Sometimes, it is urgent to remember the obvious. For example, Chuck Berry (1926-2017) is the cornerstone of guitar rock. His metallic and expressive sound is, for example, in the work of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, who recorded many of his compositions. Beyond the music, there is his contribution to the founding myths. His lyrics talk about speed and movement, geography and the night, frustrations and the urgency of desire. He placed rock and roll before the mirror and outlined the arrogant character of that revolution, the ardor of his followers and even the archetype of the rocker of humble origins, in that cycle of songs that he started from. Johnny B. Goode. All narrated with clear diction and unstoppable momentum.
Then there is the B side of the character. Super aware of his powers but, is, He recorded almost his entire discography for a label, Chess Records, that stole from him and mistreated him: there is no artist who has so many ugly covers on his original LPs. It is true that he did not need a brake on his wheels: he sabotaged himself with chaotic concerts, frequently accompanied by groups he did not know, with whom he refused to rehearse. Besides, he had an unleashed libido: if the Moonglows sang to the Ten commandments of love, he recorded the Thirteen questions method, a record to seduce.
It is published Chuck Berry. The definitive biography (Neo Person), by RJ Smith, which clears up some enigmas. Born in St. Louis, Chuck grew up in a middle-class environment, which did not prevent him from suffering the absurd slaps of racial segregation. A voracious listener, he soaked up jazz, blues, boogie woogie, country and what passed for Latin music there. His father was very religious and viciously punished any deviation from the rules; The boy rebelled and in 1944 he was already locked up in a reform school. There he would take the opportunity to study, just as in subsequent prison stays.
Chuck boasted of being a handyman, capable of fixing any device. Perhaps that explains his attitude toward music: he functioned more like a craftsman than an artist. He copied himself and delighted in insulting other instrumentalists, to show his clumsiness and demonstrate that only he mastered his tricks: in the film Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll we see him arguing with Keith Richards about the correct way to play Carol.
He was inflexible: if the contract required him to play 45 or 60 minutes, that’s what he did; If they asked for an encore, that concession was charged separately (in advance and in cash, as he always demanded). As a businessman, he was short-termist. He wasn’t impressed by celebrities. He humiliated admirers such as the Steve Miller Band, the Sir Douglas Quintet or the stellar British groups that wanted to record with him. He did not give a kind word to the Beatles, who facilitated his commercial resurrection in the sixties.
Chuck was tall, handsome and charismatic. He had an obsession with white women and, technophile things, he liked to document his sexual encounters. There were no social networks then but those photos, those videos (not always consensual) ended up circulating. As RJ Smith’s book explains, they hit him where it hurt most: he had to pay numerous compensations.