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Chuck Berry 1926-2017 end, either Berry or Chess spotted a mascara tube that had been left in the studio and changed “Ida May” to “Maybelline,” then finally to “Maybellene,” to avoid copyright troubles. The song’s relentless rhythm drove it to Number One on the rhythm & blues charts, and in September 1955 it reached Number Five on the pop charts. In the days after Berry’s death, many writers and reports cited him as the man who invented rock & roll. The term had been around for several years, and many artists – including Fats Domino and Bill Haley – had already made music under its umbrella. In rock & roll, young listeners heard a sound made for them. It also inflamed cultural watchdogs who saw the music as incitement to crime and riots, and, more fearfully, as a gateway to racemixing. Berry tapped into rock’s sense of rebellion, but slyly. His songs were celebrations of youth’s new sovereignty; they were

didn’t consider that he was black. I thought he was a white hillbilly. Little did I know he was a great poet too. ‘Flying across the desert in a TWA/I saw a woman walking ’cross the sand/She been walkin’ 30 miles en route to Bombay/To meet a brown-eyed handsome man.’ I didn’t think about poetry at that time – those words just flew by. Only later did I realize how hard it is to write those kind of lyrics.”


ay bel l e n e” m a de Chuck Berry a star, but he recognized that there were limits, and he always intended to work around them. He was a black man blazing a course in a white world, and it wasn’t easy. Right out of the gate, before the song was even pressed as a single, he lost twothirds of the songwriting credit to people who had nothing to do with its composition (though one of the people who appro-

outrageous and bold lyrics, he sang about the victorious allure of a black man for white women (“There’s been a whole lot of good women shed a tear/For a brown-eyed handsome man”), and ended the song with a celebration of baseball’s Jackie Robinson – who broke the game’s color barrier – hitting a home run. In 1958’s “Johnny B. Goode,” Berry essentially wrote a version of his own proud autobiography: A young black man dreamed of becoming a guitar hero with his “name in lights.” The original lyric ran, “Oh, my, but that little colored boy could play,” but, Berry said, “I thought it would seem biased to white fans to say ‘colored boy’ and changed it to ‘country boy.’ ” Some listeners – especially black listeners – didn’t always know how to place or regard Berry. Critic Gerald Early, writing days after Berry’s death, commented, “Berry is, like, say, Jimi Hendrix, a curious artist in that I can never recall him being

“I THOUGHT IT WOULD SEEM BIASED to white fans to say ‘colored boy,’” Berry would say of 1958’s “Johnny B. Goode.” “So I changed it to ‘country boy.’” also demarcations. His lyrics didn’t flash switchblade imagery – rather, they drew lines by issuing rally cries: “Early in the mornin’ I’m a-givin’ you a warnin’/Don’t you step on my blue suede shoes/Hey diddle diddle, I’m a-playin’ my fiddle/Ain’t got nothin’ to lose/Roll over, Beethoven, tell Tchaikovsky the news.” Berry recognized other changes in youth culture (which had never been called a culture before). He wrote about cars as symbols of freedom and acquisition; they afforded autonomy and a private place to listen to the new music while also looking for, and making, love. Teenagers had more money, license, leeway, and that metamorphosed into political capital. An age of deference was ending. The moment was epitomized by that V8 Ford motorvatin’ over the hill in “Maybellene.” “Cadillacs don’t like Fords rolling side by side,” said Berry, “because they hide half their beauty.” More important was how Berry said these things, the language he used. It was poetic, vivid, sometimes hilarious and sexy, but also implicitly threatening – and utterly original. His imagination and flair set the groundwork for Dylan’s breakthroughs in “Maggie’s Farm” and “Subterranean Homesick Blues” – yet the genius of Berry’s lyrics hid in plain sight. “When I first heard Chuck Berry,” said Dylan in 2015, “I

30 | R ol l i n g S t o n e |

priated credit, Alan Freed, also did a great deal to make the song a hit). He also found himself in a contract with Chess Records that he didn’t fully understand or trust. He said of Leonard and Phil Chess, “They weren’t honest, but they were very helpful in my career. They gave me the first chance. That’s a beauty. To rob somebody or to not give somebody what belongs to them is not honest. So they’re both, you know. But they were good to me and cool.’’ Race, of course, was always the mitigating factor. In his autobiography, Berry recalled one incident early in his career when he showed up at a Knoxville, Tennessee, club where he had been booked to perform. The club’s manager was shocked to see him. “Maybellene” had melded its black and white identity so well that in some markets listeners assumed the singer was Caucasian. “It’s a country dance,” the manager told Berry, “and we had no idea ‘Maybellene’ was recorded by a nigra man.” He told Berry he couldn’t permit a black person to perform, as it was against a city ordinance. Berry left, then came back at showtime and listened to another band play his music. Berry never wrote overtly about race in his songs, though he sometimes coded the subject cleverly. With 1956’s “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” in some of his most

as beloved by blacks as he was by whites, cannot recall blacks finding his music essential to their understanding of black music. Berry’s was a kind of assimilationist music that the Ville, in the diversity of its blackness, inspired: a new way of seeing blackness as universal in its sources.” In real life, Berry wasn’t always so veiled on where he stood on the matter. He told a reporter, “You’re trying to say, ‘Is Chuck Berry black or white?’ Well, I’ll tell you, Chuck Berry is black, and he’s beautiful.” In late August 1959, while playing an Army barracks in Meridian, Mississippi, Berry let a young woman hug and kiss him a moment too long onstage, and it brought everything to an immediate halt. Young white men, who’d been thrilled to meet him before the show, surrounded Berry after the show. “I’m a Mississippian,” one man told another who was trying to protect Berry, “and this nigger asked my sister for a date!” A policeman had to rescue Berry; then, at the station, a sergeant relieved Berry of $700 he found on him, to “cover the fine for peace disturbance I was being charged for.” But Berry wouldn’t accept proscriptions about race and sex. Two months before the Meridian incident, on the night of June 2nd, 1958, he was driving a peach-colored Cadillac in St. Charles, Missouri, with a

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