The Music They Made
This series will periodically present profiles of the living pioneers and innovators of rock 'n' roll, and the musicians outside their ranks who have shaped its sound. He is one of rock 'n' roll's most influential and enigmatic figures. A musician, singer and composer, Mr. Berry has influenced the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen.
BIOGRAPHY Born on Oct. 18, 1926, in a middle-class, segregated
enclave of St. Louis and named Charles Edward Anderson Berry. He still lives in
St. Louis and performs in clubs.
TOP RECORDINGS His first single, "Maybellene," on Chess Records in 1955, reached No. 5 on the pop charts and No. 1 on the R & B charts.
Other hits include "Roll Over Beethoven" and "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" in 1956, "Rock and Roll Music" in 1957, "Johnny B. Goode" in 1958 and "Nadine" in 1964.
His albums include "Chuck Berry Is on Top" (Chess), made in 1959 and reissued in 1987; "Chuck Berry's Greatest Hits" (1964); and the movie soundtrack "Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll" (1987).
Chuck Berry, approximately four years old in this photo, was born in 1926, in a middle-class, segregated enclave of St. Louis.
Michael Ochs Archives
Mr. Berry in a publicity photo from the 50's
Michael Ochs Archives
Mr. Berry, in the early 60's
Courtesy of Hound Archives
Mr. Berry's recorded his first hit "Maybelline" for Chicago-based Chess Records in 1955. "Sweet Little Sixteen" was another hit for Chess in 1957
doing his signature duck walk in 1965. He says it originated when he tried to
retrieve a ball under his parents' kitchen table.
Still lean and handsome at 76 and probably the most influential rock musician ever, at least this side of Elvis, Mr. Berry remains as suspicious, defiant and guarded offstage as he is mesmerizing on. In a life overshadowed by three prison terms, his own inner demons and the humiliations of racism, he now carefully avoids any public hint of the anger and resentment that seem to lurk just beneath the surface.
His eyes narrow as he speaks. "Had I been pushed like Colonel Parker pushed Elvis, had I been a white boy like Elvis, sure, it would have been different," said Mr. Berry, a onetime autoworker who was the first to fuse the blues, country music and rhythm-and-blues with a creativity and wit that spoke directly to American teenagers. A result was vivid songs with complex riffs on his electric guitar that have influenced virtually every rock musician since the 1960's.
"But look," he said. "The last 10 years have been the best. I've had more awards, more praise. My highest dollars have come in. I'm satisfied."
Satisfaction has often proved elusive to Mr. Berry. The high point of his career, from the mid-50's through the 60's, was distinguished by about 40 songs, many of them early rock 'n' roll classics.
He became famous with "Maybellene" in 1955. It was followed by "Roll Over Beethoven," "Brown Eyed Handsome Man," "Johnny B. Goode," "School Days," "Nadine" and "Rock and Roll Music."
Although Little Richard and Fats Domino may have been the earliest black stars to sell rock to white audiences, Mr. Berry was the first to break down racial barriers, not only with his electric guitar but also with wordplay and imagery. As Paul Friedlander writes in his book "Rock and Roll: A Social History," Mr. Berry "created the most literate, stylistically innovative and original music of the era." If the formulaic lyrics of early rockers were narrowly focused on boy meets girl, Mr. Berry's songs went beyond this to appeal to the concerns of white adolescents dealing with issues like parents, dancing, cars, lust and new tastes in music, along with teenage romance.
His influence is so sprawling that the list of rock greats who owe him a large debt includes virtually everyone in the pantheon. John Lennon once said, "If you tried to give rock 'n' roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry."
Identifying Mr. Berry as "the greatest of the rock 'n' rollers," the rock critic Robert Christgau wrote, "By adding blues tone to some fast country runs, and yoking them to a rhythm-and-blues beat and some unembarrassed electrification, he created an instrumental style with biracial appeal."
He also forged the style for rock 'n' roll guitar that's still current. "For him, the guitar was more than an accompanying prop hanging off his shoulders," Joe Stuessy and Scott Lipscomb write in "Rock and Roll: Its History and Stylistic Development." In Mr. Berry's hands, they observed, the guitar "was a frontline instrument, often on a par with the lead vocal. The statement-and-answer technique in which the guitar mimics the just-completed vocal line is related to the two-bar or four-bar `tradeoffs' found in jazz. It is as if Berry and his guitar are doing a duet."
