Chuck Berry: The Double Helix Of Rock & Roll


This is an abridged version of an essay published in Flyboy 2: The Greg Tate Reader, which was adapted from a talk delivered at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2012.

The poet Amiri Baraka liked to ask this relevant rhetorical question: If Elvis Presley is king, who is James Brown—God?

In this same vein, Little Richard once held the Grammys hostage by declaring himself the Architect of Rock & Roll.

Now while I do believe the Godfather of Soul to have been an African deity on loan to the world, I must confess to finding Brother Penniman’s statement arguably askew. Because while Brer King Richard is certainly the Great Emancipator of androgyny, abstract expressionism, and glam in postwar American music—as well as the man who begat the ecstasy of agony one hears in James Brown, Otis Redding, Gene Simmons, and Ziggy Stardust—the Real Architect of Rock & Roll, the Master Builder, as it were, of this house we all currently inhabit could be none other than Mr. Charles Edward Anderson Berry.

Every form of music needs a daring and original framer of its constitution and its constituent parts—primarily so that all those who follow that intrepid strict constructionist soul might have a strong structural reference to aspire to. And a lyrical key to the gateway—a Rosetta Stone, as it were, to translate the mysteries of the Master’s tongue into a language any fool could clearly understand and repeat to others.

Such a person generally provides a formal and symbolic transparency to his chosen music. Kind of like that of life science’s double-helix, an iconic figure who binds together the thing’s major figures and its minor grooves into an illustrative and spiraling totem. The kind of thing many people will come to admire from miles around. Come hear you play that guitar till the sun comes down.

Fletcher Henderson’s big band was not truly swinging until Louis Armstrong spent a year and a half in the orchestral mix sonically seducing his fellows into the sweetbread of syncopated rhythm. Dizzy Gillespie tells us that while he, Thelonious Monk, and Mary Lou Williams had worked out the complex and highfalutin theory of bebop years before they met Charlie Parker, it wasn’t until they heard Bird that they knew how their music was supposed to sound—how all those higher intervals were supposed to flow together with love and affection, be kept moving strong and in the right direction.

Every spanking new musical twist needs its own Johnny Appleseed. The music we call rock & roll was bequeathed Mr. Johnny B. Goode himself, Chuck Berry. He is the iconic template and the role model of every cocky, geeky, and charming guy with a radical guitar style we’ve seen since.

The bell-ringing guitar intro to “Johnny B. Goode” is as heraldic, annunciatory and emancipatory an invitation in American music as those new beginnings heard on Louis Armstrong’s “Weather Bird,” John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” and Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile.” All of which let all other musicians know that there was a new sheriff in town. All are musical exemplars of what us folk in critical theory land like to call an epistemic break—hell, an epistemic breakdown, really.

Some hella krunk nouveau knowledge that interrupts, disrupts, and transforms our sense of life’s possibilities and the kind of folk we believe to be forces for apocalyptic change in the world too.

From this end of history’s telescope it might seem inevitable that the cat known to the world as Chuck Berry would have become the true Crown Prince of All Rockers. Yet as we know from his joyride of an autobiography, one clearly written in his own quite literate hand, Chuck Berry could also have become a master carpenter and jack of all building trades like his hardworking dad, Henry William Berry Sr., or a car thief, reform school recidivist, professional women’s hairdresser, photographer, stenographer, or a boxer.

Mr. Berry is also the beloved son of Martha Banks Berry, a college-educated woman who taught high school English for decades — a mother from whom we surmise came Berry’s lyrical command and romance of the language. Had the guitar not become a teenage obsession Mr. Chuck Berry might have spun his wordsmith skills into a literary career, perhaps one not unlike two other dark and compositionally talented sons of the Corn Belt addicted to writing and wanderlust: Joplin, Missouri’s James Langston Hughes and Oklahoma City’s Ralph Waldo Ellison.

Mr. Chuck Berry fell to earth on October 18, 1926. This astrologically marks him as a Libra, and an air sign. Astrologers tell us that October 18 people are dynamic, spirited, energetic self-starter types who refuse to sugarcoat their opinions to please others and are ambitious to the point of seeming aggressive. October 18 people do not like playing in the background but tend to have great analytical intelligence and often do very well as engineers, architects, designers, city planners, teachers, and musicians. People born on this date, we’re also told, are extremely budget minded and have the patience to save for big-ticket items—like fleets of multicolored Cadillacs and their own theme parks. (Many of you have been to Graceland but who has been to Berry Park?)

The year in which Mr. Berry joined the human race—the year of our lawd childe 1926—turns out to have provided a ripe and bountiful bevy of iconoclasts, innovators, prophets, and anarchists of many stripes.

