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The history of rock and the history of civil rights have all kinds of intersections, and Chuck Berry's story is one of the most interesting ones. But despite decades of fame, countless high-profile covers of his songs, a biographical film and an autobiography, Berry himself is still difficult to pin down. He grew up in the heart of segregated St. Louis to become one of the earliest African-American stars to "cross over" onto the pop charts. He gained the widespread attention of white listeners even while he was still not permitted to dance or dine with them in parts of the country. And he was not just significant as a force in the fight for desegregation—he is considered by many to be one of the primary architects of the whole style of music we know as rock n' roll. "Sweet Little Sixteen" hit the airwaves at the peak of Berry's career, but by 1960, he found himself in prison on racially motivated charges related to his contacts with a teenage girl. When he got out in 1963, he heard the Beach Boys on the radio singing his song—but they called it "Surfin' USA." Rock n' roll was changing, and the changes could not be separated from racial dynamics.
Chuck Berry was definitely a rock n' roll revolutionary. He raised himself on the music of both black and white stars. He loved the blues musicians who had so much to do with creating the rock sound, but he also knew the work of hillbilly white singers and the pop stars of the era. Unfortunately, in the buttoned-up environment of the early 1950s, not many people saw race and music the way Berry did. In the white neighborhoods his father worked in as a carpenter, no one knew about Muddy Waters or Howlin' Wolf. Black singers were tagged by white people as playing "race music" or "rhythm and blues" and kept off the radar for white listeners. And black audiences were unsure how to respond to Berry's hillbilly country sets. Berry, who had an original style and a knack for writing crowd-pleasing songs, was serious about changing all that.
He was up against centuries of strict segregation, even in the seemingly fluid world of music. As Bo Diddley explained it, even in the late 1950s, "We couldn't get songs played on the radio. And I remember Phil Chess and Leonard and them saying, 'you know what, if we could get a white kid to play this song, we could get it played.' Because the radio stations were owned by all Caucasians and they wouldn't play black music." It was as simple as that. "We were not called popular music, we were called rhythm and blues," no matter what kind of music he and other African-Americans played, Berry said.
Dashing and energetic, Berry launched a career in the early 1950s and tried to make a sort of music that would appeal to a broad audience. He imitated white country singers' "hillbilly" style and bantered onstage in a faux southern accent. He carefully enunciated his words to make them easy for everyone to understand. He wrote about teenage life, fan culture, and young love, and came up with signature dance moves like the duck walk that upped his entertainment value.
"Sweet Little Sixteen," the second-biggest pop hit of his career, was a song meant to reach young people far and wide with its story about a girl who dreams of dancing on bandstands and living a grown-up life. He tried hard to speak to his teenage audience, imagining himself in the shoes of a suburban girl with nothing but the TV to connect her to the big bad world out there.
Rock historian Michael Lydon provides us with a first-hand account of the times: "If you were a thirteen-year-old white kid in 1955, World War II had faded into a moth-eaten uniform at the back of a closet. A few Commies railed against Ike's 'peace and prosperity,' but Joe McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover were taking care of them. You had your own bedroom in a new suburban ranch house with a two-tone Chevy in the driveway. Dad gave you an allowance but complained that he never got one. You and your pals had crew cuts, wore chinos and loafers; a few hoods had greasy DA haircuts and switchblades. Colored people had become N****es, but you didn't know many. Pop music…was mushy 'Make-Believe Ballroom' music, made for your parents, not for you."
"Then, magically, the music changed," said Lydon. "Us 50s kids, white and black, couldn't get enough." Rock n' roll broke through into the mainstream, and Chuck Berry was the cream of the crop. After signing with Chess Records, he saw his dream begin to come true with a series of cross-over hits that made the pop charts and the R&B charts. He toured on racially integrated circuits across the U.S. in the mid-1950s, living the cross-country dance tour dream that "Sweet Little Sixteen" sings about. His contribution to the culture of teen rebellion was also a contribution to anti-racism: "While Berry glorified the bored, restless character of teenage culture in many of his hit singles, he also helped to end repressive traditions that kept black and white teenagers from associating," said one biographer.