Turning Country Into Rock
When Mr. Berry recorded "Maybellene" for the Chicago-based Chess Records, he was inspired, he said, by a country-western song, "Ida Red." Leonard Chess, one of the owners, told him he didn't like the title.
As Johnnie Johnson, the piano player and Mr. Berry's longtime collaborator,
recalled, Mr. Chess suggested "Maybellene" after noticing a
Maybellene cosmetics box on a windowsill beside a secretary's desk.
In "Maybellene," Mr. Berry's approach to the mass audience of suburban white teenagers was as ebullient as a fast-car fantasy:
As I was motivatin' over the hill
I saw Maybellene in a Coupe DeVille
A Cadillac arollin' on the open road
Nothin' will outrun my V8 Ford.
With the help of a disc jockey, Alan Freed, the record became one of the
first by a black artist to outsell its white cover versions.
It also gave Mr. Berry his st taste of music-industry bitterness. Initially he was listed as the writer. Once the song hit the charts, two other names were added: those of Mr. Freed, who often played songs in exchange for credit, and of Russ Fratto, the landlord of the Chess Company offices in Chicago. Mr. Berry's successful battle to reclaim the rights lasted three decades, a victory that came only after hundreds of thousands of dollars had been divided three ways.
Asked if he felt robbed, Mr. Berry said tightly: "It's been years ago, man, and so many good things have happened to me. The feeling of being ripped off I found out about that later." But within moments, when asked about his biggest disappointment, Mr. Berry said: "When I discovered that I didn't get the entire credit for something that I created when I should have that's a disappointment. That was the biggest disappointment. And it was more than one incident that happened."
There were other issues, sexual and racial, that intertwined and in some ways dominated his life. He once accused the St. Louis police of singling him out in the 1950's and 60's because he owned a nightclub with an interracial clientele. His odd autobiography, "Chuck Berry," (Harmony Books, 1987), is packed with sexual escapades, although he's been married since 1948 to Themetta Berry, called Toddy. His book also includes scary incidents with the police or with white men who saw him driving or dancing with white women.
But the most devastating episode in Mr. Berry's life was his trial and conviction in 1961 for violating the Mann Act, which prohibits the transportation of women or girls across state lines for the purposes of prostitution. Mr. Berry was convicted of charges involving Janice Norine Escalanti, a 14-year-old hatcheck girl. (She complained to the police after Mr. Berry fired her from her job at his St. Louis club, Club Bandstand.)
Mr. Berry's 20-month imprisonment left him broken and outraged. He said he felt hounded by the police because of his association with white women. He was actually tried more than once: the first conviction was thrown out because of the judge's incendiary racial comments, including his constant use of the word "nigra." In the trials, which took place before white male juries, the prosecution depicted Mr. Berry as a sexual predator, and the outcomes seem, to some degree, racially motivated.
In the recently published biography "Brown Eyed Handsome Man: The Life and Hard Times of Chuck Berry," (Routledge), Bruce Pegg writes: "The issue in the trials was one of Janice Escalanti's age. But as with everything in Berry's life there's always an ambiguity that he is as much a victim as perpetrator." By the time Mr. Berry left federal prison, he was, by some accounts, a different man.
"Never saw a man so changed," Carl Perkins, the songwriter, singer and guitarist, once told Michael Lydon, a journalist, as he recalled a 1964 tour of Britain with Mr. Berry. "He had been an easygoing guy before, the kinda guy who'd jam in dressing rooms, sit and swap licks and jokes. In England he was cold, real distant and bitter. It wasn't just jail. It was those years of one-nighters; grinding it out like that can kill a man. But I figure it was mostly jail."
The changes, reflected in his often-difficult personality and his precise and demanding requirements on the road, have often exasperated his admirers.
