In this probing biography, R.J. Smith writes, “Chuck Berry was an African-American astronaut on an extended solo flight to violate established practices in business, culture, social mores, and laws.”
Berry, who published his own autobiography in 1987, seemed to live his life as a bitter, rebellious reaction to racism. His revolutionary music was subtly dangerous. Chuck’s lifestyle? Outwardly so, as sex scandals and prison time damaged his career. Strangely, he could be both dismissive and protective of his work, and occasionally appeared mystified by the meaning behind his songs; a chapter here is devoted to 1972’s double-entendre novelty ditty “My Ding-A-Ling,” Berry’s only #1 single.
Guitar-related stories include using a blond Gibson ES-350T on a 1955 recording session that yielded his first hit, “Maybellene.” And, performing was physically transcendent. As Smith says, “He discovered that playing the guitar had a physical component: moving around with the instrument changed the sound, changed the feeling, and changed the mood of the room.”
Ultimately, Berry remains a notoriously complicated enigma. Dick Alen, who was the icon’s agent from the ’50s until his death in 2017, notes that Berry didn’t have personal friends, but he asks, “Who knew him? Anybody with a record player.”
This article originally appeared in VG’s February 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.