Monday, September 30, 2013

"The Autobiography" by Chuck Berry (1987)

The only problem with this book is that it’s just too short, covering only the years from Mr. Berry’s birth in St. Louis in 1926 until 1986 when he wrote this book. At the time he was just beginning to edit the the classic rockumentary “Hail, Hail, Rock and Roll!” with Keith Richards. That film, together with this book, gives a complete picture of what went into the making of the man, but both leave out the next 25 years; from 1987 until today; and with Mr. Berry still walking amongst us, it would be nice to have a more current view into his life.

That said; you could not ask for a more personable read from a man who is iconic of the music he plays; rock and roll. John Lennon once said that “If you were to try and give Rock and Roll another name it might be called Chuck Berry.” And, he was right.

Skillfully written, with no ghost writer, Mr. Berry takes you on a no-holds barred tour de force of his life. Beginning with his childhood, and some of his first sexual stirrings, he paints a vivid picture of a young man yearning to be free in every way possible. This is the attitude which would bring him world-wide fame, and at the same time, this attitude helped to lead him off the beaten path at times, resulting in his incarceration for robbery at age 17, and then again for a supposed violation of the Mann Act in the early 1960’s. He also served 120 days for tax evasion in the early 1970’s, at a time when his career had gained new momentum. His candor in describing these periods in his life is admirable.

Mr. Berry was a victim of the unscrupulous practices which were then the norm in the music publishing business, including the song “Maybellene”, which listed DJ Allan Freed and Russ Fratto, the publisher, as co-writers. It took 25 years for Mr. Berry to get the rights back for his own song. And even then, most of the back royalties would never be realized.

The strong influence of his parents is evident in almost every aspect of the book, as the author recalls his father’s warning words of wisdom several times throughout this remarkable book. Filled with alliteration and internal rhymes, the book reads as fluently as one of his songs.

With a keen business sense, Mr. Berry is able to parlay his success in the entertainment industry into a successful career in real estate on the side. Beginning in 1957 he began work on Berry Park, a place where people could gather, picnic and listen to music in his hometown of St. Louis. It is still a work in progress, but does house a nightclub, and several other buildings, as well as a small lake. Several concerts were held there during the 1970’s, all to the benefit of the community.

The history of his joining, and then taking over, Johnnie Johnson’s band is given careful attention, helping to dispel the often told story that Mr. Berry simply came in and “took over.” As with most things, there is a second side to the story. Like-wise with the famous, but much overblown, story about not lyp-synching on American Bandstand as requested by Dick Clark. Although they did have a difference of opinion about the subject, it was never the clash of titans it was made out to be.

This is a very good book written by a very complex man who struggled to attain his goals at a time when many obstacles were placed in his path by society. It was written when Mr. Berry was 60 years old, and he is still with us today. It would be a gift to have Mr. Berry pen another volume covering the years since this book was written. So much has happened since then, including the release of “Hail, Hail, Rock and Roll”; a small clip of which is posted below.

At the risk of being redundant I will quote John Lennon once again; “If you were to try and give Rock and Roll another name it might be called Chuck Berry.” He was definitely right.

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