Contempt for Followers
Keith Richards, the Rolling Stones' guitarist, said in 1986 at Mr. Berry's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, "I lifted every lick he ever played." But Mr. Berry's treatment of Mr. Richards, who idolizes him, offers a glimpse into Mr. Berry's sometimes harsh and incomprehensible ways. By some accounts, Mr. Berry views Mr. Richards's superstardom as more of an affront than a tribute.
Mr. Berry once kicked Mr. Richards off a stage in Hollywood for playing too loudly and once punched him backstage after he tapped him on the shoulder. Mr. Berry also threw a lighted match down Mr. Richards's shirt at the Los Angeles airport.
Mr. Berry says he doesn't recall those incidents, although Mr. Richards has spoken of them. Mr. Berry has had a similarly tense and competitive relationship with his younger contemporary Jerry Lee Lewis. (Mr. Lewis and his father once used a racial slur to describe Mr. Berry, who had to be restrained from hitting them.) Once, Mr. Berry heard Mr. Lewis declare himself the "king of rock 'n' roll" and promptly punched him in the nose.
Asked about his relationship with Mr. Lewis, Mr. Berry said, "He's an artist that I played with a number of times." He was asked if he liked him. "I don't know what you mean by like," Mr. Berry replied coolly.
Backstage at Blueberry Hill, dressed 70's style in a sequined aqua shirt and tight flared black pants as he waited to go on, Mr. Berry professed to have little interest in the idolatrous praise given him by rock 'n' roll stars like Mr. Richards, Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen and Eric Clapton.
"People said I was king, but I was never king, and I say I'm the prime minister," Mr. Berry said, reflecting his view that he never achieved the megastardom he deserved. "Praise doesn't mean anything to me. I don't judge myself."
Unlike many other early rock 'n' rollers, including Bo Diddley, Mr. Berry was not reared in poverty. Born Charles Edward Anderson Berry on Oct. 18, 1926, he grew up in his family's three-room brick cottage at 2250 Goode Avenue, "a nicely kept area in the best of the three colored sections of St. Louis," he recalled later. The neighborhood, known as the Ville, was a thriving black community north and west of downtown St. Louis. Mr. Berry's parents, Henry and Martha, came from polyglot roots: African, Chihuahua Indian and European. His father worked in a flourmill and later as a repairman in apartment buildings.
Mr. Berry's deeply religious parents sang in the Antioch Baptist Church, and even before learning to walk, their son began pounding on the family's piano and listening to the Victrola. The Berrys were musical: another son later played the trumpet, and a daughter sang with Marian Anderson.
Mr. Berry's life was remarkably cloistered. He recalls not seeing a white person until he was about 3, when he encountered some firemen at a blaze. "I thought they were so frightened that their faces were whitened from fear of going near the big fire," Mr. Berry said. "Daddy told me they were white people, and their skin was always white that way, day or night."
Judging by his candid autobiography, which he wrote without the help of a ghostwriter, Mr. Berry was stirred by two forces in his early years (and his late years, too): sex and music. "My 12th was my most Christian and most boring year of my life," Mr. Berry writes. "Try as I did, day after day, to cling to righteousness, I was washed down in suds of sinful surroundings."
His earliest influences were boogie-woogie, blues and swing. He spent hours listening to the blues men Tampa Red, Lonnie Johnson, Arthur Crudup and Muddy Waters, and later to Louis Jordan, T-Bone Walker, Buddy Johnson, Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Harry James and Nat King Cole.
"Nat Cole's diction, his speech and his delivery was something that I can't get from a lot of rappers today," Mr. Berry said backstage. "And a lot of that country-western can't hear what they're saying."
A Bold Early Step
A significant moment in his early life was a musical performance in 1941 at Sumner High School, which had a middle-class black student body. In a daring move, Mr. Berry refused to sing a tired classic like "Danny Boy" or "I Dream of Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair," turning instead to the popular and bold "Confessin' the Blues."
"It wasn't a raunchy song, but it wasn't `I Dream of Jeanie' either," Mr. Berry recalled. He began singing quietly:
Baby, I stand before you
With my heart in my hand
I want you to read it, Momma,
hoping you will understand.
Mr. Berry said, "He was giving her a love letter." He laughed. "I sang my heart out. I just felt so good. Where did I get the courage?" The students went wild. But more significant, Mr. Berry was enthralled by the guitar accompaniment of another student, Tommy Stevens, who had played at nightclubs.
