It’s been a week since we got the news that Chuck Berry had finally passed away at the age of 90. The news was broken to me a little after six on that Saturday evening by a softly spoken Scotsman named Paul Coletti, who announced in a very calm, gentle way that he was calling from the BBC in London and had I heard the news?
I told him I hadn’t, wondering all the time how the hell he got my phone number.
“Well, Mr. Pegg,” he continued in his reassuring burr, “I hate to be the one to break it to you, but news is coming over the wires that Chuck Berry has died in St. Charles, Missouri.”
I’d like to say I was overcome by emotion. I’d like to say that tears were rolling down my face and I sank to the floor in disbelief. Except, that’s not what happened.
No, my reaction was far more pragmatic. “Shit,” I remember thinking to myself. “My life just blew up.”
You see, for twenty years, Chuck Berry’s life has been intricately intertwined with mine. At some point–I think late in 1997, but I could be off by a year or so–I started work on Brown Eyed Handsome Man: The Life and Hard Times of Chuck Berry, my biography of the man.
Along the way, I also wrote the extensive liner notes to Rock and Roll Music, Bear Family’s comprehensive 16-CD anthology of Chuck’s recorded legacy,
and “Roll Over Beethoven,” my essay on the creation of the seminal Berry composition for the National Recording Preservation Board of the Library of Congress.
All of these projects had their genesis one slow Friday afternoon in my office at Colgate University. For some reason lost to memory, I was researching his life on the internet, and I was stunned to learn that there had been nothing of substance written about him: all I could find was a crude, self-published copy-and-paste job that had improbably gone to a second edition that was slicker but no deeper and a coffee table book, rich with pictures but poor in text.
I remember driving home that afternoon and thinking that one of the founding fathers of the music that had dominated the second half of the twentieth century deserved much, much better. I also remember thinking that, as an academic and a musician, I was uniquely placed to do such a project. And I also remember the skies opening, angel choirs singing and a light shining down from heaven and landing only on me.
OK, so I’m lying about the last part. But it seemed that profound at the time. It still does.
From that moment on, Chuck Berry changed my life. Six incredibly difficult yet statisfying years flew by. I visited St. Louis several times, entrenched myself in college library basements, spent hours on the phone arranging interviews, sat in a vacation cottage in Cape Cod completing the book’s index while my kids were playing on the beach. At one point, I even got Chuck’s sister Lucy out of the shower to talk to me. When I gave her my elevator pitch, she hung up. That, and a brief conversation and email exchange with Chuck’s son Butch, would be the closest I would get to the brown-eyed handsome man himself. The family wagons had circled, and I was left on the outside looking in.
In 2002, Routledge finally published the book. Within eighteen months, I had lost my job and my marriage ended. The three events remain intimately related in my life. But I also enjoyed my fifteen minutes of fame: I was reviewed in the Los Angeles Times; I was interviewed by Leonard Lopate on his WNYC show; I did an all-day satellite radio tour, fielding questions from radio stations across the country from six in the morning to eight at night; and I am probably one of the few people in this world to have the dubious honor of being quoted in pieces published in the New York Times and the National Enquirer in the same week.
So when Mr. Coletti called, I thought something similar was about to take place. And, in a small way, it did. My ensuing week looked like this:
Saturday, March 17: Interview with Paul Coletti for the BBC World Service
Sunday, March 18: Interview with Kate Jackson of The Sun (I am not quoted in the online version of the piece. After you read it, you’ll probably be relieved for me).
I was also offered interviews with CBC TV and CBC Radio, but we could not coordinate the times.
Monday, March 19: The busiest of all the days. There were interviews with Myron Pitts of the Fayetteville Observer (NC), Mitch Albom (best-selling author of Tuesdays with Morrie and The Five People You Meet in Heaven) for his WJR Detroit radio show, and Robert Levine of Billboard (again, I am not quoted in the online version).
There was also an email exchange with Bruce Golding of the New York Post. Like Kate Jackson’s piece, the article focuses on the scandalous aspects of Chuck’s life. I am happy to say that, this time, I got the last–and more positive–word.
