THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY By Chuck Berry Harmony Books. 346 pp. $17.95
IF ROCK 'N' ROLL has a patron saint, it is -- arguably -- not Elvis or Little Richard or Jerry Lee Lewis but Chuck Berry. While he may not have created rock 'n' roll with "Maybellene," his first recording in 1955, with it and the string of hits that followed, he introduced melodies and rhythms that became an essential part of the music. Moreover, Berry codified the genre, defining its subject matter: cars and the open road; boys and guitars; girls sought after, lost and, occasionally, won; the urge towards freedom from parents and other authority. Think of the songs -- "Too Much Monkey Business," "Nadine," "Roll Over Beethoven," "Memphis," "No Particular Place to Go," "Sweet Little Sixteen" and "Johnny B. Goode." There is something quintessentially American about them. All are rock 'n' roll standards, and one, "Johnny B. Goode," is somewhere in space, on a recorded sampler of Earth sounds and music that Voyager I carries on its journey through the solar system.
At age 61 Berry has been reeling and rocking in the music business for nearly 40 years. By his own count, he has recorded nearly 300 songs. Now he has written the story of his life. Titled simply (but with what turns out to be a typical combination of Berry humility and grandiosity) The Autobiography, it was, he announces in the preface, "entirely written, phrase by phrase, by yours truly."
Unlike other celebrity autobiographies, this one reads as if it was. It's impossible to imagine a writer for hire having managed to duplicate Berry's idiosyncratic voice, a voice that alternates between precise diction and made-up, often rhyming slang, between aggressiveness and coyness about sexual matters. The cumulative effect, felt long before the halfway point, is at once charming, irritating and maddening.
Like many another American autobiography (Benjamin Franklin's, for instance) this is the story of a young man who, by dint of luck, skill and hard work, rose from humble origins. "I was the first child in my family to own a Cadillac, the first to have a formal wedding, the first to fly to Europe, first to earn a half-million dollars . . .," Berry writes at one point.
THE SON of strict, hard-working religious parents (his father worked in a mill, did repairs for a real estate firm and sold vegetables during the Depression from his own truck), Berry grew up helping his father repair houses, stocking grocery store shelves and working as a USO disc jockey. After marrying, he worked days with his father. Nights he swept up in an auto body plant. Determined to save for his own house, he took on another job as a janitor because the apartment that came with the job was rent-free. Somehow, he found the time to subdivide another apartment in the building to earn extra money and to continue to play the music he had begun performing in his teens at neighborhood parties and school programs.
His local fame grew, and, during a trip to Chicago, a chance meeting with bluesman Muddy Waters led to a recording session at Leonard Chess' Chess Records. One of the songs Berry recorded during that 1955 session was "Maybellene" (he wanted to call it "Ida May," but Chess convinced him otherwise.) The rest is rock 'n' roll history.
In an age of rock stars who flaunt their real or imagined bisexuality, singers and musicians who die of drug overdoses and heavy metal rockers accused of devil worship, Berry manages to come across -- with the exception of an escapade or two -- as almost stultifyingly normal. He smokes but neither drinks nor takes drugs. He has been married about as long as he has been playing music professionally. His daughter appears with his band. Though he owns property in other areas of the country, he still lives in St. Louis, still considers it home.
But about those escapades. Lest all this sound as if Berry makes himself out the complete angel, consider that, looking back on his boyhood, he also writes, "I was the first in my family to try smoking, the first to play hooky from school, the first to venture away from home, and the first to go to jail."
All in all, Berry has served three jail terms, but the one that damaged his career the most was the sentence (nearly two years) for bringing an Apache Indian from Mexico to work in his St. Louis night club as a hat check girl. He writes that she had told him she was 21, but prosecutors said she was 14 and had been working as a prostitute. Berry was tried twice before he was convicted in 1961, and when he was released the momentum was gone from his career. English rock stars like the Rolling Stones and the Beatles had usurped the airwaves. From 1964 until 1972, he had only six songs on the charts.
THE BEST parts of the book are Berry's accounts of the rise to fame. While waiting for Chess to release "Maybellene," Berry played in St. Louis, worked for his father and studied to become a hairdresser. Once the song was released, he went from playing nightclubs three nights a week to touring throughout the country. His first time at the Paramount Theater in Brooklyn, playing before a crowd of 7,000 (the largest audience he and his band had faced), Berry writes, 'I'll never forget that when Jack pushed me out I broke into a sweat . . . Saved by the roar of ovation, the bitter fright in me was diluted with the wait of sweet applauding, but I didn't really know whether to start or wait until they stopped the clapping and screaming. Three weeks I stood there waiting as the thirty or forty seconds clickd by; then I struck out with 'Maybellene' and the roar of cheers rose again to over the volume of our delivery."
He's still capable of rousing an audience to that same pitch of excitement. If, at the end of The Autobiography, one feels one has learned more about Chuck Berry's gadgets, cars and extramarital affairs than one wanted to know, and less than one had hoped about the man and his music, the music still remains. And he's likely to be singing and playing for some time to come. As Berry himself puts it, reporting the results of a physical: "The physicians found all my engines functioning properly, especially the carburetor that was ticking slow and sturdy but strongly. I weighed in at 172 pounds, stood six feet, one-half inch with no dents or scratches, had a lot of miles, but a good grease job. As long as I could get a little petro now and then, I could plan on cruising in low gear for a good while yet."
David Nicholson is an assistant editor of Book World.