"It was then that my determination to play guitar and accompany myself while singing became an amendment to my religion," he said.
He borrowed a four-string tenor guitar and learned to play it, partly through a book, "Nick Manoloff's Guitar Book of Chords," and partly with the help of neighbors. He began working at parties.
Mr. Berry said he soon discovered that the harmony of many popular songs was derived from the chords of George Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm" and were known as songs with rhythm changes. They ranged from "At Last" and "Heart and Soul" to "Blue Moon." Others are based on blues chords. Only a few, like "Silent Night," "Deep Purple" and "Stardust," have their own specific progressions.
In 1944, still in high school at 17 and feeling restless, Mr. Berry decided to drive to California in a 1937 Oldsmobile with two friends. This led to one of the first wild and disruptive incidents in his life.
He had the remains of a pistol he said he had found in a used-car lot. It was useless, he recalled, but resembled a .22-caliber weapon. The three teenagers began a Missouri robbery spree in a bakery, a barber shop and a clothing store in Kansas City. They also stole a vehicle near Columbia, Mo., after their car broke down. Eventually seized by a highway policeman, they were held for a month in the Boone County jail before standing trial and being sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment.
Mr. Pegg writes: "As Berry tells the tale, their crime spree was nothing more than adolescent high jinks; like much of what was to happen later in his life, however, the incident was not without ambiguities. Berry's actions were clearly dangerous and antisocial; at the same time, his legal advice (such as it was), trial and sentencing were infused with the racism one would expect of a rural Missouri court in the 1940's." The judge, although acknowledging that Mr. Berry had never been convicted of a felony, unhesitatingly gave him the maximum sentence.
Mr. Berry served three years at the Algoa Intermediate Reformatory for Young Men, near Jefferson City. He organized a singing quartet and band there, was a boxer (his nickname was Wild Man) and, as he depicts it, had a chaste but sexually charged relationship with the assistant superintendent's wife. He was released at 21.
Seven months later, Mr. Berry met Themetta Suggs, who was working in a dry cleaner's, and married her after a five-month courtship. He began working two jobs; one at Fisher Body Motors and the other at a plant making 105-millimeter shells. Then he trained as a beautician, following two of his sisters.
By late 1950 or early 1951, Mr. Stevens, his former classmate, invited him to join his three-piece combo as a guitarist. With him playing and singing the blues, the band began to make its name. This was largely because Mr. Stevens left Mr. Berry free to sing what he wanted, including "hillbilly music."
In December 1952, Mr. Johnson, the piano player, asked Mr. Berry to join his trio for a New Year's Eve gig at the Cosmopolitan Club, an upscale, predominantly black club in East St. Louis, Ill. By Easter, the trio was packing the nightclub every weekend.
Mr. Johnson once said that Mr. Berry's dancing and guitar playing his focus on pleasing the crowd was a prime factor in his success. "When Chuck started with me, he didn't know but 12 songs all the way through and couldn't play the guitar that well," Mr. Johnson told his biographer, Travis Fitzpatrick. "I've seen Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Rolling Stones. Ain't none of them can hold a crowd like Chuck. That's his talent. Chuck Berry is an entertainer."
At the Cosmopolitan, Mr. Berry worked up a repertory of boogies and blues but also played around with the lyrics of old country songs. "Some of the clubgoers started whispering, `Who is that black hillbilly at the Cosmo?' " Mr. Berry recalls in his autobiography. "After that, they laughed at me a few times, they began requesting the hillbilly stuff and enjoyed trying to dance to it."
Mr. Berry's calculated showmanship began luring larger white audiences to the club. He also began singing the songs of Nat King Cole and Muddy Waters. "Listening to Nat Cole prompted me to sing sentimental songs with distinct diction," he said at Blueberry Hill. "The songs of Muddy Waters impelled me to deliver the down-home blues in the language they came from. When I played hillbilly songs, I stressed my diction so that it was harder and whiter. All in all, it was my intention to hold both the black and the white clientele by voicing the different kinds of songs in their customary tongues."
