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Chuck Berry 1926-2017 to the words of Chuck Berry.” Bob Dylan named him “the in Mobile, Alabama. His revved-up and revoluShakespeare of rock & roll.” The literary corollaries tionary first hit, “Maybellene” – a joyful story that here are appropriate, because Berry himself was a litromped through cars, sex and class – had recenterary figure, as a writer, as ly taken Berry from a St. Louis nightclub act to a a character and as an idea. Though he took much from national star unlike any other. He was tall, limber, the music of T-Bone Walker, Louis Jordan, Hank Williams smart, sly, incredibly inventive, and animated onand Charlie Christian, among others, his true antecedents stage in ways that helped flex his musicianship rather than detract from it. Plus, might be found in the work he was handsome and black. These were the early days of rock & roll. What of poet Paul Laurence Dunbar and author Ralph Ellison. the music seemed to stand for – a youthful refusal to defer to adult authority, Dunbar was a late-19th-century black poet whose most a preference for turbulent sounds made from outsider forms like blues, boogie famous work was “We Wear and hillbilly, and a willingness among young whites and blacks to listen to and the Mask,” about how blacks had to hide their true selves adopt one another’s music, to gather and dance to it – signaled social change and realities from the rest of America. Ellison’s nameless that both anticipated and corresponded to the emerging civil-rights struggle. hero in 1952’s Invisible Man had to navigate between racBerry’s charisma and sexiness, his lyri- was just like we were all then boarding da’ ism and radicalism and his own needs in cal and musical brilliance and his early ol’ ribba-boat about to float into a land of covert ways. Both Dunbar and Ellison were edge in the game (Elvis Presley had not yet flawless freedom.” important and praised, but they were also ascended) made him a natural point man That night, Berry reached across the rebuked by some other black artists who for this change. His blackness, however, great American divide. “The palms of black thought they catered too much to white made him a natural threat to some, even and white,” he later wrote, “were burning ideals of culture and behavior. black critics who decried rock & roll as a as the producer signaled me to exit. . . .” It could be said that Berry wore the movement that debased the race. Berry Outside the Mobile theater, though, Berry mask, though he did it in trickier ways. didn’t present himself as a subversive, but found himself facing the bigger and scarier When that mask really dropped, at the end he didn’t need to. The young, both black enduring reality of the historical breach of the 1950s, he lost just about everything. and white, thrilled to him every time he he’d walked into: “It seemed the whole po- Yet such was Berry’s importance that if took a stage. Berry knew there was both lice force had surrounded our bus.” Were not for him, the Beatles, Dylan, the Rollrisk and opportunity in this. “I’d been the police there to protect the musicians, or ing Stones and countless others wouldn’t hearing of this sort of racial problem for to keep them from mixing with the excited have had a model or map. This magazine years from my father,” he wrote in his au- audience members who had also gathered? wouldn’t be here without him. If ever there tobiography, “except his stories were more “The isolation ignited ill feelings in the was an American who deserved the Nobel severe.” fans as well as the artists,” wrote Berry. “I Prize in Literature, it was Chuck Berry. If At the Mobile show, Berry was wor- watched the officers taking the abuse and ever there was an American who did not, ried. Ropes ran down the audience floor, I thought, do in Rome as the Romans do. it was Chuck Berry. If ever there was an separating blacks from whites. Could he Fears that the police would reciprocate led American, it was Chuck Berry. truly play music that appealed across this me to board the bus.” e r r y t r a c e d h i s f or e division? Would one audience resent him That was Chuck Berry’s ideal: He wantbears back to pre-Civil War more than the other? “I skipped onstage,” ed both sides of the ropes, wanted to days, at the Wolfolk plantahe wrote, “and belted out my song ‘May- achieve a freedom that had not come eastion in southernmost Kenbellene.’ I put everything I had into it: a ily to others. He tried this in his music, tucky. The wife of Master Wolhillbilly stomp, the chicken peck, and even and in both his public and private life ad-libbed some Southern country dialect. – that is, he attempted to navigate the folk, Berry wrote, inherited the plantation Contrary to what I expected, I received dividing lines, even the ones inside him- upon the death of her husband in 1839. far greater applause from the white side self. Sometimes his efforts were immod- She didn’t push the slaves, in comparison of the ropes. . . . Determined to retaliate, est and disastrous. Berry was a complex to other owners, and was lenient to her faI bowed longer to the bored black side man: ebullient, guarded, embittered and vorites. Berry, in fact, believed the woman than I lingered on the left, let my fingers licentiously flawed. Even some who most had an affair with a house servant and gave crawl into the introduction, and poured out admired him – who would have been birth to an illegitimate “mixed-blooded fethe pleading guitar passage of ‘Wee Wee nowhere without his inf luence – didn’t male child,” Cellie. Cellie served Mrs. WolHours’. . . . I began hearing ‘uhmms’ and much like him. Keith Richards once folk alone. John Johnson, a young slave ‘awws’ as I approached the kissing climax said, “I couldn’t warm to him even if I from the nearby Johnson House plantaand how beautifully the black side began to was cremated next to him.” But Richards tion, was attracted to the light-skinned moan. I knew I was getting next to them. It and others couldn’t deny Berry’s impor- Cellie and worked at both plantations to tance as the most innovative guitarist and be close to her. Master Johnson, like WolContributing editor Mik al Gilmore lyricist in rock & roll history. Leonard folk, was what Berry called a “good maswrote about Leonard Cohen in December. Cohen once said, “All of us are footnotes ter.” One day, he came home and told John

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ne night in 1955, chuck berry played a show

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