Musically, 1926 delivered unto the world Miles Davis, Morton Feldman, Big Mama Thornton, Joan Sutherland, Ray Brown, John Coltrane, Iannis Xenakis, David Tudor, Tony Bennett, and Oscar Brown Jr. To other areas of human endeavor, 1926 was kind enough to provide Fidel Castro, Jerry Lewis, Hugh Hefner, Marilyn Monroe, Steve Reeves, Neal Cassady, Harper Lee, the master of grindhouse cinema Roger Corman, Green Lantern illustrator Gil Kane, Beat-poet laureate Allen Ginsberg, Mel Brooks, Robert Bly of Iron John fame, and France’s own Michel Foucault. Nineteen-twenty-six was clearly a spectacular year for birthing folk hell bent on doing things My Way and The Highway. Obviously Berry fits that annus mirabilis of a mix like a mojo hand in a blacklaced love glove.

History also gave Berry’s brinksmanship spirit a shove by dropping his essence down in the Show Me State of Missouri. From a Black perspective, Missouri matters for several reasons—not least because for 143 years, from 1702 to 1865, Missouri was a state where the institution of slavery was legal. In honor of Mr. Berry’s well-known mathematical acumen I will further report that according to the 1820 census, ten thousand captive African persons lived in Missouri and constituted one-fifth of the state’s population. According to a state audit of 1860 the estimated base commodity value of all the enslaved Africans then in Missouri would in today’s terms amount to $1,142,838,790. This number of course merely reflects the value priced on their human stock and not the wealth their labor continues to produce through compound interest. (A more developed conversation about the question of reparations in Missouri will have to await a later day.)

Missouri is notably where, in 1847, an enslaved man named Dred Scott and his wife Harriet first sued for their freedom in what ten years later became the infamous Dred Scott Decision, wherein the U.S. Supreme Court determined that people of African descent brought into the States under slavery were not to be considered U.S. citizens and neither were their descendants. It is said that this decision helped to hasten the onset of the Civil War, though Dred Scott himself died in 1858, a little more than a year after finally receiving his freedom.

Among Mr. Berry’s regional ancestors are the first all-Black regiment of the Civil War, the Sixty-Second Regiment of United States Colored Troops, organized in Missouri in 1864. Members of this regiment were also the key founders of Lincoln University. One thousand and sixty-eight members of the Fifty-Sixth U.S. Colored Infantry are buried in Missouri. A prominent white abolitionist publisher, Elijah Parish Lovejoy, died defending his printing press from racist attackers. One of Lovejoy’s young employees was an escapee from slavery named William Wells Brown, who became one of the first published African American novelists and playwrights. Brown’s 1853 first novel is titled Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States. It tells the story of a Black woman named Currer who is described as a mistress of Thomas Jefferson and whose daughter is the book’s nominal protagonist.

Laws of the time forbade the education of Black children and made it a fineable and jailable offense. But in 1835 an ingenious minister, the Rev. John Berry Meachum, established his Freedom School aboard two steamboats he built himself and anchored in free U.S. government–owned territory in the middle of the Mississippi River. One of the Freedom School teachers, Elizabeth Keckley, purchased her freedom in 1854 and later became First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln’s seamstress in Washington, DC. Ms. Keckley went on to write a book titled Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House about her experiences.

What the compelling, courageous, and ingenious sagas of Lovejoy, Meachum, Wells-Brown, and Keckley tell us is that long before Chuck Berry was a twinkle in his loving parents’ eyes, his (and Miles Davis’) regional ancestors in the St. Louis, Missouri, and Alton, Illinois areas, were courageously and creatively outwitting the slave system and defining the pursuit of American scrappiness on their own spirited, renegade, anti-racist terms.

St. Louis history with regards to twentieth-century kulcha before and after the rise of Chuck Berry should not be undersung either. The Texas-born Father of Ragtime, Scott Joplin, had great success during his time in the area, forming an opera company and composing his opera, A Guest of Honor. This work celebrated Booker T. Washington’s 1901 White House dinner with Teddy Roosevelt. This event had inspired Black folk and scandalized segregationists everywhere.

The self-anointed Father of the Blues, W. C. Handy, confessed that the sheet music he composed for his famous “St. Louis Blues” was based on melodies he had heard while walking the city’s streets. Like some of Chuck Berry’s compositions it freely combines elements from both the blues and from south-of-the-border musics of African descent. (In Handy’s case that music was the Congo-Angolan derived Argentinian tango and not the Afro-Cuban airs that would later compel the creation of Mr. Berry’s crossbred Afro-Latin glory “Havana Moon.”)

Josephine Baker, the woman who became variously known as the Bronze Goddess, the Black Pearl, and the Creole Goddess, was born, bred and cornfed in 1906 in the same town as Mr. Berry. Ms. Baker certainly set a great precedent for taking a world-class talent that had been honed on the St. Louis scene to international glory — not to mention fighting in the French resistance and actively supporting the civil rights movement.

