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?
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.
“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!”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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