Stardom may have transcended racial lines to some extent, but segregation and racism kept throwing up roadblocks for Chuck Berry. He often played in venues where white and black audiences were literally separated by a barrier, dancing on opposite sides of the room. In 1959, he was jailed for a night in Mississippi after a young white girl kissed him at a show, nearly inciting a riot. He was fined for "disturbing the peace" even though the girl's brother had instigated the fight. Some papers in the north commented that Berry was contributing to the struggle for desegregation down south by kissing white girls on stage.
In 1960, Berry was arrested on charges related to the Mann Act, an anti-prostitution law that forbade transporting any underage girl across state lines. The girl in question was a hat-check girl at Berry's bar and bandstand, and by his account he was innocent of any sexual wrongdoing. Nonetheless, the charge was not a sexual wrongdoing charge: the prosecution only had to prove that Berry drove the girl across the state line (St. Louis, remember, is located on a state line). After a mistrial in which the judge referred to Berry as "this n****," a second trail resulted in a three-year sentence to federal prison that would throw off his rising career and leave him changed—and, according to some, embittered.
This was before prison culture was hyped up and glorified in some of the ways it is these days. Getting thrown in prison as a black man was traumatic, dangerous, and detrimental to Berry's career. Plus, a charge on the Mann Act fit with all the white parents' fears about the African-American stars their daughters and sons were suddenly idolizing. The worst part for Berry was that it was not his first time in prison—he had spent the years from age 18 to 21 in prison after an arrest over a car-stealing prank with some friends. Berry's second prison sentence was a huge blow, and something that he still does not speak about with either comfort or pride.
By the time Berry got out of prison, it was 1963. Times were changing: Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous "I have a dream" speech on Capitol Hill. Sam Cooke wrote "A Change Is Gonna Come" after being arrested for refusing to leave a whites-only hotel in Louisiana. The civil rights movement was in full swing, but too many of the dreams of integration were yet to be achieved. Near the close of that year, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, leaving an alarming gap in American politics.
Rock n' roll was also changing. The Beatles released "I Want To Hold Your Hand," one of the songs that carried them into mainstream fame and started Beatlemania. With the Rolling Stones hot on their heels, British numbers inspired by American rock n' roll were the rising stars on the horizon. In the U.S., the blonde kids known as the Beach Boys were all over television and the radio, and Berry came out of three years in a Missouri prison to find them literally singing his song.
Berry eventually sued for the credit to the song, and the songwriting credit on "Surfin' USA" is now his—this means both recognition and royalties. But in 1963, the appropriation of his song by a group of white Californians meant more than a fight over royalties. Rock n' roll, which had emerged out of country, pop and blues to become one of the first truly interracial types of music in the U.S., was abandoning its own African-American stars.
It's tempting to look at the 1960s as part of a steady march towards progress, a linear history where everything just changed for the better. But Berry's experience, and the experience of lots of other black rock n' roll stars, tells a different story. They began to make inroads into a racially integrated form of music, and then racism pushed them back out. Little Richard, another early African-American rocker, explained the changes this way: "They didn't want those white kids looking up at this big old greasy black guy, out of Georgia or out of Mississippi or out of Chicago…they want their kids to see a smooth little white boy lookin' pretty and on-duty and rooty…" (His comments may have been a stab at either Elvis or pop star Pat Boone: both white stars had greater success than Little Richard himself with covers of his song "Tutti Frutti"). In the 1986 documentary on Berry's life, Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry confirmed Little Richard's sentiments. "There was a bad omen there when the thing became separated," said Bo Diddley. "R & B became what we was doing, and rock n' roll became what the white kids was doing."
