- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 2, 2000

Chuck Berry, whose imaginative lyrics and ringing electric guitar defined rock 'n' roll in the 1950s, is not a man given to introspection about his mammoth influence on popular music.

Asked in a film biography how he would be remembered, Mr. Berry was characteristically elusive.

"I could say it's out of my department after I'm gone," he said, "but whatever it be, I just hope it's real… . I hope they'll just speak the truth be it pro, con, bad, good.

"I was going to say 'black, white,' but it wouldn't be right, you know," he added with a mischievous smile to the camera.

Mr. Berry wrote, sang and played more than three dozen songs — "Johnny B. Goode," "Sweet Little Sixteen" and "Roll Over Beethoven" among them — that laid the foundation of rock 'n' roll for years to come.

What appears to matter most to him, however, is not the cultural impact of one charismatic black man at a time when racial segregation was the norm, but that the enduring popularity of his tunes guaranteed a payday on the road whenever he wanted it.

It could be that rock's quintessential showman — who also happened to be the genre's foremost black guitar player until Jimi Hendrix followed in his duck-walking footsteps more than a decade later — doesn't understand the breadth of his impact. Perhaps he doesn't care about it. Or maybe he simply chooses not to share his assessment with the rest of us.

Some 45 years after he transformed pop radio, Mr. Berry's ambivalent attitude toward an astonishingly fruitful body of work is beside the point.

That work itself, most of it completed five years before the Beatles exported fresh interpretations in 1964, is the reason Mr. Berry, 74, is being honored this weekend as one of five recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors.

What is clear from interviews and his autobiography is that Mr. Berry, from the beginning of a career that arguably broke more cultural ground than did Elvis Presley's, regarded music as a job for which a hard-working guy could be paid regularly. He professed puzzlement that the term "artist" would be applied to him.

"That's one thing about rock 'n' roll — it's freedom," he said in "Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll," the 1987 film biography that marked his 60th birthday, describing what the music meant to his life as much as its content.

Ambition and business never have been dirty words to Charles Edward Anderson Berry, who was born Oct. 18, 1926, in San Jose, Calif., and whose parents soon moved their growing family to St. Louis, Mo., at the outset of the Great Depression.

In hindsight, the contradictions were apparent early on. Before realizing he probably could make a living with a guitar, this charter member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame both studied to become a hairdresser and spent three years in reform school for armed robbery.

A local barber had tutored the teen on an old acoustic guitar. Mr. Berry didn't buy an electric model until he turned 25 and aimed to make some extra cash playing at parties.

"It was my first really good-looking instrument to have and hold," Mr. Berry said in an interview quoted in rock historian James Miller's book "Flowers in the Dustbin: The Rise of Rock and Roll." "From the inspiration of it, I began really searching at every chance I got for opportunities to play music."

He soaked up music as diverse as the big bands, the blues and country and western. Louis Jordan and Nat "King" Cole were among favorite vocalists. He counted bluesman T-Bone Walker and jazz players Charlie Christian and Carl Hogan as guitar heroes and concedes that he calculatingly blended their styles to make "nice music" that would appeal to white listeners.

His cocky charm as much as his increasing skill at merging country and blues strains secured him a spot in the Johnnie Johnson Trio, a growing draw at the Cosmopolitan Club in East St. Louis. Before long, the combo was rechristened the Chuck Berry Trio, with boogie-woogie pianist Johnson relegated to loyal sideman on the stage and, later, on most of Mr. Berry's classic records.

At these gigs in 1953 and '54, Mr. Berry began to improvise by adding comic lines to old country songs. As word got out, more and more whites dropped by to hear this black guitarist's idiosyncratic take on "hillbilly" tunes.

The turning point came in spring 1955. Revered bluesman Muddy Waters recommended that Mr. Berry look up his boss, Chess Records owner Leonard Chess, in Chicago. The budding songwriter played Mr. Chess two songs he had laid down on a cheap tape recorder — the original blues "Wee Wee Hours" and a revamped country standard he called "Ida May."

The latter intrigued the blues producer, though he wanted more of a beat and a different title. "Maybellene" was born.

A sharply observed tale that humorously imagines a car race to catch an unfaithful high school sweetheart, it features a staccato guitar attack that would become Mr. Berry's trademark.

