Want more Chuck Berry? Dive into the CREEM archives, here.
Few rock biographies rise to the level of their subject. In Chuck Berry: An American Life, author RJ Smith offers a detailed study of the rock ‘n’ roll pioneer; portraying a shrewd, implacable trickster who wrote an ingenious catalog. At crucial points, Smith's lively critical voice and passionate detail enliven Berry's songs, which have inimitable stature. But this surpassing history offers persistent and damning contradictions.
Born on October 18, 1926 and named after the Republican senator Charles H. Sumner, an abolitionist who argued a pioneering 1845 case against Boston school segregation, Charles Berry earned his high school nickname “Ol’ Crazy Chaws Berry” growing up in “the Ville,” the segregated neighborhood of East St. Louis. Early on, Berry became obsessed with two “magic boxes,” the family piano that his sister played, and the Victrola, which blared foxtrots. Stealing a car with some buddies landed him in the Algoa reformatory school in 1944. A missionary named Mother Robinson, from the Kansas City music scene, helped spring Berry early, and encouraged his talent. In 1952, a high school friend named Tommy Stevens reconnected about playing some gigs at a club called Huff's, and from there, Berry joined the Jeter-Pillars orchestra.
By the mid-1950s, as Elvis erupted on the nation's stage, Berry played in a band led by Johnnie Johnson, a West Virginian pianist. Johnson quickly deferred to his guitarist once he saw the easy laughs Berry got from club crowds. In May of 1955, Berry drove up to Chess Records in Chicago to meet his idol, Muddy Waters, who had “cracked open [his] soul…” This led to an early demo called “Ida Mae,” based on an old white fiddle tune that Bob Wills had tracked, called “Ida Red.” The “Ida Mae” name didn’t work (“too rural,” Chess felt), so Berry recalled an old children’s book about a cow that fit the same rhythmic pulse. This became “Maybellene,” in 36 takes, later that same month.
Even at this first session, Berry went for the same echo effect he heard on Bo Diddley’s “I’m A Man” that “supersized his bluster,” and used the house bassist, Willie Dixon, to anchor the boom. “The biggest problem was outside the room: how to frame a number that blurred the lines between country and rhythm and blues, that was neither Black like an Ike Turner record nor white like a Hank Williams one,” Smith writes. “Was it a goof, a parody? Was it for Muddy Waters’s grown-up Black fans or for teenagers or… who?”