Chuck Berry’s rocket ride to fame hit more than a few bumps along the way: Unscrupulous industry professionals tried to scam him, and racists pushed back against his boundary-defying music.
Berry persisted, however, building a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame career outlined in tonight’s PBS broadcast of In Their Own Words: Chuck Berry. You can watch an exclusive clip from the program below, as the son of Chess Records cofounder Leonard Chess, Darius Rucker of Hootie and the Blowfish, Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash and others discuss Berry’s early career struggles.
Berry actually went to court to win back credit for his groundbreaking crossover song “Maybelline,” which reached the Top 5 on both the Billboard Hot 100 and rhythm-and-blues charts in 1955. The powerful DJ Alan Freed played a big role in breaking the single but only after extracting a payoff from Chess and then adding his own name as songwriter without Berry’s knowledge.
In the clip below, Marshall Chess remembers his father saying, “All that money we pay off to get the record played, that’s part of the artist expense.” But Berry lost untold thousands on royalty payments.
He decided to focus on performing, since income earned out on the road could be counted on more reliably. But that didn’t mean there weren’t other challenges: Berry was playing in front of boisterous teenage crowds, and the intermingling of races at local music venues created an issue in the Jim Crow era.
“They just didn’t want Black and white folks to get together,” Rucker says in the clip. “They knew, at a Chuck Berry show, you can’t stop kids from partying. You can’t stop kids from dancing. When you’ve got that music, and they want to hear it, they don’t care who they are standing next to dancing. The authorities and the powers that be didn’t like that – and that made Chuck even more powerful, I think.”
Other featured interview subjects from In Their Own Words: Chuck Berry include Keith Richards and Robert Cray. The program premieres at 8PM ET tonight on PBS, PBS.org and the PBS Video app. Check listings for local times.
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