"Maybellene" climbed swiftly on the R&B; and pop charts that summer when influential teen-music impresario Alan Freed promoted the single on his radio show after being assigned a co-writing credit — common practice in those "payola" days. Of course, it helped that the song was irresistible.

During the next four years, Mr. Berry cut a string of charting R&B; singles, all featuring witty wordplay and most also becoming pop hits: "Roll Over Beethoven," "Too Much Monkey Business," "School Day," "Rock and Roll Music," "Sweet Little Sixteen," "Johnny B. Goode," "Carol," "Almost Grown" and "Back in the U.S.A."

In the film biography, Mr. Berry described how he consciously focused on three subjects he figured would hook the most listeners: school, cars and love.

"So I wrote about all three and I thought I'd reach a pretty good capacity of the people," he said with a wink.

Just one example, from 1958's "Memphis," of a typical Berry couplet that moved some to call him rock's first poet:

Last time I saw Marie she was waving me goodbye,

With hurry-home drops on her cheek that trickled from her eye.

Second in demand only to Elvis, the sleek and sexy Mr. Berry began to command attention in Hollywood as well as on television and concert stages. He starred alongside Mr. Freed and other rockers in the teen pics "Rock Rock Rock" (1956) and "Mr. Rock and Roll" (1957), in which his patented leg splits and squatting "duck walk" became as familiar to fans as his comic vocal inflections and choppy, two-stringed guitar riffs.

This huge success began to sputter in 1959, when Mr. Berry was arrested and charged with transporting a juvenile across state lines for immoral purposes.

The guitarist had picked up a 14-year-old Apache girl at a tour stop in Texas. He had given her a job checking coats in his new nightclub in St. Louis. The girl, who turned out to be a prostitute, went to authorities when he fired her and gave her a bus ticket home.

After a conviction and five-year sentence were overturned because of undertones about Mr. Berry's race, he was convicted in a 1962 retrial and sentenced to three years in an Indiana prison.

By the time he was freed after serving two years, his music had inspired Bob Dylan's song writing and become a cornerstone of the early Beach Boys sound out of Southern California.

Covers and copies of Berry songs sprinkled the albums of 1964's "British invasion" of America by the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Kinks, Animals and other bands from England. ("If you wanted to give rock 'n' roll another name, you might call it 'Chuck Berry,' " John Lennon said in a U.S. television appearance not long after the Beatles broke up.)

Mr. Berry resumed recording and toured Great Britain in triumph but never regained his song-writing magic or prolific hit-making.

The innovator became an "oldies" act before the '60s were over, though he continued to draw new fans in a relentless touring schedule well into the 1980s. His biggest return to the pop charts came in 1972 with a live sing-along rendition of the juvenile "My Ding-a-Ling." It hit No. 1 and became his only certified million-seller. He has recorded only sporadically in the past 30 years.

Mr. Berry played the White House in June 1979 at the invitation of President Carter. The next month, he began a five-month sentence for federal tax evasion.

In 1990, his personal peculiarities also made the news when police searching for drugs and pornography raided his home near St. Louis. Criminal charges were dropped, but in 1994, the guitarist paid out more than $1 million to settle a class-action suit brought by more than 60 women who claimed they had been videotaped while using restrooms at his restaurant and Berry Farm park.

Themetta Berry stuck by her husband despite his fancy for the innumerable young women — most of them white — who threw themselves at the star through the years. The Berrys celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in 1998.

Mr. Berry only recently cut back on touring. He became notorious for flying in with only his guitar and a few other necessities. He would show up just before showtime in a limo, collect his fee and hit the stage with the latest admiring "pickup band" of unpredictable quality hired locally by his promoter.

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, at the time relative unknowns, were among those glad to back their hero — whether or not he played in tune or in the expected key.

"All Chuck's children are out there playing his licks," disciple Bob Seger sang in tribute on his 1977 hit, "Rock 'n' Roll Never Forgets."

It is one more marker of Chuck Berry's enormous legacy, of course, that to this day, any no-name garage band can set the smallest crowd to dancing by launching into "Johnny B. Goode," "Roll Over Beethoven" or any of a dozen other Berry originals.

That far-reaching legacy, not the master's appreciation of it, is what matters.

Roll over, Beethoven, and dig these rhythm and blues.

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