The master of the little blues lick and everybody’s rock’n’roll idol drew a crowd long before his death this week. As a child in Chicago, he discovered it in the not-so-post-modern flat he shared with his three siblings: two brothers, Irvin, 6, and Hank, 5, and their mother, a prominent feminist named Florence Anna Holcomb – who sometimes referred to herself as “a great woman” and who, as an artist, would discuss her marriage to and becoming close to her father, pioneering writer Emmett Coughlin, with an almost mystical passion.
But what caught Berry’s attention first – for he wasn’t born until 1955, almost a year after the album that put him on the country and western charts – was Joe Tex, a blues-rocker whom he saw perform in their hometown. Berry took his first guitar from his mother’s guitar rack – later selling it for a tenner. Still, as early as the fourth grade, he was taking guitar lessons. He began to write songs almost immediately, as well. By the fifth grade, he’d started showing up at the occasional folk club to play for anyone who showed up, often alone. Soon after, his mother offered him $10 for some unpublished songs that he delivered.
The next generation of lyrics would be what children listened to as they drifted down the road to adulthood
Since he was a punky kid, Berry continued to play in the front of the room with the windows closed and went to more folk clubs, getting paid from door money and donations – usually no money at all – for playing. He learned the trade by paying music hounds to show him how to make it. (One talent scout suggested Berry play at the Roxy nightclub in the early 1960s and if someone took him there, he’d be off the streets. “I got free tickets to the Roxy,” Berry told his mom.) That year, he was the youngest rock & roll performer to be invited to the annual Playboy Jazz Festival. By the 1960s, he had played in the same clubs as Ronnie Spector and The Impressions and posed for a guitar magazine cover with the Kings of Leon. By 1967, he had an album out, said a week later, “hell yeah!” and his hit single “Maybellene” topped the Billboard charts.
In the late 60s, Berry began work on his first memoir, Rock & Roll School, but it never saw publication. Around that time, though, The Chess Records manager Butch Kiner gave Berry his first personal letter: writing, “You’re one of the greatest blues artists ever. Will you sing for me for my grave?” (He also asked if his legendary share of cash on the side, now at least calculated to be $600,000, could be kept at the label.) After a chain of events, he began to reap royalties on his songs, and, after a short stint in jail for a mail-drop-related infraction, Berry was ready to come back with a book of his own. What would have been titled Rock & Roll Music or the Rock & Roll Life of Myself started out as The Unconventional Life of Chuck Berry and People Who Dare to Disagree and even, less nostalgically, What Makes You So Sinatra? But when Berry’s agent passed along the advice of his late friend and Chicago blues great Bobbie Gentry – that Berry’s book be produced by a fictional publisher, not a real one – Berry signed the deal.
What he created in that book was a chain of errors and melodrama. But he didn’t care, since it turned him into a bestseller that still sold more than a million copies and made him a millionaire. His last album, Ticket to Ride, came out in 1995, more than a decade after his passing, and he wrote 17 songs, mostly variations on It’s Over. Just the day before he died, he had recorded two songs for a new album called Johnny B Goode.