The saga of Chuck Berry is an archetype American success/failure story. Berry managed to parlay some 15-20 tunes he'd written during a five year span into a career lasting nearly fifty years-he also spent heavy time in prison for tax evasion and several morals charges. He's achieved international fame, yet his bitter mistrustfulness has alienated friends, lovers, managers, promoters and bandmates. Now 76, he still makes sporadic appearances singing the songs he wrote over four decades ago about what it was like to be a teenager in America.
This unauthorized biography has dust jacket copy that accurately points out that Berry's own 1986 autobiography "covers up as much as it reveals." Here, author Bruce Pegg has done a lot of deep digging in newspaper files and court records to come up with the most detailed and complete picture of the notoriously private subject yet seen. Done without co-operation of Berry, what emerges is a look at what he did, when, where and how-all that's missing is the Why. There's a lot of family background info including details on Berry's teenage jail time, but not much of a sense of him as a person. (Of course you can get his crafted persona on display in his own book, complete with Berry's odd, elongated alliterations.)
The general outline is known to most fans. Born and raised in St Louis, Berry dropped out of high school to go on a road trip with pals, when the money ran out in KC they pulled three armed robberies, but soon were busted after a car-jacking. He did three years of a ten year sentence, and while in the joint got into singing with a gospel quartet. On his release he got married, did factory work and it wasn't until he was around 24 that he began pursuing guitar playing, and soon was working with pianist Johnnie Johnson's R&B combo.
Berry was nearly 30 when he took a trip to Chicago to audition for Chess Records. An uptempo number called "Ida Red" caught the ear of Leonard Chess-it was an unusual mix of country-western and R&B-the mirror image of what Elvis Presley had just begun doing in Memphis, with a throbbing backbeat. Retitled "Maybellene" the song was an immediate hit and Berry set out on a career of writing "three minute" vignettes of teen life. Titles like "Roll Over Beethoven," "School Days," Too Much Monkey Business," "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" were soon burning up the jukeboxes, and the Berry combo went on tour with Alan Freed's R&R package shows. One nighters on his own followed, and on the way from Topeka to St Louis Berry had a flat and pulled off the freeway to change a tire. The shiny brand new 1958 Cadillac, black driver and white female passenger caught the eye of a patrolman. Berry's license was found to be expired, and he had a .25 automatic pistol-he was handcuffed and run in. A local paper noted that Berry paid his bail of $1250 "in cash, from a roll that would choke a horse." The charges were eventually dropped
He wasn't as lucky on a southern one-nighter tour a few months later, when he hooked up with a 14 year old Apache Indian part-time hooker. She went on the road with The Berry band, selling his publicity photos at club gigs, and later worked in the check room of Berry's St Louis club, before he fired her for goofing off. When he bought her a bus ticket back to Yuma she called the cops-and Berry was busted for violating the Mann act-transporting a woman across state lines for immoral purposes. Author Pegg does a good job of recreating events leading up to the trial from the court records, and gives the most complete account of it to date (the trial itself takes up an entire chapter). Berry was (after appeals and a retrial) found guilty, and sentenced to three years with a $5000 fine.
According to many observers this trial and jail time was the real turning point in Berry's life-when he got out he was a changed man. He would arrive for gigs alone, expecting both a backup band and a Fender dual Showman amp to be waiting for him, demand payment in cash up front, play a 45 minute set and leave immediately thereafter. Berry departed Chess for Mercury Records, recut rather lame versions of his old hits, and didn't write much new material of note. Overseas tours and R&R revival shows followed, his 60th Birthday Party show was a filmed tribute with all-star guests and Keith Richard spearheading the band. But again Chuck had legal problems-he was busted for tax evasion and was charged with videotaping female staff and customers at his restaurant while they were in the bathroom. Eventually a settlement was reached, some 59 women in a class action suit received $5000 each-altogether it cost Berry $1, 225, 000, PLUS legal fees!
Recently he was again sued, by band member Johnson, who claimed he was owed songwriting credits on many of Berry's old hits. (In late October the suit was thrown out, too much time had elapsed since the songs were written.) Berry continues to play monthly gigs in a St. Louis club, but he doesn't travel much. There have been rumors of a new album in the works but so far nothing has surfaced.
Author Pegg has done a good job of assembling newly discovered data and recent interviews into a cohesive narrative, resulting in a full bodied story-the above just scratches the surface. Despite the fact that at times the prose is tinged with a somewhat dry academic tone, all in all, his book is a quite readable entry into the life & times of a gifted, but fatefully flawed musician.
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This review is copyright © 2002 by Tony Glover, and Blues On Stage at: www.mnblues.com, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission.
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