KENNEDY AIRPORT, NEW YORK -- Just let me hear some of that rock 'n' roll music

Any old way you choose it

It's got a back beat you can't lose it

Any old time you use it

It's gotta be rock-roll music

If you wanna dance with me

Chuck Berry is between flights, between his home town of St. Louis and Barcelona, where he will rock, roll and duck-walk for a single night and then fly home. It's good money, he says, and Chuck Berry will only work for good money, paid in advance, often in cash. You don't try to establish a line of credit with Chuck Berry.

Yet credit is the one thing rock 'n' rollers love to shower on him.

"If you tried to give rock 'n' roll another name, you might call it 'Chuck Berry,' " John Lennon once said. And certainly all the music's elements are there in the immediately recognizable sound of Berry's work -- the driving guitar, the sly vocal touches, the boisterous rhythms, the vernacular paeans to adolescence, the back beat (you can't lose it).

Berry could have quit after creating the howling guitar riff that kicks off "Johnny B. Goode" and he'd still be immortal. It's a classic building block, the A in the alphabet of rock 'n' roll. Most musicians don't match that achievement in a lifetime, but that guitar "just like a ringin' bell" was just a piece of Berry's work. He's a founding father, the first important rocker to write, play and sing his own songs. At his peak, between "Maybellene" in 1955 and "Back in the USA" in 1959, Berry contributed "No Money Down," "Roll Over Beethoven," "Too Much Monkey Business," "Brown Eyed Handsome Man," "Let It Rock," "School Days," "Little Queenie," "Memphis," "Reelin' and Rockin', "Rock 'n' Roll Music," "Sweet Little Sixteen," "Johnny B. Goode," "Carol" and "Almost Grown," not to mention the seasonal favorite "Run Rudolph Run."


These songs, full of humor, pathos and insight and fueled by a big guitar-driven beat, deeply touched rock's emerging constituency of postwar teen-agers. The tastes and aspirations of American youth were changing drastically, but up to then, there had been little popular art to reflect them. And suddenly here was someone writing about things they could identify with -- cars, schools, romance, growing up and, perhaps most important, the new music itself -- giving them a voice, an identity and new images of America.

"We rock, therefore we are."

High and low, they remember Chuck Berry. In the Kennedy Airport lounge, another frequent flyer, a man in his mid-thirties, steps up to Berry, sticks out his hand and says, "I'm very proud to meet you. You are the greatest."

He was never the transcendent idol Elvis Presley was -- that just wasn't possible for a black man in the '50s -- and he didn't have his first No. 1 hit until 1972 with the bawdy "My Ding-a-Ling." But Berry's simple rock 'n' roll songs became resonant standards for future generations of rockers (in more than 500 cover versions, including 16 by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones). Sales never reflected Berry's influence, but his acknowledged progeny did, from the Fab Four (John and Paul met and became fast friends when one noticed an album under the other's arm and said, "Oh, are you into Chuck Berry too?"), the Stones, the Kinks and Bob Dylan to second-generation fans like Bruce Springsteen and Robert Cray.

But don't call Berry the king of rock 'n' roll to his face. Like all of the praise directed at him over the years, it doesn't mean anything.

"What the heck is a king?" he says. "I'm a cog in the wheel. My portion might have been greater than some other guy's, but some other guy's, I'm sure, was greater than mine in some avenues.

"It's not me to toot my horn," he adds. "The minute you toot your horn, it seems like society will try and disconnect your battery. And if you do not toot your horn, they'll try their darnedest to give you a horn to toot, or say that you should have a horn.

"It's them that creates the demand, so let them toot the horn."

About 3 billion miles above his head, the spacecraft Voyager 1 is transporting a small golden disc of world sounds and the work of many great classical composers. On that disc is "Johnny B. Goode."

Tooting Berry's horn is exactly what director Taylor Hackford and Rolling Stone Keith Richards do in "Chuck Berry Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll," the rockumentary that opens today at the Embassy Circle. It mixes performance footage from Berry's 60th birthday celebration concert last year at the Fox Theater in St. Louis with interviews with Berry and some of the artists he influenced -- among them Richards (who put together an all-star backing band for the show), Eric Clapton and Bruce Springsteen.

At the same time, "Chuck Berry: The Autobiography" has just been published by Harmony Books. Written (quite noticeably) without a ghostwriter, the book represents seven years' worth of Berry licks on a word processor. It details his family background, the origins of his music, the early daze of rock 'n' roll, his three prison sentences (for armed robbery in 1944, violation of the Mann Act in 1962 and income tax evasion in 1979), as well as his numerous affairs with other women during his 40-year marriage to Themetta Berry, mother of his four children.

