Can You (Who?) Never Tell? RJ Smith on Chuck Berry

Longtime rock writer RJ Smith brings us Chuck Berry: An American Life, a formidable new stab at the never-satisfied soul who just might have invented rock and roll amongst other things. Smith was kind enough to take some questions over email.


Seattle Star: What are your earliest memories of hearing and/or seeing Chuck Berry–which songs, which radio stations, which TV appearances, movies, etc.?

RJ Smith: I saw him on Midnight Special and Don Kirschner’s Rock Concert, an older black man playing to white teen audiences in the mid 1970s. I struggled to understand who he was. It was the era of oldies and the package tours reintroducing 1950s artists. I came in just after Chuck recorded his only #1 hit, “My Ding-a-Ling,” in 1972. and slowly realized, growing up in Detroit, how I was hearing his influence in the white rock I was hearing on FM–the MC5, Bob Seeger, the Stones. I started making connections in my head.

Seattle Star: What were your earliest impressions of Chuck Berry and his work? How did those impressions grow and change over time? Did you go through the famous confusion of whether he was black or white?

RJ Smith: It was clear he was black. White teens like myself who were subscribing to Rolling Stone, say, failed to understand the role folks like Chuck played in the sound we loved. There was little place for him, or the world he came from, in the rock world we were hoping to enter. The music was presented as ours, as new, and these things ran counter to the life of Chuck Berry, who of course did as much as anybody ever to make this world real.

Seattle Star: Did you see Berry play live? If so, where, and when, and what did those gigs feel like? How did the records and the show compare/contrast?

RJ Smith: I saw him several times, and I remember little about those shows. They weren’t the famously confrontational variety, or memorable in other ways. They were contracts being met.

Seattle Star: What made you decide to do a Berry book? Which themes and angles did you wish to explore?

RJ Smith: His story takes in so much–the story of rock & roll’s promise and its shortcomings, the story of the last half-century, race, issues of separating the individual from the art. There was a lot to learn and think about. If I am going to live with a project for five or six years, it has to remain interesting and out of reach. Chuck was all of this and then some. He resists being figured out.

Seattle Star: How many people did you interview for the book? Which interviews were the most rewarding, the toughest, the most surprising?

RJ Smith: I interviewed over one hundred people who knew him or were close to his story. The best interviews are the ones conducted repeatedly; the ones you have to return to because you realize there’s more to the story. Then you finish your book and sometimes you realize, now you know the right question to ask.

Seattle Star: How did your attitudes towards Berry grow and change as you worked your way through the book?

RJ Smith: Over time, these times, I feel a lot more about him like I feel about America itself. That you can’t get to the bottom of it, ever, and that simple judgments are suspect. That victims and victimizers can live in the same skin and you can expect either at any time to stand before you.

Chuck Berry circa 1952. From the Harry Davis/Bill Greensmith. All rights reserved.

Seattle Star: How did you go about securing a contract for the book?

RJ Smith: I had established a relationship with Da Capo [Press], which has a long and deserved history of publishing thoughtful books on popular music and other subjects. They had published my biography of photographer and filmmaker Robert Frank, another complicated, earth-moving creator who spoke to America on numerous channels. Another outsider who understood what was inside Americans.

I told Da Capo I was interested in writing about Chuck Berry next; it was right after he died and they were deeply into the project.

Seattle Star: Which editor(s) worked with you on the book, and which crucial contributions did they make?

RJ Smith: I work with the terrific editor Ben Schafer. He edits a lot of good music books. He was all-in on the Robert Frank project and we have worked together ever since.

Hachette bought Da Capo several years ago, but I have continued to work with Ben there. He loves and understands the music and the people who make it. It’s not to be trifled with when you find an editor who is enthusiastic about your work.

Seattle Star: Which other books by and/or about Berry did you consult, and what did you learn from them?

RJ Smith: Well first there is Berry’s own Chuck Berry: An Autobiography, which offers amazing writing and a selective flood of memories and parables that go a very long way to explaining how Charles Berry became Chuck. He avoids talking much about the music. This was a pattern he hewed to throughout his life. He said he was going to write another book about the music, and he said he would also write a memoir about his sex life–even though there’s no shortage of that in his autobiography. Sadly, he never wrote another book.

