Chuck Berry, a Revolutionary Black Figure Who Never Hid His Rage

Terry O'Neill/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Backstage during the filming of Taylor Hackford’s 1986 documentary Hail! Hail ! Rock ‘n’ Roll.

If you start off as a fearsome figure in pop culture, it’s almost ­axiomatic that at some point years under the lights softens you into a ­cuddly family figure. Ice Cube went straight outta Compton to hearing “Are we there yet?” Eddie Murphy blew up ­striding across the stage in a red leather ensemble that would have made Elvis Presley chuckle, yet is probably best known to anyone born in the 21st century as the overly chatty ­donkey from Shrek. And Chuck Berry’s giddy, witty paeans to the things revved-up teens wanted -- cars, big beats and love ­(basically, the ethos of hip-hop) -- became the stuff of cotton candy-wrapped ­nostalgia in ­movies and ­commercials, and an amusing answer to a question (“What was Chuck Berry’s only No. 1 single?”) that probably still sends people to their phones. The answer: his 1972 cover of “My Ding-a-ling,” a leaden version of ­innuendo. Since “Ding-a-ling” was originally a song with a Sesame Street ­version of ­insinuation that Berry chose to splatter with unironic opportunism (and possibly bodily fluids), it’s ­hilarious that it may have alerted a whole ­generation of kids to Berry’s existence. Unlike other African-American performers who ­eventually became ­entertainers the whole family could enjoy -- especially if you ignored their ­volatile history -- Berry was a fascinatingly protean figure, an aggressive and ambitious black man who draped pleasant and colorful word tapestries over his stream of tribute to ­adolescent hormones -- which would serve to belie his own anger.

Berry was a transitional and, to my mind, ­revolutionary black figure who had to find a place for the rage that the crucible of racism created. Chuck Berry was born in St. Louis, the same place that gave us Maya Angelou and Sonny Liston (it’s where Angelou was born and Liston spent part of his youth). Liston was the terrifying figure of black fury who worked out his anger in the ring. After a series of horrific childhood traumas, Angelou didn’t speak publicly for several years. She ­developed her powers of language and observation during her period of silence. And Berry could’ve stepped into the space between the two of them, that intersection of volubility and violence.

Berry chose to funnel his freshet of ­frustration into such confections as “Maybellene,” its stomp-heavy backbeat lightened by what felt like a wink. At least that was the feeling on the recorded ­versions of his hits. I saw Berry in concert a couple of times in the late ’70s -- and like almost every North American male of a certain age, I went because a friend was hired by Berry that very day to be part of the legend’s backup band. (It almost takes us back to Sesame Street; I came to believe that if you could count to eight, Berry would hire you.) As slender as a stiletto, he hit the stage with a snarl, and as his band struggled to keep up -- maybe it was more like counting to eight while live grenades were being flung at you -- he ­radiated a palpable sense of menace. The verses had come to feel like rave-up nursery rhymes to the ­audience, but not to Berry; charging through the set without ever looking at the band or his guitar, he could’ve instead been singing the refrain that ran so often through Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, courtesy of another music figure trapped in a blanket of gauzy likability, Louis Armstrong: “What did I do to be so black and blue?”

Whereas Armstrong came to trade in on a dazed sweetness as a public figure (it was only jazz ­aficionados who knew him as an ur-hipster whose stoner cred was so deep that he smoked weed ­supplied by the government), Berry didn’t bother to mask the seething that came from being trapped between two worlds, as he brought ­modern desire into pop but wasn’t allowed to exercise any agency because of his color. He used songs to ­highlight the meta-life that black celebrities with a brain had to endure -- an awareness that he could sing about things he could never have, and trying to run his ­fingers through the Boschian soil he sang about was the ­surest way ­imaginable to end up in jail. Probably the ultimate tribute/metaphor came in the 1985 blockbuster Back to the Future, where Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) -- a ­visitor from the far-flung time of Pepsi Free and Huey Lewis & The News -- pounds and slides through a rock’n’roll set employing riffs that he stole from Berry in a band led by Marvin Berry, Chuck’s fictional cousin. The sick joke is the movie’s spin on white culture stealing from black culture, and Berry would already have been a star in the real world. But one can’t help but imagine Berry’s grimace/grin, as mirthless as sin, as he watched the movie, and then went out and ­continued to bang through his life-long oldies tour. Given that Berry seemed to use pop as a way to obscure his criminal background from paying ­customers, it was almost sadly fitting that Back to the Future blurred his originality (even though he did his apprenticeship with blues musicians, he synthesized his licks into something uniquely his).

Berry’s impact was felt in the movies, both through his songs -- an earthy angel ­presence while John Travolta and Uma Thurman twist to “You Never Can Tell” in Pulp Fiction, a ­steadying hand in George Lucas’ sophomore effort American Graffiti -- or in ­person, with a towering star turn in Floyd Mutrux’s unheralded 1978 B-movie American Hot Wax, where Berry owns the stage. (He also played himself in a handful of ’50s rock/schlock films like Mr. Rock and Roll, where his rueful smile seems to prove he’s in on some secret, shameful joke in which his contribution to the culture is being belittled in front of him). It was ­business as usual to make himself into a figure of diversion, but the awestruck love the camera had for him was always unabashed. (That the ­movies didn’t know what to do with him was clearly part of the racism that lives in film to this very day.) The pinnacle of Berry’s onscreen time was in Taylor Hackford’s thorny and ­gripping ­tribute ­documentary, 1987’s Hail! Hail! Rock ‘N’ Roll, in which he finally got to play with a band of loving worshippers equal to his ­talent. And, rather than turn misty-eyed, his lack of sentimentality makes Berry an extraordinarily sympathetic ­character, though many (including a bemused Keith Richards) would shout their disagreement from the rooftops. Perhaps it’s because Berry realized, long after the film was available from third-party sellers on Amazon, he would still be on the road alone with his flintiness. Almost grown, indeed.

This article appears in the April 1 issue of Billboard.