"C'est La Vie" Say the Old Folks
RJ Smith's Chuck Berry biography threads upbeat songs through worried times
Tim Riley interviews RJ Smith, and discovers a shared favorite, “Havana Moon”:
Chuck Berry: An American Life, by RJ Smith (Hachette, 416 pp)
FEW ROCK BIOGRAPHIES rise to the level of their subject. But this past year has already seen extraordinary titles like Lightning Strikes, by Lenny Kaye, a musical memoir lived out in a beguiling new history, and Dilla Time, Dan Charnas’s life of rap producer and beat-meister J Dilla, (which has prompted a new documentary from Summer of Soul’s Questlove). RJ Smith has already etched a sturdy treatment of James Brown (The One, 2012), a figure who long deserved higher ground. Now, with Chuck Berry, Smith surpasses himself, portraying the shrewd, implacable trickster behind an ingenious catalog.
Berry’s work balances charm and malice, apropos of an America that makes extravagant promises while systematically jailing black men. Named after the Republican senator Charles H. Sumner, an abolitionist who argued a pioneering 1845 case against Boston school segregation, Charles Berry earned his high school nickname “Ol’ Crazy Chaws Berry” growing up in “the Ville,” the segregated neighborhood of East St. Louis. His family line mixed indigenous blood with enslaved people from Mississippi who joined the Great Migration north between the wars. Chuck was born on October 18, 1926. Early on, Chuck became obsessed with two “magic boxes,” the family piano that his sister played, and the Victrola, which blared foxtrots. The family also boasted a “favorite poet”: Dayton’s Paul Laurence Dunbar, famous for adopting spoken dialect into verse.
Smith surpasses himself, portraying the shrewd, implacable trickster behind an ingenious catalog.
As a boy, Chuck worshipped his father Henry’s “perpetual motion machine,” a homemade contraption made of junkyard parts with spinning balls. Berry also loved cars and speed, and turned the first generation of rock’n’roll into one long joy ride of burgers and dance hops.
Johnnie Johnson, a West Virginia pianist and bandleader, deferred to his guitarist once he saw the easy laughs Berry got from club crowds. In May of 1955, Berry drove up to Chess records in Chicago to meet his idol, Muddy Waters, who had “cracked open [his] soul…” This led to an early demo called “Ida Mae,” based on an old white fiddle tune that Bob Wills had tracked, “Ida Red.” The “Ida Mae” name didn’t work (“too rural,” Chess felt), so Berry recalled an old children’s book about a cow that fit the same rhythmic pulse. This became “Maybelline,” in 36 takes, later that same month…
(This review originally ran in revised form in Creem magazine in November 2022. Chuck Berry died on March 18, 2017.)
We Don’t Know Ourselves, by Fintan O’Toole (Liveright, 2022)
Alongside vivid portraits of John F. Kennedy’s 1963 visit, and Muhammed Ali’s unlikely Irish heritage, O’Toole has fine passages on the island’s musical culture:
[Sean] Dunphy was the co-host of a country music show called Hoedown on RTÉ. It was ersatz Americana. There was a dance group of pretty girls in gingham dresses called the Larri-ettes, the name taken from a high school troupe in Laredo, Texas. It was immensely popular—by 1969, Dunphy and The Hoedowners would be the most successful act in the Irish charts (The Beatles were third)… Dunphy sang “The Black And Tan Gun” [at Jaeger House in Manhattan] that weekend. Did it seem at all strange to them: Irish nationalist martyrdom filtered through second-hand American country kitsch and re-exported to Irish immigrants in America? Or did that very oddness make a kind of sense of their own condition, half there, half here, suspended between versions of the past that functioned on either side of the Atlantic?
Some tweets on that ridonculous movie about a gay predator female conductor with its precious shots of Claudio Abbado’s DG recording of the Mahler Fifth with Berlin. Even educated people think it’s based on a real person, so read these Maren Alsop quotes, admire to her Brahms cycle, and try to forget Blanchett’s deathless response: “Power is genderless,” which sounds like the new “I don’t see color.”
If Triangle of Sadness doesn’t win Best Wretching, they should retire that category… we boycotted Banshees of Inisherin for fear of encouraging that Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri guy; and Brendan Gleeson still deserves a win for that In Bruges turn in 2008.
CORRECTION: Sinead O’Connor’s “I Believe in You” appears on the Deluxe version of the 30th Anniversary Celebration concert, which counts.
PARALLEL UNIVERSE CHALLENGE: live tweet the 2023 Oscars as though it’s the Grammys from 1969.
In April, withering satirist Jena Friedman puts out Not Funny (Atria/One Signal Books), with scathing bits on standup misogyny, combatting Tr*mpism, and that Rudy Giuliani get she can’t talk about. She spoke with us from California.
Dense yet guileful, Mozart in Motion, by Patrick Mackie (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, June 2023) details the tensions of 1780s Strasburg and Vienna through Mozart’s fragile elegance. Watch truthdig for the June review.
Reviewing Deliver Me From Nowhere, by Warren Zanes, on Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska (Crown, May 2023) for Los Angeles Review of Books, in May.
Next issue: piano’s Rudolf Serkin, the arch-conservative who practiced radical transparency.
Each month I throw a bunch of tracks into a playlist for study, sometimes from something I’m reading, or saw mentioned in an article, or saw in a tweet. Sometimes, it’s simply a track I need to hear again. This month gathers some King Curtis tracks mentioned by biographer Timothy Hoover in his Popular Music Books in Process series. The opposite of definitive, it mixes old and new, strays and homies, for a whiplash ride, or an on-the-fly tasting menu. It lands here, where your click impulse finds redemption: click, listen, dream.
newsletter archive on substack: Roger Daltrey, Loretta Lynn, Tina Turner, Rick James, Lars Vogt, Igor Levit, and The Embarrassment
more links at the riley rock index: obits, bylines, deep youtube links, reference sites (“gauging the honor and dignity of music/news pubs by how quickly they post their #DavidLindley obits…”)
twitter likes: big action on the Nicky Hopkins tweet (“Exile peacocks righteous, inveigling guitar riffage (‘Rocks Off,’ ‘Tumbling Dice’), but Nicky Hopkins's piano answers with hushed, fearsome authority (‘Loving Cup,’ ‘Soul Survivor’), signaling the new Session Man doc out later this year (with our podcast), and Bill Janovitz’s breakout Leon Russell bio (Hachette, out now)
pinterest: Pete Townshend’s leaps, obscure record label logos, and stray glossies.
beacons.ai: where clicks go out to dry
random deep link: other critics: it’s never over
clicks for industry!