Charles Edward Anderson Berry was a person of great political importance. Which is a pretty odd statement to make, given that he hardly ever said or did a political thing.
Let me start with this. “He sort of had this persona of wanting to be Hawaiian, the way his hair was, his shirts. He would say he was part Hawaiian, and in a way he could look Hawaiian. I think that something with his being Hawaiian was knowing that he could be more successful if maybe he wasn’t black.”
This observation, by the record executive Marshall Chess, is not the only time one of Chuck Berry’s friends commented on what his biographer Bruce Pegg has called the musician’s “racial ambivalence”. Johnnie Johnson, his musical collaborator over many decades, once remarked that Berry “wanted to be everything . . . but an Afro-American I guess”. When the band were stopped by the New York police, Johnson noted that the singer’s driving licence identified him as “Indian”.
Chuck Berry was the grandson of a slave. He grew up in Missouri, in an area so segregated that the first time he saw a white person was at the age of three. It was a firefighter, and he thought it was merely the heat and fear of the fire that had whitened the man’s skin. When, as an established star, he performed in the south, he found it so hard to find somewhere to stay that he took to sleeping in his own car.
So he can hardly be blamed for playing down his racial origins. He did it for commercial reasons — to reach bigger audiences — and for safety. He will have been only too aware of how in 1956 Nat King Cole had been beaten up on stage, in front of the audience in the middle of his show, by members of the Alabama white citizens council.
Understandable though it was, Berry’s reaction wasn’t everyone’s. His great hits, the zenith of his career, came during the turbulent days of the civil rights movement and urban revolt. As black people and liberals all over the world took up the cause of racial equality and resistance, Berry was silent.
Indeed he died at the age of 90 having written an autobiography and starred in many documentaries, leaving behind (as far as I can tell, and I’ve looked pretty hard) not a single properly political statement or song. He once said he was pleased to see the first black president elected, played at a concert to encourage the Democrats to stage their convention in his home town, and gave $1,000 to a Democratic leaders victory fund. And that’s it.
So why argue that he was an important political figure? It’s because of the significance of rock’n’roll to cultural life and Berry’s significance to rock’n’roll.
Few deny the writer of Johnny B Goode, of Memphis, Tennessee and of Roll over Beethoven the right to be called one of the great pioneers of rock music. It wasn’t just the power and wit of his early records, it was his ability to reach new audiences.
Berry’s first hit, Maybellene (the title inspired by a bottle of mascara), crossed over not just from the R&B charts into the pop charts, but from black to white audiences. Before Maybellene, most black music only became a hit when recorded as a white cover version. Berry’s record was one of the first to outsell its white cover versions.
And then in the south, Berry desegregated his audiences. Not by political statements or any act of conscious resistance. Just by playing. The promoters would allow in black and white fans so long as they were separated by a rope down the centre aisle. And each time, as the rock frenzy grew, the rope would come down and everyone would be dancing together.
Berry wasn’t much interested in the political implications of this. He was interested in its financial implications. More record buyers, more money. As guitar hero Bo Diddley once said: “Chuck Berry is a businessman. I admire him for being a businessman. The name of the game is dollar bills.” His local paper headlined a piece on his film Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll with the words: “Hail! Hail! The Bankroll.”
Yet it was because of this, not despite it, that Berry was a liberator. He wanted to sell to everyone. Rock’n’roll is the fullest expression of consumer culture. Its impact was deep. It reached out to people whatever their race, whatever their class, whatever their gender or sexual orientation. It made posh accents seem ridiculous and inherited social distinctions seem bizarre. It was — it is — entirely democratic.
It breaks down national borders too. John Lennon and Paul McCartney lived in a port town, where African-American records came off the boats. Keith Richards first noticed Mick Jagger because Jagger was carrying a rare Chuck Berry record that had to be ordered from Chicago. Then the Beatles and the Rolling Stones went to America and sold back American music to them.
Rock’s power isn’t that it was the counter culture, but that it became the culture. The only barrier it didn’t initially break down was age. There are people whose politics and social attitudes have as their main point of reference some time before 1958, when Berry cut Johnny B Goode, and those whose reference point is after that.
The generation gap written about in the 1960s didn’t repeat itself, as everyone thought it would. Instead it was a single gap, separating the era before rock from the era after it. The people who feared that rock would sweep away customs and barriers and change cultural attitudes were right to fear it.
Sir Tom Stoppard’s play Rock’n’Roll tells the (true) story of the attempts by the communist Czechoslovakian government in the mid-1970s to suppress a rock group called the Plastic People of the Universe. They were not avowedly political but the Husak government could see that nevertheless they were.
They couldn’t allow the Plastics just to do their thing. They appreciated that unless they imprisoned them and made them cut their hair, there would be no stopping the revolution. Their culminating act of oppression (in Stoppard’s drama) is to smash the western record collection of the play’s central character.
Even if Chuck Berry didn’t see himself as political, the Czechs could see that he was wrong.
Daniel Finkelstein, a British journalist and politician. He is a former executive editor of The Times, remains a weekly political columnist, and is now associate editor. He is a former chairman of Policy Exchange who was succeeded by David Frum in 2014. He was elevated to the House of Lords in August 2013, sitting as a Conservative.