After reading RJ Smith’s insightful book “Chuck Berry: An American Life,” I have only one question remaining.
In its 400 pages the book covers everything about Berry. Sure, it has the usual biographical background and information, but much more. I liked the exposition of Berry’s early influences.
Berry saw great value precise diction. His mother stressed it at home as a good way not to stereotype yourself. He noticed it in Nat King Cole’s music and how it helped connect with a wider audience. Crisp diction also rhythmically reinforced Berry’s own eight-to-the-bar vocals found in the snappy lyrics of the neo–boogie songs he wrote.
His interest in playing lots of different types of music, especially country music is explored (His first big hit “Maybellene” is a clever re-working of Bob Will’s peppy fiddle breakdown “Ida Red”).
But I still want to know: how did Berry come to own and play a pedal steel guitar, maybe the whitest of musical instruments (Sacred Steelers notwithstanding)?
He played it very early in his career on “Deep Feeling,” a bluesy shuffle instrumental. He played it on later recordings, too. And at the end of the film “Hail, Hail, Rock and Roll” the camera tracks along his property and neglected swimming pool, then inside the dark interior, and finally to Berry himself, sitting at the Fender pedal steel, alone in the shadows of the setting sun, playing a hauntingly unaccompanied instrumental “Crying Steel.” The film fades out to the plaintive whimpering cry.
RIP Chuck Berry died on March 18, 2017 at age 90.