Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Chapter 10 - Family


The melancholy of Chuck Berry is hard wired—as much a part of his personality as the humor. He’s often at his best when he is most nostalgic, as in “Wee Wee Hours,” “Memphis,” or “Oh Louisiana.” Sometimes it’s a sweet melancholy— “Time Was,” or “Oh Baby Doll.” It’s rarely the hard blues of Muddy Waters. His deepest feeling is the dull ache of faded memory, of loss, of aloneness. “In a wee little room, I sit alone and think of you,” he sighs in “Wee Wee Hours.” Or watch him sing “Cottage for Sale” or “I’m through with Love” in the film Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll. He is on the floor, leaning back, eyes half closed, strumming slow, simple chords, and yet it’s the emotional highpoint of a film about a “rock and roller.” This is Chuck Berry’s real blues, the blues he feels at his core. It is why, despite his own protests, or Stevo’s musings, he really is a bluesman, and a great one.

Imagine the hours, days, and weeks he has spent alone, in hotels, on planes, backstage, in wee little rooms or big ones; the separation from his family and home; the forced isolation caused by a society that jailed him unjustly at the peak of his career; the self-inflicted injuries caused by his own bad choices. When I have seen him onstage with his daughter Ingrid, or son Charles, or his grandson, or backstage with his wife, it is obvious how much family means to him— but how much time with them did he lose or throw away?

Then again, is there a single Chuck Berry song that takes ownership of any part of that loss? It is always the other party’s fault. “Her mom did not agree, and tore apart our happy home.” “You ain’t done nothing, darlin’, but ruin a happy home.” “She put me in shame and in sorrow.” Is there an apology anywhere?

Maybe one. “I stayed away from you too long,” he sings in “Oh, Louisiana.” If there is a single regret that rises from his astounding career, I’m betting it’s that.

Family has always been a part of it.

He wrote “Roll Over Beethoven” in part because of the struggle for time at the family piano bench. His older sister Lucy played classical and got first dibs. Chuck wanted time at the keyboard to learn boogie-woogie. It was a musical family. Another sister, Martha, sang on some of his early 1960s recordings.

Or think of the families in his songs: Johnny’s mother, spending everything she could earn or borrow on Johnny’s future, then waiting anxiously by the kitchen door for his return; Little Marie’s father living, presumably, at his uncle’s place, missing his daughter and family; Sweet Little Sixteen’s pushover mommy and dad; Henry Ford’s junior, who asks his dad for a competitor’s car.

When I first saw Chuck Berry, he made a point of including everyone in the crowd as family, walking back and forth across the stage, eyes wide, head twisting this way and that, feigning surprise as we chanted “Go! Johnny, Go!”

“Sing it, children!” he’d say, marveling like a proud dad. “Just look at you! All my children! All my beautiful rock and roll children!”

Nowadays he usually shows up on stage with his son Charles and his daughter Ingrid at his side, and sometimes even grandson Charles III, who plays guitar. Out front some of his “rock and roll children” hobble in on walkers, because hey— Sweet Little Sixteen is sweet little old 70 something these days! But remarkably, there are usually lots of young people in the crowd, too, because Sweet Little Sixteen will always be 16, and Little Queenie will never be more than an interesting year older.

An early instrumental was called “Ingo,” presumably after his daughter Darlin’ Ingrid Berry Clay. It bops and bounces along like a happy little girl.  Ingrid is a regular part of her father’s shows in St. Louis, blowing harp and singing blues and harmony. She started early. When she was still a little girl she walked onto the stage at the Apollo Theater in Baltimore, Maryland (not to be confused with the better known Apollo in Harlem). “Mother was holding me pretty tight so Alan Freed intervened and said ‘Oh, let her go,’ you know. I was shaking and shimmering, trying to get away from Mamma, and I broke loose and ran on out there and first thing that struck me were the lights, the people in the audience, the musicians,” Ingrid told an interviewer for a St. Louis oral history project. “The first thing I did was just stand there for about a few seconds and then I had this little guitar that Dad bought—a little toy guitar and I just strummed it and went across. And that was the first time too, that I ever did the "duck walk," which Dad has in his show.”



She didn’t stop at the Apollo. Ingrid helped with vocals on some of his Mercury recordings, and then on the 1975 album “Chuck Berry,” where she harmonized on a couple of numbers including Jimmy Reed’s “Baby What You Want Me To Do.”

There’s evidently an unreleased song about Ingrid—one I haven’t heard. The New Yorker reported in 2006 that Berry had written a song called “Darlin’.”



Darlin', your father's growing older, I fear;
Strains of gray are showing bolder each year.
Lay your head upon my shoulder, my dear:
Time is fading fast away.

It’s part of a mountain of unreleased material that Berry has recorded since 1980, some of it probably bad, some reputedly wonderful.