His confidence and onstage magnetism propelled him to glide around the stage in what became his trademark duck walk. According to Mr. Berry, its origins were in his childhood, when one day his rubber ball fell beneath a kitchen table where his mother and some church choir members were sitting. Joking, he stooped with his knees fully bent, keeping his head and back straight, and began scooting to reach the ball. The grown-ups laughed. From then on, his mother asked him to repeat the maneuver. Years later in New York, he did it again. A journalist christened it the "duck walk."
A Fateful Meeting
By 1955, Mr. Berry had taken over Mr. Johnson's band and was eager for a recording career. On a visit to Chicago, he visited the Palladium, a South Side club, where Muddy Waters was performing. "He was the inspiration, my idol," he said. A friend introduced them, and Mr. Berry asked Mr. Waters whom to see about making a record.
"Leonard Chess," Waters responded.
After a brief conversation in the offices of Chess Records, home to many black artists in the early days of rock 'n' roll, Mr. Chess asked Mr. Berry for a tape. He was back in a week with what turned into "Maybellene." The song, which hinted at a marriage between country music and rock 'n' roll, was released that July 30.
"With its opening guitar run a rapid mixture of notes and chords the song had a relentless energy, a similar feel to Bo Diddley's first single (`Bo Diddley') but with a different style and a lighter sound," Nadine Cohodas writes in "Spinning Blues Into Gold: The Chess Brothers and the Legendary Chess Records." Ms. Cohodas adds, "And then there were Berry's unconventional lyrics, unusual words, perhaps, but creating an unmistakable mood." Beyond this, critics noted that Mr. Berry played a twangy "chop-chop-chop," using a staccato beat.
The beat was derived from Bill Haley and the Comets. "Berry's clear enunciation probably enabled the record to `pass for white' " writes Charlie Gillett in "The Sound of the City: The Rise of Rock and Roll."
In September, "Maybellene" reached No. 1 on Billboard's R & B chart and had crossed over into the pop chart. By the end of the year, the song had sold a million copies and Mr. Berry had been named Most Promising R & B Artist in Billboard's annual disc jockey poll. Almost overnight, he had become one of the country's most popular artists.
In the same breath, Mr. Berry recently praised and criticized Leonard Chess and his brother. "They were great," he said. "They weren't honest but they were very helpful in my career. They gave me the first chance. That's a beauty. To rob somebody or to not give somebody what belongs to them is not honest. So they're both, you know. But they were good to me and cool."
A line of hits followed, including "School Days," "Sweet Little Sixteen" and "Johnny B. Goode." Like Elvis Presley's records, they were rooted in white teenage culture, black R & B and country and western music.
"I wrote songs white people could buy, because that's nine pennies out of every dime," Mr. Berry once said. Recently he emphasized: "I made records for people who would buy them. No color, no ethnic, no political I don't want that, never did."
Still, some of his most famous music, like "Brown Eyed Handsome Man," carries subversive overtones. In that song Mr. Berry mocks racial and sexual taboos by explaining how the Venus de Milo had "lost both her arms in a wrestling match/to get a brown eyed handsome man."
There were limits to a black performer's success in Mr. Berry's golden era. Asked whether it was humiliating to tour the segregated South, he answered obliquely: "You're looking at it like a white person would. Would it humiliate you if you went to a country where it said no person with black hair or dark brown eyes would be allowed? You pass it by. You know about it. It's not anything new to you."
The experience that derailed him was his Mann Act conviction. In Juarez, Mexico, Mr. Berry had met Ms. Escalanti, who accompanied him to El Paso, Tucson, Phoenix, Kansas City and St. Louis. When he dismissed her from his club, he bought her a bus ticket home. She phoned the police in Yuma, Ariz., where she perhaps hoped to stay, and they alerted the St. Louis police, who arrested Mr. Berry.
However tough his prison experience, Mr. Berry was determined to resume his career. He used his term to complete his high school education and write songs. Two of them were released in 1964: "Nadine," a loosely reshaped version of "Maybellene," and "You Never Can Tell," about a teenage wedding. Meanwhile, the Beatles and the Stones both took his music to almost unimaginable heights of popularity.