The godmother of African and voodoo dance in America, Katherine Dunham, also spent much of her life in the area. About herself Dunham once said words that could readily be used to describe Mr. Berry’s impact: “I certainly feel my career was a great career because it inspired so many many people, literally hundreds of people to follow a new kind of life and to realize that they could make out and advance their own professional and private and social lives.” Dunham also said that while she once hoped the words on her tombstone would read “She Tried,” she later realized they would have to read “She Did It.” Ditto Mr. Chuck Berry.

As previously mentioned, jazz’s own Prince of Darkness, Miles Davis, arrived in East St. Louis by stork circa 1926. Unlike Miles, though, Mr. Berry has maintained a tight and close connection to his spawning grounds. In this way he may have also been an inspiration for a young and Princely keeper of the Berry flame from Minnesota also not known to venture away from home for long.

Berry’s apprenticeship as a club performer in St. Louis found him outdrawing Ike and Tina Turner on a regular basis and sharing stages with the great Albert King. Guitar fans will note that pushing the six-string strangulation envelope seems to have gone viral in 1940s and ’50s St. Louis. True to his nature as a high-handed and sophisticated musical eclectic, Chuck Berry himself provides us with a list of key influences that could not be more diverse: Louis Jordan, Harry Belafonte, Nat King Cole, T-Bone Walker, Muddy Waters, and what he generically refers to as “hillbilly music.” No artist of any significance is reducible to a laundry list, however. Jorge Luis Borges tells us that the greatest artists tend to reinvent their influences as much as the other way around, and Chuck Berry is no exception.

Folk are often given to wonder just what Chuck Berry did to render his music so essential to the bloodstream of twentieth century (and now twenty-first century) popular music. It’s no easy thing to give an answer in plain English, nor to separate the many moving parts from the generous and loving whole. Sensibility tends to be an indivisible thing with the artists who endure—everything from shoes to work tools to Cadillacs seems to be of a piece. In the film Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll, you get the sense that director Taylor Hackford, Keith Richards, and Eric Clapton all seem confused as to whether Berry knows how great his impact has been. And these are perfectly legitimate concerns for guys whose young repressed British lives Berry changed forever. This concern may be a tad off the mark though for the guy whose greatest creation was not his musical oeuvre but Chuck Berry a man in full—the dude himself. (Not to get all anthropomorphic and whatnot but like, dig: If you were the Sun how much time would you spend thinking about the light you cast on the Moon? Just sayin’ . . . )

Befitting his architectonic mind-set, that of a man as comfortable in the world of blueprints and structural designs as on stage, Berry’s most influential songs repeatedly do something that only James Brown’s accomplish: embed and encode the thermonuclear energy of rocking and rolling into highly detailed song forms. This is simply not true of a lot of music we all know and love. If you learn to “correctly” sing and play a Stevie Wonder song there is no guarantee that you too will sound Wonderful. Learning “Voodoo Chile” will not transform you into a Hoodoo Man or help you acquire a Foxy Lady. And unless you’re Nina Simone, figuring out how to play and sing George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun” is not guaranteed to brighten anyone else’s day to a supernova level of luminosity.

If, on the other hand, you learn any James Brown or Chuck Berry song note for note, you will find yourself having become funky enough to funk up a room, and your roommates may indeed find themselves rocking and rolling till the break of dawn. Learn to play the bass line to “Cold Sweat” and you will be grooving. Learn to play “Johnny B. Goode” as originally executed and you will thereafter and forevermore be a rocker.

Generous souls that they are, Brown and Berry already did all the heavy conceptual lifting for us. They already took everything away from the song that was not elegantly funky or just plain rocking those socks off. Michelangelo said, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” This is how Papa got a brand new bag and Beethoven got rolled in his sarcophagus.

Berry’s greatest innovation was the entrepreneurially driven rhythmic logic that led him to blend the 4/4 of boogie woogie with the 2/4 of hoedown hillbilly music while elocuting his lyrics in a timbre designed to attract (and then confuse) the country and western crowds who showed up to his dances on his side of the tracks during the brutally slow wane of Jim Crow, née American apartheid. (On the basis of “Maybellene” Berry found himself booked by country & western promoters and then told there was no way in hell he’d be allowed to perform when they saw his face at the door.) Arguably, the classic 2/4 beat we know as the quintessential engine of rock & roll became the genre’s percussive signature because it rides so comfortably beneath Berry’s indelible and immortal songs on the subject. Those songs remain among the most beautiful products ever conceived in the taboo-defying and transgression-embracing alchemist’s lab known as American race mixing.
Let’s take a moment and acknowledge how diabolically clever it was of Berry to adapt his music to the one beat that already made truckloads of Midwestern and Southern-based white Americans feel at home in their own bodies. How brilliant and commercially correct Berry’s instincts were to construct songs that grafted his licks, riffs, and sentiments on top of the rhythmically white familiar. (By the same token this meant some of Berry’s best music would not find universal appeal among African Americans who preferred variations on 4/4 to move and groove to.)