Berry's been called "the poet laureate of rock 'n' roll," and his writing, like his speech, is decidedly colorful and idiosyncratic. "I decided to let it go out as it is," he says in the book, "raw in form, rare in feat, but real in fact. No ghost but no guilt or gimmicks, just me."

The book is Berry's setting straight of the record, and while his pride and sensitivity are apparent, there is no bragging and little overt bitterness. Between the book and the film, he says with a smile, it must be time to remind the world "that I'm still alive." The two projects "started in time to culminate at the same time, which makes it good in terms of commerce" -- a very important term to Chuck Berry, who tends to measure his achievements in terms of money, not art.

Still, he says, "I didn't know what I was getting into. I'd written songs, and a book is many, many songs in continuity. That's why it took seven years."

He kept at it, though, because "I really wanted to say something." Since the early '60s, Berry has had a reputation as an obsessively private person bitter over past injustices at the hands of a racist society, promoters and record executives, and especially the press. He devotes a whole chapter to his wariness of reporters and their tendency to sensationalize. "I think my interviews were much better than what some of the writers wrote," he says. "I just wanted the truth out."

It takes a while, but 50 pages or so into his tale, you'll feel Chuck Berry is talking right at you, taking you along on a rambunctious ride through the American psyche. You'll come away with a picture of a bright, complicated man who seems as surprised as anyone that he's a Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Famer (he was the first inductee) or a permanent part of America's cultural consciousness. Though he did have one early clue he might be around a while.

The man from the Gale Agency, Berry's first booker, told him that 'Maybellene' would keep him working for about three years. If that were so, he recalls thinking, "then by the time I got a second song a year later, that meant it was going to be another three years. Well, I could see that if he was right, this might go into a career."

It certainly has. Again and again, Berry has toured the world with his rock 'n' roll liturgy, playing the same hits to ever-changing audiences. It's old news that he travels alone, just a man and his guitar, and performs with pickup bands and without any rehearsal beyond the admonition -- usually given just before he steps on stage -- to "watch my left foot."

He's been doing this for two decades, rocking for four. He'll turn 61 a week from Sunday but insists he's nowhere near to embodying one of his lesser known songs, "Too Pooped to Pop." And playing the same old tunes, he says, is all in a day's work.

"I'm putting out the same thing -- which as far as freshness from my viewpoint is 30 years stale -- but I'm wearing today's clothes. I am performing today to today's people," he says. "I don't know why they ask for the same songs, or why they want to see the same duck walk. How many times can you see it? Maybe they just want to see if the old man can do it."

At six feet and 180 pounds, he's still the wiry, rakishly handsome man of his early publicity stills. Perhaps, it is suggested, he's been drinking from the same soda fountain of youth that serves Dick Clark. Their audiences get older, but they don't seem to age themselves.

" 'Unfair! Unfair!' I shout," shouts Berry. "Kill the umpire! Reality's reality -- I'm not a second younger than I would have been if I was real older looking. That's a scientific fact but people seem to forget science.

"How do you do that? People turn no-hand flips and if they do that all their life, they can do it at 70. What you do a lot of, your body's tuned into."

Still, it's hard to envision Berry duck-walking toward 70 ("I'm almost a great-grandfather," he points out. "My grandchild is 13.") "I wonder when I'm going to go down and not be able to come up and realize that I shouldn't have gone down."

If he does, then Chuck Berry will be forever frozen in that duck walk, crouched on his heels with his bright red Gibson in front, waddling toward eternity and a seat in a reelin' and rockin' chair.

Charles Edward Anderson Berry was born in St. Louis in 1926, one of six children of Martha and Henry Berry. His father was a carpenter who also preached a little gospel, and he grew up in a stable family in a modest but comfortable black working-class neighborhood. The house was full of song -- three sisters sang gospel -- and the young Chuck Berry listened to all kinds of music, including country. His initial passions were the swinging big bands of Basie, Ellington and Goodman, the jump bands of Louis Jordan and Buddy Johnson, pop singers like Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Tony Bennett and bluesmen like Muddy Waters and T-Bone Walker.

In his teens, Berry was given a guitar and soon started playing at parties, but the career he didn't know awaited him was derailed in 1944 by three years in reform school for armed robbery. Released, he moved back home, working for his father and at an automobile plant, studying to be a hairdresser and cosmetologist. But Berry also started playing again, joining pianist Johnnie Johnson's group and eventually becoming its leader. They became the weekend house band at the Cosmopolitan Club in East St. Louis, competing with the likes of Ike Turner, Little Milton and Albert King.

