Remembering Chuck Berry and His Extremely Complicated Legacy

He was as much of an American icon as he was a black one, but his legacy has always been complicated.

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Mar 22 2017, 6:28pm

You know who Chuck Berry is. Even before his death at the age of 90 on March 18, you knew his name, knew his guitar playing, or felt his legacy. His hits were innumerable. Songs like "Maybellene" and "Johnny B. Goode" are pillars bearing the weight of the genre he helped create. Let's repeat that—he helped create an entire genre of music. "Rock and roll" now seems like an outdated, white bread category in the very cross-pollinated 2017 (see: Drake's More Life). However, it was born from black musicians and the genres they had already created, like jazz and rhythm and blues. Yet even though he pioneered arguably the most influential genre of music the world has ever seen, Berry's historical status as both an American and black hero has always been complicated due to his own faults.

Berry's gross and confusing treatment of women should have equal billing with his music, but in most profiles it'll be missing. There's that eternal question: Can you separate the artist from the art they created? Berry's transgressions make him comparable to people like Bill Cosby and Mel Gibson. The difference between Cosby and Gibson is that the former is a black icon to a community with few of them, and the latter is enjoying an alarming redemption tour at the time of this writing. The cliché line of "never meet your heroes" can be repurposed for Berry: "Never find out absolutely everything about your heroes."

Chuck Berry was born in St. Louis, Missouri, to a middle class family that afforded him time for the arts. Music called him from an early age, and he was performing by high school. Berry's first brush with the law also happened when he was a student at Sumner High School in 1944—he was arrested for armed robbery. After due time at a detention facility, he married, worked a variety of odd jobs including stints as a factory worker at automobile plants, and kept playing music. By the early 1950s, Berry had moved from playing with local St. Louis bands to playing with Johnnie Johnson, a jazz and blues pianist who would eventually be his long-time collaborator.

At this point, Berry knew how to sell his musicianship. Aiming to market himself beyond black audiences, he mixed country songs into his rhythm and blues sets. He also knew how to sell himself. After meeting Muddy Waters in 1955 and getting referred to Chess Records owner Leonard Chess, Berry recorded "Maybellene," which went on to sell 1 million copies. By the end of the decade, he was a legitimate star. A quote from a famed 2002 Esquire interview shows the drive that got him there: "It amazes me when I hear people say, 'I want to go out and find out who I am.' I always knew who I was. I was going to be famous if it killed me."

For some perspective, in the span of four years after the release of "Maybellene," Berry had charted over a dozen singles (including four US Top Ten hits), appeared in two movies, toured with Buddy Holly, and defined an entire genre of music that other artists were falling all over themselves to imitate. Almost 20 years later, Berry's recording of "Johnny B. Goode" was launched into outer space as part of the Voyager Golden Records when the spacecraft launched in 1977. Chuck Berry's music was so important that a panel of NASA scientists chose to include him with the likes of Beethoven, Stravinsky, and Mozart.

Berry's stage presence matched his work ethic towards capturing his huge, diverse audience. Standing knock-kneed, skittering across the stage with his iconic "duck walk," or showing off with other, wild moves, he was unlike anything people had seen before. He packed his surprising 6'2" frame into all sorts of contorted positions, all while belting into the mic, jerking on his guitar, or both. One of his greatest feats was that he was as much of an American icon as he was a black one. At the height of his fame, Berry returned to St. Louis, where he was a legend. He even opened an integrated nightclub called Berry's Club Bandstand in 1958. The same club ended up starting the unraveling of rock and roll's hero.

A black man had become the face of a new genre of music that was taking over the country, but he would also do his best to undo it.

Up until this point in Berry's life, he had done everything he could to rise to the top. A black man had become the face of a new genre of music that was taking over the country, but he would also do his best to undo it. In 1959, Berry was arrested under the Mann Act for transporting a 14-year old Apache girl across state lines for immoral purposes. The stated purpose was to have her working at his club as a hat checker, but there was more going on than the checking of hats. After a series of trials and appeals he served one and a half years in prison. While he sat behind bars, artists like The Beatles covered his songs and made them hits of their own.

In a recent New York Times interview, Dave Chappelle talks about black icons dying early or having their reputations snuffed out. When the interviewer brings up Bill Cosby, Chappelle speaks about the experience of being black and having the already-limited number of heroes dwindle:

The Bill Cosby thing was tough for me. I'm not saying that to detract from his alleged victims at all. But he was a hero of mine. So many bad things happened to our heroes: Muhammad Ali had Parkinson's; Richard Pryor had M.S.; Prince died too young. And Bill just looked like one of the guys who was going to get to the finish line and just die of old age. And this happened. Jesus Christ. It's awful.

In the same way that Cosby was a hero to Chappelle, Berry was (and still is) a hero to others. Similar to how Cosby (and Gibson) has been revealed to be, Berry could be boastful and repulsive. He even admitted to collecting his sexual tales for a potential book. "I have a computerful," Berry said at one point about these accounts in a 2010 interview with Rolling Stone. In the same interview, he also mentions amassing thousands of explicit images, which is chilling given his other legal issue involving women.

After getting out of prison in 1963, the next few decades featured a declining popularity for Berry paired with his relentless touring. In the late 1980s, he purchased and ran a restaurant 45 minutes outside St. Louis. Several women sued him in 1990, claiming he had installed a video camera in the ladies' bathroom. Berry defended himself by saying it was to catch a stealing employee, but a police raid on his home discovered videotapes of women using the restroom—including one minor. He eventually settled out of court with a total of 59 women.

Berry's earlier legal troubles happened in parallel with his battle over his race. During his club ownership and amid his national success, Berry was convinced police harassed him because of his association with white women. That claim could very possibly make it easier to understand why he was arrested in 1959, but it doesn't erase the 1990 case of him videotaping women.

It also doesn't erase everything he did for other musicians—black or white—and rock and roll. Berry drew on music's black history and launched it into the future, and, for all his personal faults, his creations and influence positively impacted millions if not billions of people. His legacy is complex, his legend is undeniable, and he himself is, perhaps thankfully, irreplaceable.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives

Austin Bryant is a producer and writer based in Boston. Follow him on Twitter.