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I never met Chuck Berry but, like all kids from the Fifties and Sixties, I knew him through his hit songs.
His music was brought to mind after hearing that Berry died at the age of 90 in his Missouri home. His funeral is planned for April 9 in St. Louis.
A few years ago, I went to his home, although uninvited but not looking for an autograph or photo op. I happened to be in Missouri on a research mission and a local historian was showing me some of the historical sights of the area around Wentzville in St. Charles County.
“Want to see where Chuck Berry lives?”
I didn’t even know he was still alive, I mean he was kind of old when I was a kid, but I said, “sure.”
We drove way out in the country and stopped in sight of a sprawling brick ranch house with a long wrought-iron fence with wide brick posts. The front gate was closed although there was no sign of guards.
“I think he’s about 85 or so and doesn’t get out much anymore,” my guide said.
I supposed that at one time he had enough money to hire a crew of gardeners and grounds keepers, but obviously not for some time. The place looked okay from a distance, but a closer view showed the grounds needed tending and the fence required some repair.
“This was some place in its time,” he said. “Parties all the time and that’s how he got into so much trouble. Kids from the town would come out, underage girls especially, and that caused bad feelings from their folks.”
He said some of it was due to the fact that Berry was black and the local kids were white, but it also was a fact that he was a man in his thirties entertaining teenagers.
Of course, his music was aimed at underage kids for the most part.
When I first heard Chuck Berry songs—“Johnny B. Goode,” and “Sweet Little Sixteen”—no one thought he was as old as he was. It would have been kind of creepy for a 32-year-old to have the hots for a girl on her 16th birthday.
He also delved farther into the creepy world with upbeat love songs about “Carol,” Beautiful Delilah,” and “Little Marie.”
His attraction for young girls caused him even more problems. During that time, Berry had bought a nightclub in nearby St. Louis and was quite successful until he was arrested for transporting a 14-year-old girl across state lines for immoral purposes, supposedly to work in his club. Regardless of his reason, he was sent to prison under the Mann Act.
After several appeals, he eventually served 18 months in prison.
He tried over the years to endear himself to the townspeople in Wentzville by buying and distributing bicycles to underprivileged kids each Christmas, although it often was met with skepticism, according to my guide.
Still, he was known and liked around the world and had many songs in the top 40 with a few going all the way to the top on the R&B charts. His humorous songs, too, were memorable, such as his Christmas hit “Run Run Rudolph” and familiar teen anthem of “No Particular Place To Go,” not to mention his curious offering in 1972 of “My Ding-A-Ling.”
He was an inspiration to many other performers including The Beatles who had a big hit with Berry’s smash hit “Roll Over Beethoven.” I’m sure his homecoming tune of “Back in the U.S.A.” when he returned from his British concerts suggested The Beatles’ “Back in the USSR.”
Berry’s first hit of note was “Maybellene” in 1955 which foreshadowed his 1964 offering of “Nadine (Is That You?).”
His body of work, which garnered him the nickname “The Godfather of Rock and Roll,” also was his ticket into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, being in the first class ever enshrined in 1986.
Despite his personal shortcomings, Berry was a true pioneer in R&B and Rock-n-Roll compositions, plus he did offer a stage presence that was polished enough to cross over onto the big screen in which he appeared in several rock movies.
And who could possibly not recall his appearances without commenting on his famous “duck walk” in which he skipped across the stage, back and forth, playing the guitar while more-or-less throwing his knees out of whack. He also incorporated the splits while gyrating in the middle of one of his big hits. Those were things he had to do in every performance or the fans would have felt cheated.
In short, to paraphrase his song: He could play a guitar just like ringing a bell—Go, Chuckie, Go.