In October 1948, Chuck Berry and Themetta Suggs were wed. By 1954, with two children, Berry knew his only real shot at success was a recording contract. At Muddy Waters' suggestion, he contacted Leonard Chess in Chicago. Chess, who would also record Bo Diddley at about the same time, auditioned Berry and sent him home to write some songs -- something that had never occurred to him until then.

But in the week between the audition and his first recording session on May 1, 1955, he came up with "Maybellene," "Wee Wee Hours," "You Can't Catch Me" and "Thirty Days." The first two were released as a single, and had "Wee Wee Hours" taken off (as Berry hoped), it might have cast him as a blues singer. Instead, it was "Maybellene" that "motorvated" over the hill of singles.

Many deejays assumed at first that Berry was white. "Maybellene" had a country feel to it (Jimmy Witherspoon said, "If he was white he'd be the top country star"), and Berry's precise diction and lack of idiomatic blues inflections helped him become the first black artist to sell more to whites than to blacks.

The song's success opened up a new world to Berry (though early on, some club owners were surprised when a black man showed up to capitalize on "Maybellene"). "My first job at Gleason's Bar in Cleveland was $800 a week, when I was making $92 a week with overtime at the automobile plant," he recalls. "And my carpentry work was only about $60 a week. So naturally I'm going to change over."

His big jump included a crossover of audiences, as well. As Berry recalls, "Wee Wee Hours" was a hit on the rhythm and blues charts, "but rhythm and blues is one-tenth of the market, so to speak ... 'Maybellene' was a hit in the other nine-tenths -- mostly Caucasian -- part of the market, so naturally it's going to take priority over the hit in the one-tenth.

"I was 31," he says, "and to sell in volume, I knew about that kind of commerce. I wasn't going to stay around the neighborhood ... I'd rather give everybody in the country a little taste, 'cause that's far more in return than selling out in the neighborhood."

This all-business demeanor, as well as his insistence that he has no affection for particular tunes, has not always endeared Berry to rock fans. But he learned some hard financial lessons early on, from "managers" and bookers who forwarded little of his earnings, and from dubious royalty practices at his record company. It was only last year that Berry regained the sole copyright to "Maybellene." When the song came out, deejay Alan Freed and someone named Russ Fratto were listed as co-composers, though Berry had met neither. This was a common practice in the early days of rock 'n' roll and Freed's intervention may well have helped "Maybellene" become one of the first national rock hits -- but it was also a cold business initiation.

"It was beyond my control," Berry says, pointing out that the initial copyright term was 28 years. "You can sue and it may take you 29 years to bring it through." Disillusioned, Chuck Berry waited.

Berry's most creative and successful years were between 1955 and 1959, when he wrote and recorded the songs that still resonate today (nine of which were in the Top 40). They were witty ("No Money Down" was a riotous catalogue of promises made in the car yards). They celebrated self ("Johnny B. Goode") and the music ("Sweet Little Sixteen," "Roll Over Beethoven"). And they spoke to the restlessness of a new generation ("School Days" and "Almost Grown"). The kids didn't seem to mind that Berry was already in his early thirties or that his motivation for writing teen songs was strictly commercial.

"I definitely catered to the teen-agers," he says, "but also some to the adults. I didn't leave out the adults, or the swing, the thing that brought me up. I tried to do a couple of ballads, Nat Cole was my idol." But they never did particularly well.

By 1955, Berry was headlining at most of the rock 'n' roll caravans he was on. Which is where the duck walked back into his life, so to speak.

As a child, he had once scooted under a kitchen table to retrieve a ball with full-bended knees and back and head vertical. That brought laughs and became a family ritual, but Berry hadn't done it since childhood when he walked out on the stage at the Brooklyn Paramount in 1956.

"Why I thought of it {then} I have no idea. I had nothing else to do during the instrumental part of the song. I did it and here comes the applause. Well, I knew to coin anything that was that entertaining, so I kept it up."

The songs featured Berry's folk-poetry -- vernacular lyrics with their own wild rhyme. Berry loves wordplay, which he traces back to his father's reading him poems and stories as a child. "I owe it all to him and the process that he invoked in the family, because we all said poems. That desire came from saying the blessing at the table, where every one said a verse ... Coining these things has been a real boost to my longevity."

As for the famous Berry beat, "here's another one of those maxims: Nothing's new under the sun. It had to come from somewhere." In the film, Berry traces it to Charlie Christian, Carl Hogan, T-Bone Walker and Elmore James.