This didn't necessarily please him. Bill Wyman, the Stones' former bass player, recalled that Mr. Jagger and Mr. Watts were once in a hotel elevator in London when the door opened to reveal Mr. Berry, who was on a successful tour. Mr. Berry "stepped in, saw the two Stones, turned his back and, when the doors opened again, walked out without saying a word," he said.
By the late 60's, Mr. Berry's career began to slow, losing ground to breakthrough improvisers like Mr. Clapton, Mike Bloomfield and Jimi Hendrix, who all paid tribute to him while venturing away from his formulas. But in 1972 he unexpectedly struck gold with a silly and risquι song, "My Ding-A-Ling," which was recorded before 35,000 students in Coventry, England.
As on other occasions in Mr. Berry's life, this career surge was soon undercut by personal troubles. The Internal Revenue Service did a five-year investigation of him, and by 1979, the government had indicted him for evading about $109,000 in taxes and for filing false returns for income earned in 1973. Mr. Berry accepted a plea bargain and was sentenced to 120 days in federal prison and four years' probation, which included a requirement that he perform 1,000 hours of community service. A United Press International report of the sentencing said Mr. Berry had twice burst into tears.
From the White House to Jail. The sentencing took place three days after President Jimmy Carter had honored Mr. Berry at the White House in a celebration of the Black Music Association. During a speech there, Mr. Berry said that when he heard President Carter mention his name, "a very warm feeling for my country came over me."
"Believe me, I think I'm a different person," he continued, alluding to his troubles. And then with a smile he added, "I'll try to entertain you." So he picked up his guitar and did "Roll Over Beethoven."
Mr. Berry's life in the 1980's and 90's was an erratic mix of concerts, honors and scandal. In 1987 he was arrested by the police on assault charges at the Gramercy Park Hotel in New York, where a woman said he had beaten her up. Eventually Mr. Berry pleaded guilty to harassment, and was fined $250.
In 1990 several women sued him, claiming that he had videotaped them in the bathroom of a restaurant he owned in St. Louis. His biographer, Mr. Pegg, estimated that it cost him $1.2 million as well as substantial legal fees to reach a settlement. His lawyers said he had been the victim of a conspiracy to profit from his wealth.
Backstage at Blueberry Hill, Mr. Berry declined to talk about many of the legal issues that have dogged him. But despite the turmoil and setbacks, Mr. Pegg observed that there was "a very private Chuck Berry, open and warm to those he let into his world." But, he added, "there was the other side, too, very controlling, very aggressive." (Mr. Berry refused to speak to Mr. Pegg during the six years he worked on the biography.)
The other side of what Mr. Pegg describes as a truly enigmatic personality is revealed in stories that go well beyond Mr. Richards's travails. Mr. Berry performs about 50 shows a year, and his demands are unusual: he generally earns about $30,000 to $35,000 for an arena show, but the money must be placed in his bank account before the show. He used to receive cash and only cash before each performance.
He will give no encores unless he is paid extra. A contract with each club stipulates the exact times he will appear and depart. If a show is delayed, he generally walks away. Met by a club representative at an airport, Mr. Berry often barely nods, sometimes doesn't shake hands and walks to the car provided for him. He demands a Lincoln Town Car that he drives himself. If a promoter sends a stretch limousine with a driver, Mr. Berry sends it back. One publicity agent recalled showing up breathless at an airport just as Mr. Berry arrived. Mr. Berry responded with rage that the agent wasn't already waiting for him.
He also demands a Fender Bassman amplifier, and if one is not provided, he
demands a fine of $2,000 paid before the show.
Taylor Hackford, director of "Chuck Berry, Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll," a 1987 documentary in which Mr. Richards, Mr. Clapton, Linda Ronstadt, Mr. Springsteen and others celebrate Mr. Berry's 60th birthday, recalled "maddening" moments making the film. Many artists arrived in St. Louis to pay tribute to Mr. Berry, but on the first morning of the shoot, Mr. Hackford recalled, his star did not appear. That afternoon, Mr. Hackford said, a phone rang at a booth on the street in front of the Fox Theater on Grand Avenue in midtown St. Louis, where they were supposed to film. It was Mr. Berry asking for the film's producer.
