Saturday, June 8, 2013

Chapter 18 - Across Mississippi Clean (Why He Matters, Part VII)

It’s no accident or coincidence that Chuck Berry rose to fame during the civil rights movement.  He probably couldn’t have achieved all that he did at an earlier time.  

But it’s also true that Chuck Berry did his part to deliver us from the old, evil days, even if he did it primarily out of self interest.

The early rock and roll shows were transformative events.  In 1969 at Berkeley Berry was asked if his early audiences were predominantly white.  “On one side of the hall…” he answered.  In his Autobiography he described a show in Jacksonville, Florida.  “[F]our of the maintenance guys came out and roped off the armory with white window cord.  They looped and tied it to each seat down the center aisle, making it an off-limits zone that neither coloreds nor whites could tread.”  But at Berkeley he went on to describe the Fats Domino tour a couple of years later.  “It was breaking then.  We’d go in and see the salt and pepper all mixed together, and we’d say, ‘Well, look what’s happening.’  Every once in a while, we’d go into a place where it would break—- it was broken, I should say.  It was a thrill.”

Life on the road was difficult for the artists.  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 in the front door. So I said: “To hell with your back door!  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’!” 

Berry did the same thing.  According to Marshall Chess he “carried a little electric plate in his suitcase. He’d buy like canned beans and he’d cook it.”  It was old news.  In his Autobiography he talks about a restaurant in Wentzville he visited when he was 17.  “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.”

40 years later he bought the restaurant. 

Chuck Berry was not an activist, but he kept active, kept pushing, kept pushing the envelope.  It took courage and effort, night after night sleeping God knows where, in cars, in boarding houses, in cheap hotels, on planes, heating beans on a hotplate far from kids and family, driving all day, playing at night, sometimes running from enraged crazies.  

And that may be his biggest contribution.  

Like his colleagues he did it for himself and his family, risked life, limb and dignity to make a little money by delivering astounding art to screaming teenagers.  But in the process, he helped to deliver all of us irrevocably from times we needed desperately to leave behind.  

(This is part of a book length piece on Chuck Berry.  It starts HERE or you can continue reading HERE).  


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