Some years ago, when I became friends with the sports biographer and historian Michael MacCambridge, I found myself eating lunch rather frequently at Blueberry Hill, a restaurant in University City within walking distance of Washington University, my place of employment, and a stone’s throw from the city of St. Louis itself. While lunching with Michael at Blueberry Hill, a nostaglic burger-and-fries place with the sort of ambience the Hard Rock Café has bestowed upon the tourist, we would inevitably seek out the owner, Joe Edwards, who in 1988 started the St. Louis Walk of Fame. (Chuck Berry’s sidewalk star is in front of Blueberry Hill.) Edwards is something of a St. Louis booster and a bit of an operator, identified with the renaissance of this part of the city, the border of Delmar Avenue, the racial dividing line of the side (north is for Negroes and south is for Mr. Charlie and Miss Ann, to speak whimsically). In short, Edwards is St. Louis’ main hipster gentrifier. He loves Berry’s music and maybe Berry himself.
Blueberry Hill is famous because Chuck Berry played its Duck Room, named in honor of Berry’s dance step, once a month. No visitor to St. Louis failed to check out a Berry show if he or she happened to be in town when Berry was known to be playing. When Michael and I lunched at Blueberry Hill, we would call Edwards over — he was frequently in the restaurant — and the first thing Michael would ask was “How is Chuck?” Edwards was thought to know better than anyone else, because as far as anyone knew — at least, as far as I knew — Edwards knew Berry better than anyone. Most people who wanted to contact Berry tried to find Joe Edwards.
Berry had the reputation of being a difficult man, prickly, bitter, petty, impossible to deal with. I suppose the only reasons anyone tolerated Berry acting like an ass were that, first, he was for a time in his life a musical genius who composed some very memorable, joyous yet poignant tunes of being young in America; second, everyone assumed that a black man who had been imprisoned three times — in the late 1940s for robbery, in the early ’60s for violation of the Mann Act — was probably more sinned against than sinning. Everyone in St. Louis knew that Berry did not have the fondest feeling in the world for his hometown, which opposed his youthful interracial (and adulterous) tomcatting at Berry Park in nearby Wentzville in the late 1950s, and later his old-age lechery that resulted in being accused of photographing women while they used the bathroom at his restaurant. It is easy enough to say that Berry was rather like the turn-of-the-20th-century black heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson, who was also imprisoned for violation of the Mann Act, and persecuted because of his penchant (fetish?) for white women, but Berry’s temperament and indiscretion complicate his victimhood. When a statue of Berry was erected across the street from Blueberry Hill a few years ago, more than a couple of people signed petitions and protested.
To Memphis, St. Louis is the north. To Chicago, it’s the south. To Kansas City, it’s the east. And to itself, St. Louis is “the gateway to the west.” Perhaps it’s only fitting the city should dub itself not exactly a location but a portal. St. Louis native Chuck Berry must have felt that he was from everywhere and nowhere simultaneously, as many black St. Louisans do. Perhaps it is this quality of being a transparency as much as a reflection, a kind of looking-glass world more poised than rooted, that makes St. Louis what it is, and made Berry’s monumental music what it was.
Gerald Early is an essayist, cultural critic and professor of English and African and African-American studies at Washington University in St. Louis.