How Mr. Berry knew the phone number is unclear, but his message was direct. Although he was supposed to earn $500,000 from Universal Pictures for his participation, he insisted on $2,500 in cash before he would appear on the first day, Mr. Hackford said. Mr. Berry often asks for a cash payment before a performance, but the production team was startled. This, after all, was a tribute to him. But the payment was made and rehearsals began.
Days later, as the concert started for the documentary, Mr. Richards, who was musical director, walked offstage in midsong, as Mr. Berry yelled at him again, after having repeatedly hurled insults at him throughout the filming. One guest star, Robbie Robertson, dropped out, and Bob Dylan canceled his appearance, blaming illness.
Mr. Hackford said of Mr. Berry: "He's a really complex character, a man who knows he's changed the face of American music but, at the same time, still a black man who was sent to jail for bringing a white girl across the border." (Although Ms. Escalanti is an American Indian, she is commonly believed to be white.)
Mr. Hackford said part of the problem was that Mr. Berry was not fully aware of his gifts. "As a songwriter, he's extraordinary, but I don't think he gives himself much credit for that," he said. "He sees himself as a guitarist. His ego isn't in the right place."
Mr. Berry once saw Nat King Cole walk across a street in New York City, but was too intimidated to approach him, Mr. Hackford said. "He felt, `I'm not worthy, I can't shake his hand,' " he said. "Chuck Berry will die an incredibly complicated man."
Dick Alen, Mr. Berry's agent at William Morris for 40 years, spoke of Mr. Berry's inner strength." "He keeps anger very much to himself," he said. "We sometimes travel together, but he doesn't open up personally." But, he added, if someone understands Mr. Berry's rules, he is actually easy to get along with. "He sets the guidelines and lives by them," he said.
Giving What's Asked, Never More
At performances, if Mr. Berry has a contract that says he will appear for 60 minutes starting at 8 p.m., he will sometimes stand backstage gazing at his watch, waiting to go on at exactly 8, not later, not earlier.
Mr. Berry explained: "A contract is an ask game, and if it asks for an hour, and I submit to an hour, then it's an hour. When I look at a contract, I look at the obligation where, when, how long, the compensation. If I agree to it, that's the way it is. I have an obligation. They have an obligation."
"It wasn't difficult for me to follow a contract," he said. "It was difficult for the shysters who cut the corners."
The one place where Mr. Berry seems to relax is Blueberry Hill, named after the Fats Domino song. He began performing there monthly in 1996, after becoming friendly over the previous decade with the owners, Joe Edwards and his wife, Linda.
He always eats the same dinner before a show: chicken wings and French fries, washed down with plenty of orange juice. The performances, which involve nearly an hour of singing his classics, often include his son Charles Jr. on drums, and his daughter Ingrid Berry Clay on the harmonica. He hands over the microphone to musician-friends in the audience and appears to have a good time. By the end of a show, which often packs in 350 people, including Japanese, British and French tourists, Mr. Berry can seem depleted, drenched in sweat.
Mr. Edwards added: "I think his anger has dissipated. I think he's more confident and comfortable than he has been in years."
Although Mr. Berry's wife apparently left him for a period after the Mann Act conviction, they celebrated their golden wedding anniversary in 1998 by renewing their vows before their four children and their grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Mr. Berry has not made a record in 22 years, but says he is working on one now. "Why haven't I done it?" he said. "Laziness. At this age I want free time."
Does he consider himself an architect of rock 'n' roll? "I don't think that way," he said coolly. "My music is simple stuff. Anybody can sit down, look at a set of symbols and produce sounds the music represents."
"A song is a song," he said. "But there are some songs, ah, some songs are the greatest. The Beatles song `Yesterday.' Listen to the lyrics."
He began so sing softly:
Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away.
Now it looks as though they're here to stay.
Oh, I believe in yesterday.
Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
Mr. Berry performing last year at Blueberry Hill in St. Louis.
Fred R. Conrad/The New York
The father of rock 'n' roll has a monthly engagement in Blueberry Hill's Duck Room,
which was named after his famous duck walk.
Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
Mr. Berry signing autographs in his dressing room after a show at Blueberry Hill.