as he established his own venue — Berry’s Club Bandstand — integrated to accommodate his growing white teenage audience. At the same time Berry toured relentlessly, playing sock hops and Chitlin Circuit joints like the Club Cosmo in East St. Louis (a patron once explained to me that “they charged a quarter at the door, just to keep the bums out.”)
What made his music different? Well, Berry’s style had a deliberately broad appeal that owed as much to the snapping rhythms of country and hillbilly honk that dominated radio at that time as the blues did to gospel. (Iconic soul man Dan “Dark End of the Street” Penn once remarked that Berry was a great songwriter, but he never took you to church.) For Chuck, and to most adolescents, “church” was the freedom of the open road.
At the dawn of the ’60s in St. Louis, the Arch went up and the Pruitt-Igo Projects came down. This signaled to some the end of modernism, but locally it symbolized reactionary white flight, school segregation and the blind fear of racism. Not surprisingly, St. Louis authorities took every opportunity to harass and intimidate a black club owner entertaining a young white clientele. This, even though he had spent his career in business and as an artist overlooking the black man’s struggle in favor of the freedom, however hindered, that America did provide.
Needless to say, the powers that be in St. Louis were terrified of his music’s crossover appeal. As Berry’s infamous Chess recordings began to appear on mainstream charts and garner widespread radio play, he found that everywhere he went his songs provoked and confounded deep-seated racial attitudes about white audiences and a black man’s music. Be it access to it or admiration of it, the powers that be saw Berry’s fun-loving, freewheeling music as dangerous and iconoclastic — a threat to the racial status quo.
In the late 1950s, the ever-practical Berry bought a home in Wentzville (calling it “Berry Park”) at the exact crossroads of the major thoroughfares Hwys 40 and 61. His new home had the mutual advantages of convenience for his nonstop touring and distance from the suspicion and harassment that characterized nearby St. Louis.
His troubles, he thought, were over.
Look for Part Two of Kevin’s tribute to Chuck Berry in next month’s Kevin’s World.