Culture  /  Book Review

The Transgressor

RJ Smith’s biography of Chuck Berry examines his subject’s instinct for crossing the line musically, racially, and morally.
RJ Smith

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Chuck Berry performs "Maybellene" in 1965.

The journey Berry made from his school days—via road trips out of St. Louis—toward improving his abilities on the guitar, then playing amateur gigs and recording “Maybellene,” was remarkably fast. (Though one of those road trips ended with his serving three years in a reformatory after robbing three shops in Kansas City at gunpoint—albeit, he claimed, with a broken weapon.) Berry approached Muddy Waters during a gig in Chicago to ask for advice about making a record. Waters was, at that time, Chess Records’ “moneymaker,” Smith says, and his suggestion to go see Leonard Chess (Phil’s brother) the next morning was the only encouragement Berry needed.

Smith excels at disentangling the details of Berry’s relationship to both songwriting and his instrument. In 2002 Berry found himself in court, not defending himself against allegations of sex crimes but as part of a financial dispute that required him to clarify his songwriting process. The lawyers who questioned him that day managed to extract more information than any music journalist ever had. He didn’t “write” songs so much as generate new material out of ones that already existed. “Maybellene” had been written over an old hillbilly tune, “Ida Red.” A song by Big Joe Turner, “Wee Baby Blues,” which his group was playing every night in the mid-1950s, gradually took on a new identity as “Wee Wee Hours.” Berry never brought a completed song to a recording session; songs reached their final form only once they were committed to record. He likened the process of collaboration with his musicians, especially his brilliant pianist Johnnie Johnson, to kicking around ideas to see where they landed—each musician’s instrumental style shaping and molding the material.

Berry learned his craft on an electric guitar, Smith notes, whereas many guitarists of earlier generations had tailored their acoustic instincts to the electric instrument—a painful process. And Berry didn’t just learn on an electric instrument; his whole aptitude for sound was actively shaped by its resonant bounce and throb. To watch him perform was to witness a musician saturate himself in sound. Carl Sally, who played saxophone with him in 1956, tells Smith about how the platform moved with the vibrations of the speakers, how his sound was powerful enough to enter your body.