Chuck Berry: The Biography/Brown Eyed Handsome Man: The Life And Hard Times Of Chuck Berry
You’d have the makings of one really good Chuck Berry biography if you were able to meld these two books together. But if you’ve got the time, it’s still worthwhile to read both, for each writer takes a noticeably different approach to his subject.
Berry would certainly be one of the more frustrating rock pioneers to cover. The creator of some of the most notable songs in rock history (or the co-creator; as both books note, in November 2000 Berry’s piano player Johnnie Johnson filed suit claiming he co-wrote a number of songs solely attributed to Berry) is curiously dismissive of his own gifts, repeatedly likening his work to a mere “job” in interviews. Nor is he any more forthcoming about his private life, never hesitating to walk out if an interviewer becomes too prying (if he hasn’t already curtailed the interview out of boredom).
So it’s no surprise that Berry isn’t a featured interviewee in either book; both authors rely on his previous interviews, as well as interviews with friends and associates (but, tellingly, no family members). And Berry’s own interviews aren’t always reliable, as the authors are quick to point out; in 1972, for example, Berry denied to Rolling Stone that he was even convicted of violating the Mann Act in the early 1960s, let alone that he spent any time in jail (in fact, he was and he did). None of which makes their task of getting to the heart of the man any easier. Instead, each author finds another hook upon which to hang their story.
For Collins, it’s the music. He goes into great detail about every Berry session (crediting Fred Rothwell’s Long Distance Information: Chuck Berry’s Recorded Legacy for laying the groundwork). He’s also seen a number of live shows, enabling him to see the performing Berry from a fan’s perspective, bemoaning the shows where he’s clearly just going through the motions while maintaining the hope, “We keep turning up in the knowledge that there must be one good gig left in him.”
For Pegg, the hook is race. He devotes more than two chapters to Berry’s Mann Act trials (transporting women across state lines for “immoral purposes”), painstakingly detailing the racism Berry faced even as he downplays the prejudice shown by Berry’s own lawyer (who said of one of the young women, a Native American, “Everything that we have heard about Indians being cunning is true”). In contrast, Collis simply states, “The idea that Berry’s intentions and actions were pure still overstretches the imagination, however badly the case had been handled.” (One of the judges put it even more bluntly: “If you’re going to fuck a whore, you’ve got to pay ’em!”)
Similarly, Pegg emphasizes the “witch-hunt” aspects of the suits arising from charges that Berry planted hidden cameras in the women’s restroom of his Southern Air restaurant in the late ’80s, seemingly overlooking the fact that while some bogus suits were filed, the cameras did indeed illicitly film women.
It’s also fun to see where the books diverge in their accounts. Pegg writes off Berry’s San Francisco Dues album, Collis likes it; Pegg denies that Jerry Lee Lewis ever set his piano on fire and snapped “Follow that, nigger!” to Berry at a show, Collis accepts it as fact (though the presented evidence favors Pegg). Both writers conclude their books describing one of Berry’s monthly performances at St. Louis’ Blueberry Hill/Duck Room nightclub — not necessarily any closer in explaining what makes the man tick, but caught up in the celebratory power of his music all the