There is no part of a classic James Brown song that is not funky from stem to stern. This is why hip-hop producers will sometimes only sample James shouting “One!” to make a beat meatier. In the same vein, if your intention is to become a rock & roll singer, songwriter, guitarist, or performer, the recorded legacy of Chuck Berry, audio and visual, requires only astute mimicry to transfer the feeling of the thing into your own body and transfer that feeling to others. This is why there are so many gosh-darn rock bands in the world and why once upon a time when young people of Negro origin still played instruments there were funk bands all across this great land. Because Chuck Berry, like James Brown, is in that rare category of artists I like to call the Body Snatchers. Artists with not only the power to possess your soul with their musicality but to dispossess one of all manner of zombie-stiff anxieties, neuroses, and inhibitions.

Now over in hip-hop, there’s a thing we call “lyric lovers’ rap”. Meaning rap for those fans of the culture who love the wit of the word slinging as much as they love those phawnky beats. You want to talk about florid sexual braggadocio and machine-driven rhetorical erotica? The Chuck Berry of “Maybellene” rivals any young buck in today’s world of krunk:

As I was motorvatin’ over the hill
I saw Maybellene in a Coupe de Ville
A Cadillac a-rollin’ on the open road
Nothin’ will outrun my v8 ford
The Cadillac doin’ ’bout ninety-five
She’s bumper to bumper rollin’ side by side

Want to talk about antiauthoritarian militancy in rhyme? Chuck B. occasionally sounds like the prototype for Public Enemy’s Chuck D, especially in these lines from “Too Much Monkey Business”:

Been to Yokohama—fightin’ in the war
Army bunk—Army chow—Army clothes—Army car, Nah!
Too much monkey business—A—Too-too much

Bob Dylan has said that after he heard Chuck Berry he knew he’d never have a day job. Dylan paid his ultimate homage to the King of Rock when he borrowed the cadence of “Too Much Monkey Business” to deliver “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” “You know poetry is my blood flow,” Chuck Berry reminds us in Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll.

What was also in Chuck Berry’s blood flow was free love at a time when his fellow darker brethren were being rabidly hung, strung, drawn, and quartered under mere suspicion of being too free with their love anywhere near women of the Caucasian persuasion. As he relates in his memoir magnifique, Berry spent nearly four years of his life between trials and incarceration for the alleged crime of sex with white women. Berry is often described as one of the first major crossover artists in American popular music—but we should never forget that what he was crossing over from was a world where Black people and pink-skinned people had to be roped off into segregated sections to prevent physical contact during his concerts. Through no fault of his own other than being a Brown-Eyed Handsome Man, Berry was often the beneficiary of uninvited smooches by non-Black female members of his patrons. More than once, Mr. Berry had to be escorted to safety while pitchfork-and-torch-bearing Frankenstein-movie-style mobs were forming and frothing to exact a very high price for Mr. Berry’s charismatic presence. In his autobiography, Berry recounts one such event occurring on a Meridian, Mississippi, campus where he heard one young Southern cracker-gentleman tell another, “That nigger asked my sister for a date.” Another fellow frat boy whipped out a switchblade to underscore his disgust at this fantasy. This vignette exemplifies what Berry describes as “Southern Hospitaboo,” a conundrum Berry says puzzled his own father for a lifetime: “Why is it so,” pondered Berry Sr., “that black hands could knead the dough of the bread that white tongues savored yet blacks could not be favored to feast at white tables?” For his part, Chuck Berry describes feasting and savoring from many white tables over the years in his memoir—especially those set by various Southern belles.

We need also add that the lifelong polyamorous Mr. Berry was, as he reveals in his self-penned book, also a pioneer in the realm of open marriage: His beloved and most devoted wife of six decades, Themetta “Toddy” Berry would rank for many an American man (and woman) as a head-of-the-line candidate for rock & roll sainthood.

Nobel Prize–winning author Toni Morrison points out that one of the truly amazing things about the Black experience in America is that bestial treatment did not produce a bestial people. The history, generosity, and charismatic capacity of African American music can be readily viewed as a triumph of the civilizing strains of our music over the savagery perpetually visited upon our communities. Tony Bennett reminds us that any civilization is judged by what it gives to the rest of the world. America, he says, can say it gave Louis Armstrong to the world, a statement to which I’d say, Louis, yes, but we need also be as proud that we gave ’em Chuck Berry too. Matter of fact, thanks to Carl Sagan embedding “Johnny B. Goode” in the cosmic archives of earthly civilization on Voyager 1, we can also say America gave Chuck Berry to the universe. Roll over my brother Beethoven, tell Lord Sun Ra the news.