Though Ingrid has been a regular part of her father’s shows and tours since the mid-1970s, I didn’t see her live until 2010. She is over 60 now and has matured into a powerful harmonica player and blues singer but obviously remains her father’s little girl. I have a snapshot, taken in early 2012, where she stands beaming, hands clasped in delight or prayer, while her 85 year old father bunny hops across stage with his guitar.


In the same shot is Charles, Jr., the very accessible moderator on Chuck Berry’s website and social networking pages, where he calls himself CBII. (He has also used the clever screen name “Son of Rock and Roll,” a bit of wordplay worthy of the lineage). In the photo Charles’ smile is proud and amused. He shares the enthusiasm of fans, and offers amazing tidbits of history. My favorites have been his descriptions of the wine red Gibson that Chuck Berry has played for the last 35 years or so. The guitar is scratched, busted, with missing knobs and other parts tossed as useless. A funky steel bracket is screwed to the front, evidently to accommodate a thumb when the guitar is played on a shoulder or behind the back. A strip of yellow tape has cut across the butt of the guitar for several years now, holding the strap in position. It reminds me, in many respects, of Big Joe William’s nine string guitar, with all of its added hardware. Despite this cosmetic charm, Charles, Jr., who appears to love cars and guitars as much as his father, says it’s a powerhouse, and one of the best his father has played. At a 2012 show at a casino in Alton, Illinois, Chuck told the audience “I love this guitar. It’s scratched and raggedy, but it’s really good!” He’s not the only one who loves it. A picture that Swedish fan Peter K. took of that guitar backstage draws more people to my blog than almost any other single thing. In Peter’s photograph the guitar sits casually next to snacks and drinks. Another Swedish fan, Thomas, calls Chuck’s old guitar “the Holy Grail.” Thomas has actually held it and played it—an honor. There’s a video on YouTube of Charles, Jr. playing the guitar during a sound check in France. With the old Gibson in hand, the genetic link between father and son becomes audible as Charles plays chords that would make me jerk with recognition from halfway down the street. That guitar is family, too.

Charles seems determined to protect his father on stage, and to protect his father’s legacy off stage. I occasionally see him pop up on the internet to comment on his dad or his dad’s equipment. Usually he’s fan-friendly and polite, but I saw him sharply rebuke some anonymous commenter who called Chuck Berry a “jerk-off” on a list serve. Poor fool didn’t see it coming— didn’t know the “son of rock and roll” would read his rude post about the father of same.

There are less public children. One daughter seemed to give her name to Chuck Berry’s music publishing company. Another—a health care administrator— showed up in the news talking about Obamacare. All of the kids seem intent on protecting their dad. A Berry family friend once told me that “gate-keeping” within the family is formidable. When Charles, Jr. was remembering bits and pieces of his past on Facebook, one sister appeared with the gentlest comment—Charles’ nickname, followed by three dots. I can’t know it, but I got the impression she was reminding him that discretion is a Berry family value.

Family is everywhere in his songs, but also, touchingly, in the movie Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll, when Chuck and his sister sit with their father and tell stories. There’s one about “Daddy” losing his eyesight as a child but regaining it when “they pierced his ears.” Charles and Ingrid sound just as adoring in a BBC interview when they talk about how Chuck still mows his own lawn, and occasionally makes “crop circles.” “I think they’re beautiful!” says Ingrid.

When I see Chuck Berry now, 15 years older than my dad ever got, surrounded by his children and grandchildren, I realize that it was not such a bad choice for a desperate 14 year old to make, searching for someone to symbolically take the place of a dad who was slipping away. And as I’ve grown older the bond I felt as a kid grew even stronger. Here was a “dad” I could watch grow old. When he first started showing his age, at about 55 or 60, I didn’t like it. I wanted the young guy back. But now that he’s elderly and I am showing my own age it gives me great comfort to have him around. I go to see him now and then. I sit or stand up close. I bring small gifts in case there is a “meet and greet” after the show.

I love him.

As for my real father— I keep him as near as I can, and hope that maybe someday I’ll be truly lucky, go backstage, and meet him again, for the first time.

(For the rest of this story, from the beginning, see the "pages" section to the right.  Or keep reading below!)

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3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thank´s for writing this. It is so true and easy to recognice. I feel just the same about Chuck Berry expessially when it comes to have a idol or a master, one to belive and look up to. At 85 the man is still a cool cat ! Unbeleiveable but very true.//Thomas The Swede

Peter said...

Thomas-- Thanks for the comment. I used to think my interest in the man rose to a level that was, at the very least, peculiar. Writing this blog has taught me I'm not at all alone. If you have time, read the early chapters, and the others that will follow. It's a book! (You just can't buy it.)

cathy ashley said...

R.I.P Mr. Berry!