On Saturday, the world lost Chuck Berry at the age of 90. As one of the pioneers or rock and roll music, Berry laid a foundation with his mastery of the guitar and set new standards with the poignancy and brevity of his songwriting. His work influenced dozens of musicians who took those lessons Berry taught them and created something unique and special. Without Berry, the world wouldn’t have the Beach Boys, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, and virtually any other major legacy act of the 1960s. Though Berry hadn’t released a record since 1979, his work still permeated music and pop culture.
There is a lot to be said about Berry’s career. While Berry’s work as a guitar player has garnered him numerous accolades and the respect of people in the industry, there is also a darker side to his career. However, before I address that specter that haunts his legacy, I want to talk about my own experience with Chuck Berry and his music.
Pop culture icons often have monikers and labels thrusted upon that are catchy and increase their marketability. Michael Jackson was the king of pop, Patti Smith is the godmother of punk, and Little Richard is the architect of rock and roll. While a lot of these labels are well-deserved indicators of their talent and contributions to their respective art form. However, I always took issue with brand that followed Elvis Presley throughout his career and beyond the grave. Elvis Presley is not the king of rock and roll. Chuck Berry is.
Chuck Berry’s music is so ingrained in the lexicon of American pop culture and music. You just grow up with those songs in television shows, movies, commercials, books, and countless other places. You hear the direct influence of his music in those inspired by him through covers, stolen riffs, or tributes. I remember buying a CD copy of his famous compilation The Great Twenty-Eight after seeing it listed in a Rolling Stone magazine list of the best albums ever made. That compilation compiled 28 of his most famous and chart-topping tracks. In college, on summer days, I would drive through the Kentucky country roads blasting that CD. I loved the familiarity of the music and just how easy it was to feel so good listening to it. It was the type of music that immediately made you feel great to be alive. When you heard that guitar and listened to the stories, the weight of the world washed away.
Berry was born with the sin of being black in a time when that could cost you your life. Not only that, but the music industry was heavily segregated as well. Rock and roll was music born from blues music performed by black musicians. And those sounds were deemed demonic and with the ability to corrupt white youth into becoming violent and sexualized criminals. Black-owned radio stations, such as WVON for example, were the only places where you could hear race records or rock music performed by black artists. That happened for a long time before white record executives saw that white middle-class teenagers were craving those records.
So, here comes along Elvis Presley from Tupelo, Mississippi. Elvis was a good-looking southern white boy with a whole lot of charm. Put him in a suit, film him from the waist up, and you’ve got a money-making music machine that can sell black music to white families all across the nation.
Elvis didn’t really play guitar much or really even write his own songs. Still, he sold an astronomical number of records in his lifetime and is regarded as the crowned king of rock royalty. Meanwhile, Berry was a trained piano player, mastered the guitar with innovative techniques, had an electrified and sexualized stage presence that could put Elvis the Pelvis to shame, and even wrote his own songs. While Berry still entertained crowds and influenced the next wave of musicians, he never got the same respect as Elvis.
Much of what held back Berry’s career has to do with the institutionalized racism of the music industry as well as the country at large. Berry, a talented black musician, was making money and wooing white girls. You couldn’t have that. However, that’s not the sole reason why Berry’s career faced problems over the years. Early in his career, Berry’s status as a popular musician garnered him a lot of followers. Many of whom were white teenage girls. Berry was jailed a few times after transporting teenagers across state lines for sexual purposes. This presented him released any records for a few years during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Much later, in 1990, Berry was sued by several women for allegedly filming them in the bathroom of his restaurant. While Berry was never convicted, he did settle out of court with 59 women.
When Berry passed, I saw a lot of social media posts and editorials about the cult of celebrity and how famous people are typically given free passes when it comes to committing crimes or, in Berry’s case, sexual improprieties. I’m not debating that because it is certainly true. Celebrities have the money, resources, and charisma to get out of situations that normal people who aren’t famous certainly cannot. And that’s problematic. A well-known person doesn’t inherently make you a better person or a person who is immune to society’s rules and guidelines.
However, here’s the catch: no one is completely altruistic and especially when it comes to things we enjoy. Berry had a history of sex crimes and that is incredibly problematic. And for all those who hold the position of hating Berry for that, I don’t blame you. However, I know that every single critic of Berry supports some celebrity with their own issues. I have friends who still stand by Michael Jackson, R. Kelly, Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, and countless other celebrities with smudges on their legacies, but were quick to criticize and vilify Chuck Berry. And that’s fine. You have your reasons. However, I refuse to accept that those critics don’t have any bias when it comes to their admiration of performers with shady pasts.
We are all biased. It is human nature. As much as we try to apply blanket philosophies or logic over everything, there are times where rules get bent or broken that reinforce our own ideals or interests. For me, it is frustrating when someone is so incredulous about their position that they don’t recognize their bias and come up with some excuse to justify why their perceivably tarnished idol still shines bright to them. It is perfectly fine to have that bias. Just own up to it and don’t be so judgmental about who other people enjoy. There are very few extreme cases where someone’s idolization of a cultural or historical figure truly reflects that person’s own belief system.
As soon as I found out he died, I put my trusted copy of Berry’s The Great Twenty-Eight into my CD player and danced around the apartment. Released in 1982, the compilation contains tracks recorded by Berry between 1955 and 1965. It only covers Berry’s first 11 years with Chess Records.
While every song on it is a classic, one of my favorite is “Havana Moon.” Recorded in 1956, “Havana Moon” is not one of Berry’s most recognizable hits or one that showcases his genius guitar work, but one that showcases his underrecognized talent as a songwriter. In the song, Berry plays the character of a young Cuban man who waits on a dock with a bottle of rum. He is waiting for a woman he recently met. They danced and sang throughout the night. The lead in the song falls in love with the young woman and she tells him she wants to take him back to America to wait at the dock for this ship. As time goes on, the lead gets drunker while reminiscing about his time with the woman. He goes through the motions of being so incredibly excited to be in love to concern about the woman being late to finally realizing that she lied and will never come. Convinced the American girl lied, he passes out drunk on the dock. When he wakes up in the morning light, he sees the ship has left the dock and so has the young girl who couldn’t him. It’s a sad and bittersweet song about love and missed opportunities. The song is written in short punch sentences that reminds me of Hemingway’s writing style. There’s not beating around the bush with flowery and vague language. Let’s get to the heart of the story and keep it short and sweet.
When I first moved to Chicago, I worked for a non-profit in the South Loop for nearly three years. A couple of blocks south from the office was the former site of Chess Records. It was so amazing to see the site where so many great black artists recorded their best work. These were musicians I respected and continue to enjoy. It was almost a spiritual experience to see so much history concentrated in one spot. I’d been listening to songs recorded at Chess for years and I never thought I would ever see that building. So, I stand by my love for Chuck Berry and I don’t give a damn if anyone thinks I’m complicit about any of his indiscretions. Our heroes are flawed and so are we.