10 things I learned from Chuck Berry by RJ Smith
I did not know much about him until I read this book as he was kind of before my time. I now have an immense respect and admiration for him. His musicianship is really outstanding with the precision that he wrote the words and played the subtle riffs on guitar. He was quite an entrepreneur, a cultural trailblazer and likely to have been a true genius.
1. Chuck Berry’s grandfather was born a slave.
Just a few generations from that reality. He lived in St. Louis and settled there. There was a long history of slavery in that city.
2. Chuck’s first gig was in black face
He also played many shows they were segregated. Even after his huge hits like Johnny B Goode, he would perform in a venue where he could not watch his white opening act.
3. He got influenced by the big bands that played in the St. Louis area
Charlie Christian and Karl Hogan were huge influences.
4. Chuck was an innovator who was an early adopter with recording technology
The electric guitar was still a brand new instrument in the 1940s when he started to play.
5. Berry actively created a mysterious profile where he flowed between musical styles and also race, even briefly promoted as being Hawaiian and being listed as American Indian on his driver’s license
6. The drummer Earl Palmer came up with the rock beat to keep up with Little Richard pounding on the piano
7. Berry was an entrepreneur
Chuck Berry was an entrepreneur from the beginning. When he was choosing his music he wrote it not just for the artistry of it but to appeal to certain audiences. When he started to make money from touring in the late 1950s, he bought land to create a community, a nightclub, his own record, label, an amusement park and other investments. Unlike Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry did all this himself. He did have the assistance of a business manager that he met in the late 1950s and stayed with for the rest of his career. He was a precursor to Prince and Michael Jackson.
8. Berry Park
Chuck Berry created Berry Park. It was a combination of recording, studio, amusement park and recreation community that was completely de-segregated. He would charge people $0.25 to go swimming!
9. He went to prison for complications from relations with underage girls
In prison he worked hard and graduated from high school. He also wrote "No Particular Place to Go" in jail.
10. Berry opened for the Grateful Dead at the Fillmore in 1967 and blew the crowd away
11. Chuck Berry went onstage and played with the Circle Jerks!
Berry apparently loved the show and actually played with them! This was a shocker to me: I saw the Circle Jerks in 1984: they were a legendary punk band. That would have been one of the least likely pairings that anyone could imagine!
12. Berry did not drink, smoke or use drugs.
But he was into weird sex stuff and taking videos of it.
13. Berry always marched to his own beat and was very stubborn
He seemed to do whatever he felt like doing at all times. He was hard to get to know. Even late in his career he would frequently refuse to go onstage unless he was paid first.
14. Berry once punched Keith Richards in the face for touching his guitar
15. He used his amp all on 10 and turned the guitar way down to get his sound.
Hendrix was also known for turning the amp all the way up.
16. Berry played through a tear gas attack in Paris!
According to the story, there was a riot at the show. The police released teargas inside the club. Chuck Berry briefly passed out from the teargas. Once he got up, he plugged his guitar back in, and asked the piano player to put a wet towel on the piano so he could wipe his eyes and started playing like a man possessed. What a legend!