Sunday, November 28, 2010

Where Hamburgers Sizzle (at the back door).

I picked up my copy of “Chuck Berry: The Autobiography.” I need to read it again. I’m especially interested in reading it after just reading B. B. King’s book.

Anyway, I open it and stumble upon a paragraph that I missed last time.

He’s talking about a teenage road trip with a couple of friends. It’s a trip that ends in trouble for Chuck Berry. And on the way towards Kansas City and the reformatory, he stops at his future home.

“It was high noon and I was seventeen years old. My running buddies and I got in my ’37 Oldsmobile sedan and we set sail westward. We stopped in Wentzville at the Southern Air Restaurant to get some zoo-zoos (food). The colored lady cook came to the little window built in the back kitchen wall that solely catered to black patrons, and she asked what we wanted. She overfilled the paper plates of our order, which was the one good result that can be remembered about a jim crow café policy: getting more on our paper plates than we would have been served on china out front.”

"Chuck Berry: The Autobiography,” page 50.

This is 13 or 14 years before he started touring, but the same laws and same customs prevailed in the mid 1950s when carloads of rhythm and blues musicans risked life and limb and indignity when taking their music out on the road. Listen to Bo Diddley:

“When I was goin’ through the South, I used to cook all the time. The reason for that was: here am I, gotta go in some white dude’s back door, an’ I’ve got ten—maybe fifteen thousand dollars in my pocket! I’m gonna get a 95 cent hamburger ‘cause I can’t go n the front door. So I said: “To hell with your Iback doorI! I’ll go buy me some chicken an’ put it in the trunk, get some utensils, put it all on the bus, an’ I’ll do my own cookin’! I ain’t goin’ to your daggone back door! You got a black cook sittin’ up there cookin’ up all this shit, an’ gonna tell me I can’t comein the front door? I gotta go round the back an’ get a hamburger because of the color of my skin? BULL-SHIT!

…We’d go in a grocery store, buy all our stuff an’ stick it in our little cooler on the bus. When we got hungry, we’d just get up an” grab somethin’. Chuck Berry did the same—he always carried a little electric hot plate with him, you know.”

“Bo Diddley: Living Legend,” page 81.

According to Marshall Chess, Berry “carried a little electric plate in his suitcase. He’d buy like canned beans and he’d cook it.”

“Brown Eyed Handsome Man: The life and Hard Times of Chuck Berry,” page 164.”

So when he had money, Berry bought the restaurant that had once forced him to order  at a back window. (In typical Berry fashion, the Southern Air got him in trouble again in his later years-- or rather, Berry got himself in trouble there.  Ah well!)

But I don't care that much about the mistakes.  What I know for certain is that all of us benefitted when Chuck Berry, B. B. King, Bo Diddley and so many others took their music on the road in the 1950s. In their own nitty-gritty way, the early rock and roll shows did as much as the marches and lawsuits and laws to begin breaking down the racial barriers that have crippled this country for centuries. Berry, Diddley, Little Richard and King didn’t do it for us. They did it for themselves and their families, risking life, limb and dignity to make a little money by delivering their astounding art and music to screaming teenagers. But in the process, they delivered all of us another few inches away from the days of old.

As I often say, “Hail! Hail!”

And thank you!

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