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Chuck Berry’s complicated path to becoming a rock legend

Chuck Berry was playing a concert in Paris once when the audience started to get out of hand. But instead of engaging the rowdy fans, security did nothing. Things went from bad to worse, and tear gas was fired into the venue. Everybody ran for the exits — everybody except one.

At first, Berry couldn’t run: He lay on the floor, rigid, face not moving, “as stiff as a board,” his tour manager recalled. But then Berry was on his feet, eyes glowing red, plugging in his guitar and cranking out “the most maniacal rock & roll riff you can imagine.” The fans were still rushing out, but when they heard those thunderous chords on the far side of the gas clouds, suddenly they were rushing back in. “It wasn’t dedication,” said the tour manager. “It was chaos.”

Actually, it was both. To some degree, all rock bios are about sex, drugs and rock-and-roll, yet the biggest takeaway from “Chuck Berry: An American Life” has to do with a fourth element: sheer force of personality. Berry, who died in 2017 at 90, didn’t invent rock single-handedly. “He didn’t do it alone and he didn’t do it on purpose,” writes RJ Smith, who has also written books on James Brown and photographer Robert Frank. But when you listen to his music, you wouldn’t be blamed if you thought that he could have.

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There are scores of candidates for first rock song and rock musician, but music evolves the way everything else does. Einstein isn’t all there is to relativity any more than Monet is the only impressionist; both built on the work of others and saw their work extended by others still. Drummer Earl Palmer says that, when it came to speed and power, Berry and Little Richard were tied: “I don’t know who played that way first.”

At the same time, in the middle of the 1950s, Berry was duking it out with Ike Turner for rock supremacy, with the latter sticking more to rhythm and blues as the former borrowed not only from that tradition but also from musicians as different as Harry Belafonte, Muddy Waters and Nat King Cole. If you’re wondering what the frenetic soul shaker could possibly borrow from Cole’s velvet-toned balladeering, it was diction. Reflecting on one of his biggest hits, a song that is as fast as it is clearly phrased, Berry said: “When I went into writing ‘Maybellene,’ I had a desire or intention to say the words real clear. Nat Cole taught me that. Nat Cole had a diction that was just superb.”

Put it all together, and the end product is rock-and-roll, a phrase that people started using to explain “what music they liked,” as Smith writes, and “then it expressed what in life they liked, and then it was them.”

Berry liked to compose with other musicians, throwing words and riffs out and moving slowly till a critical mass that had been long in the making seemed to arrive out of nowhere. Smith writes in much the same manner, taking a song such as “Nadine” from a sketchy beginning to its masterful completion, noting along the way how its composer used the English language “like a surgical tool,” as when he has Nadine’s suitor professing his love, not like “a Southern Democrat,” which might have struck White audiences as an offensive caricature, but like “a Southern diplomat” instead.

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Progress didn’t come easy to the rock pioneers, and Berry had it harder than most. A lot of his problems with other people came from the fact that he was a charismatic Black man doing well in a world where a lot of White men were just scraping by. Smith regularly steers the reader back to Berry’s never-ending harassment by authorities, pointing out, for example, that he often drove a Toyota Avalon around his hometown of St. Louis, because, in the singer’s words, “in a Toyota, the cops don’t stop you as much.”

Female fans threw themselves at him, many of them White — the word “blonde” occurs frequently in these accounts — and Berry never seemed to meet a woman he didn’t say yes to. In midcareer, he received a three-year sentence for transporting a woman across state lines for immoral purposes, but he managed to use his prison time to get his high school diploma (as class valedictorian, no less) and take business classes that allowed him to keep an eye on the shady accounting practices of record company execs. Even better, he wrote some of his biggest hits behind bars, including “Nadine,” “No Particular Place to Go” and “You Never Can Tell.”

Chuck Berry helped build rock-and-roll. Then he took it for a ride.

He always had an edge, but after prison, a grimmer, more driven Berry appeared. He wrote fewer songs, issued fewer albums, gave fewer interviews and toured constantly, playing trade shows and car dealership openings with pickup bands made up of local musicians he refused to rehearse with and whom he fired onstage after a single missed note. The critic Elvis Mitchell said of Wilson Pickett, another easily angered soul man, “The only safe place for him is the stage.” Berry never seemed to be safe anywhere.

He became unreachable, even to his intimates. A longtime lover said: “Either he was a very complicated man, or there was no there there. I’m still really not sure which.”

Yet out of that rage came “Johnny B. Goode,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” and a dozen other additions to the rock canon. Most saints aren’t artists, and the reverse is even more true. Smith observes that names near Berry’s on the St. Louis Walk of Fame include those of William S. Burroughs, who shot his second wife in the head, and T.S. Eliot, a wretched antisemite. Pointing in each case to the art rather than the artist, he says, “Our lives would be worse without them.”

David Kirby’s books include “Little Richard: The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll” and “Crossroad: Artist, Audience, and the Making of American Music.” He teaches at Florida State University.

Chuck Berry

An American Life

By RJ Smith

Hachette. 432 pp. $32

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