By 1963, Little Richard, Bo Diddley, and Fats Domino had been cleared back out to the sidelines of the music they'd helped shape. White DJs, record producers, and fans still dominated the industry, and the next big thing in rock n' roll was to be a white band singing it. In the years to come, Chuck Berry saw his songs covered by Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, Elvis, Led Zeppelin, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Rolling Stones, the Sex Pistols, the Grateful Dead and the Who. He was unspeakably influential, but his career was never the same after his second stint in prison.
The underlying irony is that the "Sweet Little Sixteen" reality that Berry sang about to reach white teen audiences was not the life that he lived himself. He did not have that safe, comfortable suburban life that his young fans longed to escape from. His parents were poor, and black people had been blocked from celebrity careers in mainstream pop music. Berry wanted to build a career, to make money. He wanted to be a star, a John Lennon or Buddy Holly. He wanted to be on the tour that the imaginary girl in "Sweet Little Sixteen" followed around, the guy whose face fills girls' wallet pictures. His catchy songs and great performances got him there for a brief time. But after about 1959, that kind of blockbuster fame never quite happened for him again (although he did score his only #1 hit in 1972 with "My Ding-A-Ling," ironically probably one of the worse songs in his repertoire).
After a brief period of being one of the biggest names in rock, he faded into the background, doing rote and often unsuccessful tours on his same set of old standards from the early 1970s onwards.Taylor Hackford, the white director of the 1986 profile of Berry, Hail! Hail! Rock N' Roll, interprets Berry's onset of bitterness: "Chuck went to jail when he was 18 years old. He was caught stealing a car with some friends, and they were going to drive to California. If a white teenager had been caught, he'd have had his hands slapped, but Chuck got three years in a state prison in Missouri. It was the defining moment of who he is."
"He's the original rock n' roll outlaw," said Hackford. That may be true, but as a black man growing up in the south in the 1940s, Chuck Berry had not aspired to be an outlaw. Being mainstream was a big enough goal to tackle.
When Taylor Hackford made Hail! Hail! Rock n' Roll, none other than Keith Richards (the guitarist for the Rolling Stones) came on board as the film's music producer. Richards, a long-time fan of Berry, apparently threw himself into the project. But Berry was moody and irritable on the set of the documentary, and he and Richards fought to the point of a total falling-out after the film. There was a sad subtext to their rivalry: "Keith was much more famous than Chuck. Chuck is the man who originated rock'n'roll but the Rolling Stones are the most famous band in the world," wrote Hackford in 2007. The behind-the-scenes takes from the documentary show an embittered and impatient Chuck Berry in a power struggle with Richards every step of the way. Keith is sweet about it, recognizing Chuck as one of his greatest influences and even commenting that Berry didn't know his own greatness.
The message to take from the whole affair is a mixed one. On the one hand, Chuck Berry—still touring in his mid-80s and hanging onto the title as one of the inventors of rock n' roll—was a full-fledged rock star in his time, and his success in the late 1950s was a sign of great change to come for African-Americans struggling for civil rights. On the other hand, he is not alone among black artists from that era who feel they didn't get their dues. The progress that came out of the civil rights movement—slow, hard-earned progress—could never change the loss he felt when he saw prison eat away at his career and saw get-ups like the Beach Boys stealing his fire. But in 2010, Rolling Stone listed Chuck Berry's monthly shows in St. Louis among forty reasons to be excited about music--along with the Black-Eyed Peas, a rock-inspired, pop-charting hip-hop group whose success says something about how times have changed.
Rock's not dead? Well, at least Chuck's not dead. And, if it brings you any comfort, neither are the Beach Boys. Perhaps most amazingly (considering his drug-riddled history), neither is Keith Richards. Your guess as to which aging rocker keeps the fires burning the longest, but for now, the ever-enthusiastic Richards gets the last word:
"It's very difficult for me to talk about Chuck Berry," Richards said, "'cause I've lifted every lick he ever played. This is the man that started it all!"