NEW YORK – With “Johnny B. Goode,” a 1958 song that so defined rock ‘n’ roll that the U.S. space program chose it to introduce the music to potential extraterrestrials, Chuck Berry originated a now classic character — the scrappy guitarist who triumphs through pure skill.
“People passing by, they would stop and say / Oh my, that little country boy could play,” Berry sang.
But Berry had tinkered with the lyrics. He later explained that he had originally written, “that little colored boy could play” — but changed it so the song could appear on the radio.
Berry, who died Saturday at age 90, helped create both rock ‘n’ roll and modern youth culture, becoming one of the first African American stars to win a wide white audience.
Yet Berry was also forced to navigate a delicate line in a country that was still largely under the institutionalized discrimination of Jim Crow laws.
His career suffered a major blow when he was imprisoned for allegedly sleeping with an underage waitress — a conviction seen by many as a warning from the white establishment against African American artists who rise too far.
As for the music, Berry achieved his success in part by his skill in understanding the racial divide. Born to a middle-class family in St. Louis, Berry played blues guitar but knew that white audiences wanted country.
He combined the two — joking he was a “black hillbilly” — as well as other genres, creating the sensation that became rock ‘n’ roll, even if he hesitated to call himself its father.
As the baby boom generation came of age, Berry won cheering crowds with his consummate showmanship, including his “duck walk” across stage, and lyrics that celebrated youthful freedom. His first song “Maybellene” spoke of cruising in the open air in his Cadillac.
Berry managed to capture “the rebelliousness, the playfulness, the irrepressibility” of a generation, said Jack Hamilton, an assistant professor at the University of Virginia and author of “Just Around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination.”
“For a black man to do that in the 1950s was pretty groundbreaking. He wrote what became the soundtrack for American youth, both white and black,” he said.
Berry rarely spoke to media, fearing he would be sensationalized, and was strikingly diplomatic when asked about racial politics — and how his white contemporary Elvis Presley became so much wealthier.
In a 1987 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Berry acknowledged that television networks were white-owned and gave more exposure to Elvis but said he did not see “The King” as his rival.
“It’s not unfair that seven people are eating turkey and I chose to have chili or whatever. That’s what it was. More people chose his music than chose mine,” he said.
In 1959 — the same year Berry was briefly arrested after a white girl embraced him in Mississippi — the rocker hailed the Eisenhower-era American dream with “Back in the U.S.A.,” said to be written after he visited Australia and saw the conditions of aboriginal people.
“I’m so glad I’m livin’ in the U.S.A.,” he sang, speaking of a land “where hamburgers sizzle on an open grill night and day.”
He touched more directly on race in “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” which he wrote after visiting California and being struck by being around so many fellow African Americans and Latinos.
“Ever since the world began / There’s been a whole lotta good women shedding tears over a brown eyed handsome man.”
In a cruel irony, Berry was in prison just as white rockers led by The Beatles and The Rolling Stones took over the United States with the British invasion.
Other waves of African American music later transformed the landscape from Motown in the 1960s to hip-hop, which in contrast to rock ‘n’ roll has its origins in deep community roots rather than fusion.
Rocker Tom Petty, in a speech last month as he accepted a lifetime Grammy award, saw the imprisonment of Berry as part of long conspiracy against rock and its racially mixed origins.
“The music became popular and it empowered the youth of America. The government got very nervous — especially the Republicans,” Petty said.
“They put Elvis in the Army and they put Chuck Berry in jail. Things calmed down for a couple of years. But it was too late — the music had reached England. And they remembered it.”