He traces his showmanship and ribald spirit to jump giant Louis Jordan, a master of the novelty song and the double-entendre. Reminded of Jordan's influence, he begins to hum: " 'This chick's too young to fry ...' "

Which brings us to the incident that derailed his career. In 1959, Berry picked up a Spanish-speaking Apache girl while touring in Mexico, then took her back to work as a hat check girl at Berry Park, the ambitious family recreational park Berry built near St. Louis ("I wanted it to be like Disneyland or Six Flags," he says in the film, "but it turned out to be One Flag").

Unfortunately, the girl was earning extra money as a prostitute, and after Berry fired her, she went to the police and told them she was only 14. Berry's first arrest and reform school term had gone unnoticed, but now he was a famous rock 'n' roller and there was a blaze of publicity when he was charged under the Mann Act for transporting a minor across state lines for immoral purposes.

Berry's first conviction was thrown out (because of the judge's blatant racism); the second trial dragged on for almost two years before he was sentenced to three years in prison and a $10,000 fine. When he came out in 1964 the second generation of rockers -- the Beatles and the Rolling Stones among them -- had taken over.

This jail term, many believe, made him a bitter man and reinforced his reputation as a cash-on-the-line act who worked for his contracted time and never did encores. But Berry says he's not bothered by what people say. "People say I changed when I came out of jail. I have no jurisdiction over their thoughts, and to know that I wasn't is good enough for me."

And, Berry notes, "I had been changed during the time I was in there. You see, with me once I get caught, once I'm found out, the change is right there. Of course, the officials, the authorities don't know it so I have to serve my time ...

"When I went to Algoa {Intermediate Reformatory, in 1944}, I went in sanctified. I was ready then for society. When I went in the medical center {in 1962}, I was ready before I went to court. I'm through with it, no dog bites me twice. The IRS? No more problems with taxes, whatever the law is." Berry's last 100-day term in 1979 allowed him to get started on the autobiography he'd been talking about since the late '60s. (He had studied music and accounting in his previous incarceration.)

Berry's Mann Act conviction was merely the last blow to the founding class of rock 'n' roll. Buddy Holly was dead, Elvis had gone into the Army, Little Richard had given up rock for religion and Jerry Lee Lewis had been ostracized for marrying his young cousin. There was no establishment conspiracy, Berry says, "but society had the chance to say 'See, I told you so.'

"But look at all the good that came in there for years and with all the other artists who were taking our places," he continues. "There were five who were predominant at one time going down the drain but you could have found those five hassles in swing, in jazz, even in spirituals."

Yet even though the British bands pointed to Berry as an inspiration, he was not tuned in to them. "I came out and I didn't know the Beatles. Somebody asked me what I thought about 'Yesterday' by the Beatles and I asked 'Who's the Beatles?' ... It's like being away overseas in the war and coming back and having to get orientated. That transition took a little time."

Berry had written some fine songs in jail -- "Nadine," "Tulane," "The Promised Land" and the appropriately titled "No Particular Place to Go" -- but much of his later music lacks the conviction, drive and exuberance of his '50s work. Where his lyrics used to have spontaneity, now they seemed rote. Little wonder that fans opted for the resonant oldies and that's what Chuck Berry has been serving up for much of the last 25 years. His last Top 40 hit was 15 years ago, his last album eight years ago.

"That's mainly my fault because my other enterprises have become so demanding and lucrative, namely real estate," he says. "I haven't sought or asked for a record contract, nor has anyone really asked."

MCA will release a sound track from "Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll" as well as reissue the classic recordings that have been in corporate purgatory since Chess Records was sold back in 1975. And, Berry says, he has 14 newly penned songs for a future MCA album.

Writing rock 'n' roll songs at 60 is a bit of challenge, he admits. "It's difficult in a sense. I do not want to, and should not, write the same. It's been 30 years since I've written the songs that are now hits. I'm much more mature and I have much more sense and I can't get in that frame of mind. I have to write along with the times.

"Some of these new songs have great teachings and I want to reach the kids because it's the young people I want to teach. I can't use big words, and I can't use strings, so I must do it in rock and get the lyrics out about some of the habits that I made mistakes with."

Not that Chuck Berry expects much more trouble down the line (though he's worried about 1994 because, he writes in the book, "every fifteen years, it seems I make a big mistake"). He goes about his business, unbothered and unflattered by the praise of those who want him to mean more than he wants to. In a way, he's been doing an encore for 30 years, a survivor in a business that has few survivors. Right now he's got a plane to catch, and work to do.

"Everybody was jumping on the bandwagon because there were sparks here and there of the new thing," he recalls of the early days. "When I started out it wasn't a big change, it was a big spark. It was still swing music that was in everybody's heart, including mine, but as the sparks began to develop, we saw a changing trend.

"Now it's even got a name in the dictionary -- rock 'n' roll."