Sunday, August 21, 2022

Book Review: Chuck Berry - An American Life

Best known as the groundbreaking artist behind classics like “Johnny B. Goode,” “Maybellene,” “You Never Can Tell” and “Roll Over Beethoven,” Chuck Berry was a man of wild contradictions, whose motives and motivations were often shrouded in mystery. After all, how did a teenage delinquent come to write so many songs that transformed American culture? And, once he achieved fame and recognition, why did he put his career in danger with a lifetime’s worth of reckless personal behavior? Throughout his life, Berry refused to shed light on either the mastery or the missteps, leaving the complexity that encapsulated his life and underscored his music largely unexplored—until now.

In Chuck Berry, biographer RJ Smith crafts a comprehensive portrait of one of the great American entertainers, guitarists, and lyricists of the 20th century, bringing Chuck Berry to life in vivid detail. Based on interviews, archival research, legal documents, and a deep understanding of Berry’s St. Louis (his birthplace, and the place where he died in March 2017), Smith sheds new light on a man few have ever really understood. By placing his life within the context of the American culture he made and eventually withdrew from, we understand how Berry became such a groundbreaking figure in music, erasing racial boundaries, crafting subtle political commentary, and paying a great price for his success. While celebrating his accomplishments, the book also does not shy away from troubling aspects of his public and private life, asking profound questions about how and why we separate the art from the artist.

Chuck Berry: An American Life will be released November 8, 2022. Hachette Books provided an early galley for review.

I knew Chuck Berry's songs and his importance in the history of rock 'n' roll. Until I read this book, though, I did not know his story. And what a story it is.

I was fascinated by how Berry, like his father, was a tinkerer. I liked to see that even towards the end of his life that he was sharp and calculating - something he had to be his entire life. He needed those skills to navigate a world that, as history shows, was already unbalanced against him and others of his race. Smith juxtaposes Berry's own story with that of world around him, showing the reader a country wrestling with racial tensions and challenges.

The book also breaks down all of the controversial aspects of Berry's life. His sexual exploits and criminal behaviors are all laid bare. His attitudes towards others who recorded his songs and evolved the musical genre are shown honestly - warts and all. Chuck Berry was indeed a troubling figure in music, and every music nerd definitely needs to know this story.

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