When asked what surprised him most while researching Chuck Berry, author R.J. Smith says it’s how effectively the rock n’ roll pioneer created the template for a worldwide cultural phenomenon.
“He built a blueprint for the whole music. People always talk about who invented rock n’ roll, and it’s fun to argue about that but I don’t think any one person literally invented it. But I think Chuck by far had the most far-reaching and adaptable blueprint for the whole music,” says the Los Angeles-based Smith, a longtime music and culture journalist and author of books on James Brown, artist Robert Frank and L.A.’s Central Avenue jazz scene.
Smith and I know each other and we talked on the rainy publication day for “Chuck Berry: An American Life,” his new biography of the rock and roll icon behind songs such as “Johnny B. Goode,” “Maybellene” and “Roll Over Beethoven.” The book chronicles and offers context on Berry’s life in St. Louis, his musical career, his influence on the greater culture, his experiences with racism, his love of cars, as well as his personal tribulations.
Smith says that when it came to rock ‘n’ roll Berry was a true-believing ambassador for the music he helped create.
“He had this generous spirit in the music that just took over,” says Smith. “Kind of creating the original rock star.”
But Smith, who interviewed more than a hundred people for the book, including many in Berry’s beloved hometown of St. Louis, also had to explore some of the more problematic parts of Berry’s life, too – such as settlements surrounding Berry’s secretly recording women who used the restrooms of his restaurant.
Smith’s book aims to give a complete picture of a complicated person, which, it seems, is what Chuck Berry would have wanted.
“After I’m gone,” Berry said in an interview shown at the 2017 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony and quoted in Smith’s afterword, “I want you to just speak the truth. Be it pro, con, bad, good…Whatever it be, I hope it’s real.”
This conversation has been edited and condensed.
Q. What led you to write about Chuck Berry?
I was born a little after “Maybellene” came out, so I didn’t grow up hearing him in his time exactly. I was born in ‘59. But I have grown up hearing his music and his musical influence on everybody who came after that so that made me interested in him always. And today, at a time when we’re looking at all our heroes and our quote-unquote geniuses and icons and learning about their lives and sorting all that out, given the good stuff and not-good stuff about Chuck’s private life, it seemed like a good time to plug him into that discussion.
Q. What makes him important to American music?
He found a way to be so incredibly inviting and to send a message on different levels that this isn’t me talking to you – this is this thing going on all around us, this musical culture that wasn’t here five years ago. It’s going on and it’s ours; it’s not going to go away. He was the most believing of the true believers. And here’s how you can be a part of it: You can play the guitar; you can be in the audience and scream your lungs out; you can dance. There are just so many ways in that he was an ambassador for.
Q. You mentioned Chuck Berry’s problematic personal life. What would you say about it?
He was often not nice to people around him. He was remote, angry, cruel – verbally cruel, particularly to women. And he had a penchant for secretly photographing. A lot of court cases came out of this and were all settled out of court, pretty much all of them, so there’s a limit to what we know. And he always at some level denied it, because he reached a private agreement and paid a bunch of money to make it go away. But he owned a restaurant and an integrated country resort called Berry Park and he planted cameras in the dressing rooms and the women’s rooms of those facilities and secretly photographed and recorded people in the bathroom. I’ll just leave it there for now. There’s a lot more in the book.
Q. What was his opinion of all the people who were influenced by him and who likely benefited more from his work than he did himself?
Well, definitely, you know, the whole British invasion: The Beatles, The Stones, Fleetwood Mac, and The Kinks. Every one of those bands – and all the ones that you have heard of and the ones we haven’t heard of – they all covered Chuck Berry and they all used his map forward as a crucial part of getting it together at the start of their careers. And then they went on in their own brilliant directions, but they all acknowledged, or pretty much all of them, especially the Brits, their love for Chuck Berry.
You can hear him in the Sex Pistols. You can hear him in all kinds of country music today, the country top 40. They use that template of a guitar-driven band sound with a boogie-woogie piano or a keyboard playing against the rhythm of the drums and the guitar – kind of a cogent, tight, rhythmic, lyrical style.
Chuck is everywhere still.
Q. You have written about LA’s jazz scene, you’ve written about the artist Robert Frank, you’ve written about James Brown: What story are you telling with all of your books?
On some level, it’s the story of a White male guy living in LA, who wants to understand why he is so drawn to certain art and periods of cultural production. On another level, I like to look at the things that we make – whether it’s a song or a poem or graffiti or a movie but often a song or a record – and see what we are as a culture saying to each other through that. Obviously, the artist is the one saying it, but they’re speaking to us, and in some ways, they’re speaking for us and picking up things that we’re all saying at the time. I like to look at that stuff and see what arguments we’re having with our fellow citizens and see what things we’re all agreeing on and and kind of find my way into that somehow.
Q. How did he feel about these tributes to him and his work?
How did he feel about like the tributes? He never gave a full answer. He was a very private and tight with his words human being. I think that he really appreciated the tribute. He loved the money that came in. He didn’t get all the money he deserved to get and was supposed to get, for sure. But he did much better than most people, most rhythm and blues and early rock and rollers like Little Richard or Bo Diddley, he did much better than them as a businessman.
When people asked him that question, he said, ‘I love it because I just built an addition on my house,’ or something like that. But I know that it ate at him that Elvis was called the King and he would never be called the King.
He resented the fact that the world would never warm to him the way it would warm to, you know, White kids with guitars.
Q. Is there an iconic Chuck Berry song?
The iconic one could be “Let it Rock.” He did it a few times in his career on different albums. And it’s really short, and it’s just verses. I don’t think there’s a chorus.
It’s sort of a John Henry story of workers on a railroad and a train’s coming that you can’t stop and they can’t get off the tracks in time. And for some reason, the workers have built a teepee on the railroad tracks so there’s this Native American note in it. It’s just like this American history all smashed together into a two-minute song about Blacks and Whites and Native Americans and a train’s coming and then it arrives and you can’t tell if everybody got out of the way or not. There’s something really just explosive and cool about that song.
Q. And do you have a favorite Chuck Berry Song?
It changes all the time. One definitely that I think about a lot is “The Promised Land.” He went to jail and prison a few times in his life and when he came out in ‘63-’64, the hardest time maybe in his life, and all these bands are playing Chuck Berry kind of music on the radio. He wrote some of the best songs that he ever wrote for a year or two in that period. And one of them was “The Promised Land.” It’s about leaving the South.
It feels like a man singing about his wish to be free and to get out of the things that have trapped him in his life. And he ends up in Southern California, actually; he flies from Texas to California. “The Promised Land” is California, and it feels like it should be that for everybody.
This content was originally published here.