Bruce Pegg’s biography, written while Chuck was still alive, does a good job on numerous fronts. He interviewed several important, now-dead figures, and I learned a lot from it. Then there was the work and example of all the artists and writers who have written or thought about Berry.

I also note the importance of St. Louis to Berry–he grew up there and lived in it much of the time when he wasn’t on the road. He died there. It was always clear that to tell his story it would be important to learn about that place, and so I spent a lot of time reading about and visiting St. Louis.

Seattle Star: One of my favorite Berry manifestations was always the duck walk. How did his signature move come about?

RJ Smith: He talked about a childhood experience of hiding under a table and then dancing out from under it, getting applause from his family. He also sometimes said it came from an early showcase performance, when he improvised a step and found how much a crowd liked it. It was a brilliant move, suited to his tall frame and to how he held the guitar. But it’s also much like a dance step you could have seen on the Black theater circuit long before Berry broke through.

Seattle Star: As you point out he was born, lived, and died in or around St. Louis. In which essential ways, did his hometown shape him?

RJ Smith: He talked about how there was a Chuck–the rock star–and Charles, the man at home that fans didn’t get to see. Charles was a creation of St. Louis. It was Northern and Southern, with a mercantile culture that saw doing business as the way to make social change. That made sense to Berry, who saw his ability to make money as proof that he was as good as any other man.

It was segregated, and his relationship with racist St. Louis deeply shaped him. But Chuck was a fighter–and if he surely loved the place, it also seems clear he stayed there because he wasn’t going to let the haters and the cops get the satisfaction of making him leaving. He was a stubborn fighter, steeped in the Midwestern ethos of not rising above your raising, and all of that shows the influence of St. Louis.

Seattle Star: You obviously had to go through all of Berry’s discography. Which overlooked gems and oddities became favorites, and why?

RJ Smith: There are plenty of amazing things, like “Havana Moon,” a known number but a bottomless one and a tune he found bottomless – he kept revising and rewriting it and taking it apart in his home studio throughout his life. It suggests a huge path close to the heart but not explored by the man who became a rocker.

And his version of Memphis Minnie’s “Me and My Chauffeur Blues,” which Berry called “I Want to Be Your Driver,” is one of his great performances. He loved the blues and turned to it, in part, because he considered it a sound for himself, not so much for an audience. There’s a false quote out there, Chuck allegedly saying that everything he did was a tribute to Rosetta Tharpe. But he loved Tharpe and dozens of other blues players.

Another unheralded cover: His version of “One For My Baby (and One More For the Road),” startles today. He’s not paying tribute to Sinatra, who he praised in interviews; he is sharing a measure of the fear and loneliness only Charles Berry knew.

Seattle Star: Aside from his frequently-horrible behavior, Berry emerges as a man who ultimately stood alone, felt alone, and preferred being alone. Did bringing him to life on the page ever feel wearying? Did you ever come to a conclusion about how his psyche grew that way?

RJ Smith: I never grew tired of thinking about him or listening to his music. But the pandemic was lifting and it coincided with the deadline I had already extended repeatedly. It seemed like a good time to repurpose a certain amount of the space he was taking up in my head. When you write about one person they tend to sprawl in your mind, or in mine anyway. It has side effects.

As for “how his psyche got that way,” there’s so much about that in the book. I most of all look at it as rooted in how he was treated by white America, and how his wishes collided with America’s. Then there are a set of psychological patterns, things that are more specific to his experience. That part is in the book too, but understanding it is far beyond my skill set or that of what I consider the practice of a biographer. No diagnosis is proffered.

Seattle Star: You knew going into the book that you’d have to muse on the artist vs. the art. Did working through the book change your approach to the inevitable in any way?

RJ Smith: Sure–just working in the era of revelations about R. Kelly and Morgan Wallen can’t help but shape your thinking as you look at the life of Chuck Berry. We are all of us fans and readers walking a conscious line that didn’t exist before, and we struggle with it, fighting about the right way to do it (as if there was one) and fucking it up all the time. It isn’t disappearing, since the internet is not, and we will be living this moment, a moment constantly diverting in direction, for a long time.

Seattle Star: Berry’s long-time right-hand woman, Francine Gillium, proves about as elusively intriguing as her boss. Is she still alive and working for the estate? What impressions of her did you get?

