Audre Lorde’s quote about not being able to dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools doesn’t fully articulate the flipside: you can if you create new tools.
Consider, for example, one of the most famous Chuck Berry videos ever:
Set aside for a moment the tension of the actual scene, early on in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994): John Travolta’s character has been asked to do a job, and Uma Thurman’s character is insisting he do it. The moment to enter the dance contest comes, they methodically slip off their shoes, they face each other, and the music starts. No one expects a Chuck Berry song, least of all that particular one, but the dancers click right into the mood, the era, the beat. They add a layer of mystery atop another winsome, the-kids-are-alright tale from Berry’s pen and his Gibson electric guitar. We haven’t forgotten the tension of the scene, but for that brief moment, the dancers have. They end up having a real good time.
While “You Never Can Tell” isn’t the first Chuck Berry song the universe played after he moved on up just a trifle further to the heavens on 18 March, that scene represents what was so special about his music. Simple tune structures, clever stories, distinctive singing, crisp playing, and a beat that made you wanna dance. His music represented freedom from the cares of the day, an excursion on the open road of possibility beyond all the cars he sang about. He sang about fun and gave us all a chance to have some fun while we sang along.
We were having so much fun, in fact, and have been having that same fun for so long, we almost forget one minor detail: Chuck Berry, who invented a singular style of expression that gave shape to a genre that would embed itself into the DNA of the pop culture of a generation or two, was a black man who spent the majority of his career entertaining white audiences all over everywhere with music more deeply rooted in black culture than they ever thought to ponder, and who emerged at a time when few blacks could even imagine such a career.
Let’s remember what 1955 when Berry got rolling, was like in America. Schools were still desegregated. Blacks were still denied the front of the bus and other public accommodations. Several baseball teams still had yet to sign a black player. The sight of blacks in non-subservient roles in film and on TV was still rare. Martin Luther King, Jr. was still the freshly minted pastor of his first church. At that moment, Emmett Till was still alive.
Into this environment exploded a hopped-up version of a country hit by some guy from St. Louis pushing 30, one who unsuspecting country fans had no idea was black. He’d been working out a sweet spot between blues, country, and jazz in St. Louis’ black nightclubs, but he was also pursuing a day job as a hairdresser. He asked Muddy Waters, one of the biggest black music stars of the day, how to get a record deal; Waters directed him to the headquarters of Chess Records in Chicago. He brought two of his bandmates up there for his first recording session. Thirty-six takes and one makeup-inspired name change later, “Maybelline” became history.
It emerged at no better moment. White youths were becoming entranced by the strange new sounds they heard late at night on the radio, a far cry from the innocuous crooners their parents favored. Wild saxes, insistent beats, banging pianos, loud guitars and louder vocals: the more the grown folks disavowed it, the harder their kids clung to it. Berry’s music was never quite that raucous, but it fit right in with the rebellious spirit young white audiences were craving.
Soon, he makes his crucial pivot: instead of singing to black grown-ups about grown-up stuff like he had been, he starts singing to white kids about kid stuff: romance, school, cars, dancing to music they could consider their very own. With Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven” already in its pocket as its first manifesto, rock ‘n’ roll never looked back.
Berry, then, wasn’t a crossover sensation who had an established black fan base and then got discovered by the mainstream. With his foot just recently in the door thanks to “Maybelline” and some follow-up hits, he intentionally courted a mainstream audience, re-shaped his music without watering it down, and became a god to a nation of millions he helped define.
It’s not that he never sang about black folk, but when he went there, he did so deftly. One could argue that “Roll Over Beethoven” was even more of a shot across the bow than it appeared: the lyric he twice alternates with the memo to Tchaikovsky, “dig these rhythm and blues”, announces with no lack of glee that the practice and commerce of clean white kids listening to that nasty black pop is here to stay. There’s the delicious, hiding-in-plain-sight “Brown Eyed Handsome Man”, his trickster-ish hit reciting scenarios in which the male-of-color body gets to have the last, victorious laugh for a change (and was first titled “Brown Skinned Handsome Man”). That little country boy named Johnny B. Goode was once a “little colored boy”. The irresistible “Let It Rock”, one of his ‘60s gems, isn’t about cars or girls but railroad workers near Mobile, Alabama escaping an unscheduled train’s approach, replete with tiny signifiers like “steel drivin’ hammer” and “rollin’ them bones ‘till the foreman comes back”.