RJ Smith: As far as I know she is still alive. She was crucial to Berry’s early success, especially his business achievements, and helped shape Berry Park and his Club Bandstand. She was in proximity to him throughout much of his career. The scene of her and Berry together in [the film] Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll says a lot about each of them.

Seattle Star: You wrote a James Brown book [The One]. How do the two giants compare/contrast?

RJ Smith: Brown looked at life as a performance played for whoever was handy; if you got into a cab with him, you came out with an unforgettable story about how he acted or what he had to say. But Berry put barriers up and was far more private. He stared at you across the diner counter, he withheld.

Brown wanted to be understood as a person; Berry said that whatever he had to share was in the music, look there. Understanding was not on the bill. That difference suggests how differently he viewed his relationships with casual acquaintances – let alone lovers and sidemen. Relationships tended to succeed to the degree they were purely transactional.

The Cosmopolitan. From the Harry Davis/Bill Greensmith. All rights reserved.

Seattle Star: The image of Berry holding hostage Don Arden and Peter Grant, two of the UK’s most frightening entertainment criminals, by refusing to come out of his dressing room until they shove more $100 bills under the door–a hilarious revelation. Do we have any documented cases similar stunts with other famous names?

RJ Smith: Sure, with plenty of variations. He held Bill Graham up, waiting for him to fork over more cash, before he would play an encore the Fillmore crowd was palpably clamoring for. When he agreed to let Taylor Hackford shoot the documentary, about him, numerous times when the crew wanted to shoot a rehearsal or a scene at Berry Park involved paying him for his time. The film’s producer says she hurled a paper bag full of cash at his head in the dressing room.

I would love to know what the negotiations with the White House were like, the times he played for Bill Clinton and for Jimmy Carter. Maybe there’s documents in the National Archives?

Seattle Star: Greil Marcus got Berry to come and be interviewed in front of (by?) one of Greil’s college classes. What year did this happen? How was it arranged? Highlights?

RJ Smith: In May 1969 Berry was booked to play in the Bay Area and held a noon conversation with Marcus and UC students in the student lounge. There was a contract with the University that called for him to deliver a lecture, but it turned out to be more of an in-depth question and answer session with Marcus and students. I quote this revealing session repeatedly throughout the book.

Seattle Star: Greil wrote about Chuck Berry: An American Life, saying that you’d found the story “that Chuck Berry spent his whole life refighting and rewriting the Civil War.” Do you concur? If so, how did Berry fight, how did he write, how did he succeed, how did he fail?

RJ Smith: Greil’s point gets the essence across of a lot of stories and scenes in the book. Too much to spell out in one answer, but I like to cite a UK TV documentary from 1980; in the wake of the number one hit he had with “My Ding-a-Ling,” for a while Berry was relaxed, giving longer interviews and answers to journalists–and letting a camera team from London follow him around on tour in the States.

From a stage in Palo Alto, the cameras capture Berry chewing out a young white harmonica player who decided to solo at a time Berry had other plans for. He put his arm around the player, saying: “A hundred years ago he was my master. Now he’s my son. Come on up here son and blow your harmonica. Only when I’m pointing to you, yeah!”

A lot of what Berry did was not celebratory, had some root in revenge and reparation. He didn’t let resentment (for his treatment by law enforcement, the carceral system, his neighbors in Missouri) eat him up; instead he put it into action and made others feel some piece of what he felt.

Seattle Star: Which Berry cover versions mean the most to you, and why? Was anybody able to give/find more in a song, than Berry himself?

RJ Smith: Berry himself had a soft spot in his heart for Elvis’s version of “The Promised Land,” and it really is an amazing cover. Presley rewrites a handful of words and everywhere tells a story different than Berry’s.

Then again, Johnnie Allan’s zydeco version of “Promised Land” is glorious in its own way. If “Johnny B. Goode” is about a country boy reaching toward glory–mass acclaim, becoming as big as Elvis–Johnnie Allan tells the story of a country boy yearning for the promised land of home–the lost world off the beaten path.

Seattle Star: What are your plans for the future, through publicizing this book and beyond?

RJ Smith: First up I am enjoying reading for pleasure, and strangely not feeling guilty for reading anything not Chuck-related. It’s been a bliss I hope to extend a while longer.

But I am also looking at a double biography, a story about a concert from years ago and how its music sounds today. That’s one idea.

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