Drill down some more, and you’ll see how thoroughly black culture informed Berry’s craft and showmanship. His new fans and disciples had no idea that his signature guitar licks and duck-walking on stage were actually extensions of what players like T-Bone Walker had been doing for years on the black entertainment circuit (similarly, later audiences wouldn’t make those connections to Jimi Hendrix and Prince). They had no idea how cleverly Berry incorporated black pop devices like stop-time (when the beat drops out for a few bars, and the singer or soloist keeps going—think of it as the inverse of a funk break) into rockin’ little ditties like “School Days”. Nor did they need to. All they needed to know was that it had a great beat and they, like Travolta and Thurman years later, could dance to it.
If that were all Berry would accomplish with his music, that would have been badass enough (unless you count his announcing on his 90th birthday plans to release a new album, which might well be his first chart-topper in 45 years if it comes to pass). But Berry was no fool, would not be treated as one, and not suffer any either. After years of being ripped off by promoters, publishers, his record label and whomever else (not to mention a career-stalling stint in jail behind Mann Act charges), Berry went gangsta on the world, handling his business on his own terms. He was no saint – ask director Taylor Hackford, who filmed a concert documentary on him, or the women he allegedly videotaped without their knowledge—but he was at least consistent about his money.
He would dispense with a regular touring band. Why take on the expense of bringing musicians on the road when there were aspiring combos in every town who already knew all your music (not that it was all that intricate to begin with), and would be overjoyed to receive a pittance for playing with their god? (How must it have felt to know with absolute certainty that almost anywhere you went, you could job in anonymous journeymen who loved your repertoire and could render it competently?) When he arrived for the show, he would insist on payment in advance, in cash, and don’t be one dollar short (too bad he apparently neglected to pay his proper share of taxes on that, which landed him in jail for another brief stretch).
Let’s not forget that since the height of his hit-making days, he’d been doing all this for predominantly white audiences. R&B was evolving rapidly, taking on new colors and leaving post-WWII styles behind. By the early ‘60s, the guitar was seldom heard as a lead instrument in black pop, and solo auteurs like Berry would be few and far between. Meanwhile, thanks to Berry and the blues stars of the day, the guitar became the dominant instrument of rock, which was already being seen as a white thing that black folk didn’t bother themselves with (a schism that would hang over Hendrix until the day he died, and for years afterward).
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If you watch Berry concert videos, you won’t see many black faces in the audience (unless you count his 1973 appearance on Soul Train) or on stage with him. This doesn’t seem to have been all that galling a concern to Berry, whose favorite color by then was clearly green.
But it has limited the appreciation of Berry within the black cultural pantheon. In my review of the book Muslim Cool), I noted the inclusion of Berry in a poster for a 2008 event during Black History Month in Chicago. Author Su’ad Abdul Khabeer noted how having Berry’s famous duckwalk pose in the collage, alongside the likenesses of Malcolm X and Angela Davis, “stands as a counterpoint to histories that write Blackness out of rock and roll.” Those understandings have been written and shaped over the years by both black and white voices. Movements like Afropunk and the Black Rock Coalition have acted to rebut that narrative, but they’ve been more focused on lifting up post-Hendrix black rockers and present-day genre-twisters than on reclaiming Berry as a suitable god for black folk, too.
Chuck Berry’s music was so easy for anyone and everyone to enjoy, so integral to the popular notion of rock as a phenomenon driven by mainstream youth consumption (as opposed to artistic production and entrepreneurship by outsiders to the mainstream), and so unconcerned with repping any specific cultural identity besides youth at its most blissful, we’ve all but lost sight of how black it was at its core (and this by no means lessens the importance of its country roots). But there are numerous moments in the vast online trove of Berry performances in which his music’s blackness—and his own—peeks through, however subtly.
Some of them happened in 1972 on a German TV soundstage, with Berry backed by a crackerjack British band. In one instance, he leads them through the breakdown of “Let It Rock”: nothing complicated, he just wants to make sure they have it nailed. Once he’s convinced of that, he strides to the mic, gives it a grown-man nod of approval (he’s 46, his band might be around half that age), decrees “OK, we’re ready,” and they proceed to, well, let it rock:
There’s also the point a little past three minutes into a mid-tempo rendition of “You Never Can Tell”, when he comes out of the break so sweetly it makes him damn near jump back and kiss himself, before getting right back into it:
But wait, there’s more: their take of “Carol” begins after some sort of missed cue or another. Berry gently chides the piano player, “are you ready… again?” Then he has a minor flub of his own. But it’s all straightened out, and off they go into the song. About 40 seconds in, right after he sings to Carol “don’t ever steal your heart away”, Berry gives a wink to someone off-screen—the control booth? A lady friend? Whomever?—as if to say, “Don’t worry, I got this.” And then, in perfect time, he concludes the lyrical thought—“I’m gonna learn to dance if it takes me all night and day”—and dances up a storm with his guitar and band of brothers-for-hire for the next four glorious minutes:
Hail hail Chuck Berry, the slyest gangsta we’re likely to see for a while.