But the story of the day had to be a somewhat hysterical attempt to be interviewed by the RTE show Arena during the afternoon, which saw me making two mad dashes from my office in downtown Syracuse to the WAER studios on the Syracuse University campus. The first dash was my own fault, as I screwed up the time difference by an hour. The second dash resulted in me sitting in a studio for about twenty minutes while two engineers frantically attempted to establish a clear connection from Syracuse to Dublin, only to find myself yanked as the program began when the producer determined the signal “was like shite.”
Tuesday, March 20: Wisconsin Public Radio sent an interview inquiry, but we couldn’t make it happen.
Thursday, March 23: Interview with Jessie Peterson of Track Record for a piece to be published soon.
Friday, March 24: Interview with Brain Hiatt of Rolling Stone Radio (Volume Channel, SiriusXM).
In the end, Monday aside, the aftermath of Chuck’s death was not quite as crazy as I thought it would be, perhaps because, as a participant on the Rolling Stone show rightly pointed out, the last two generations of music fans really haven’t had an entry point into Chuck’s career. Essentially, Chuck’s name means about as much to Millennials and Centennials–and even some Gen Xers–as Perry Como or Bing Crosby does to my generation. Bowie and Prince’s deaths last year still resonate because both were still active, vibrant members of the contemporary music scene. Chuck’s last meaningful release, the soundtrack to the movie Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll, was thirty years ago. Too much time has gone by. The legend that influenced The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, the artist that had practically invented rock and roll, had died a footnote to many. But his place in the history of popular music will always be assured.
So today, my phone is back to its usual, quiet self. The dust has finally settled. All the tributes have been said, all the obituaries published. There’s no need for me to add to them here. Instead, I’ll just conclude this chapter of the story of Chuck Berry and me with a couple of personal anecdotes.
The first occurred just before Chuck’s 69th birthday. My ex and I decided to take a road trip and see him at SUNY Geneseo.
The show itself was the kind of lackluster night that Chuck had been churning out for years, with the local backup band doing their best to adapt and improvise their way through Chuck’s greatest hits with little help from him. Early in the show, my ex jabbed me in the ribs and said, “Look at Chuck’s ass!” and we began to laugh hysterically. There, in the back pocket of a pair of white, hip-hugger, bell-bottom pants that had gone out of style thirty years before, was a wad of cash as thick as a packet of cigarettes. The man’s legendary distrust of local promoters was still alive and well after forty years in the business.
While Chuck was making his exit during “Reelin’ and Rockin’,” we made a beeline for the stage door. I had read The Autobiography several times by this point, so I knew to look for a Cadillac somewhere in the vicinity. Sure enough, we found one, occupied by the man himself and a very cute middle-aged blonde. The driver’s side window was open, so I seized my chance. “Happy Birthday, Chuck!” I said, walking up to car. “Would you mind signing my copy of your autobiography?” He looked at me blankly, then took the book and pen from my hand, turned the book upside down, signed it, handed it back to me and drove off.
The second came six years later. I was in the process of wrapping up the biography, and I had booked my last interviews in St. Louis. Several years earlier, I had struck up a friendship with Joe Edwards, the genial owner of Blueberry Hill, and as a part of the trip, I decided to go and see one of Chuck’s monthly Wednesday night shows there.
The show was immeasurably better than the previous one I had seen. Backed by his St. Louis band–his son Butch, longtime bass player Jim Marsala, pianist Bob Lohr and veteran drummer Bob Kuban–Chuck was on his game. Sure, there were plenty of fluffed notes and forgotten lyrics. But all was forgiven when the band burst into “Johnny B. Goode” and finished with “Reelin’ and Rockin’.” Everyone was firing on all cylinders, and I felt that I had just witnessed a real piece of history.
Seconds after Chuck scurried back to the dressing room at the back of the stage, Joe came out and beckoned me to come with him. I quickly followed to find the man himself seated beneath one of his iconic photos from the 1950s. Immediately, I shook his hand–I’ll never forget the feeling of that huge bunch of bananas encircling my puny fingers–and asked him if he would sign my copy of the sheet music to “Sweet Little Sixteen.” He duly obliged.
And then I pushed my luck too far. “Would you mind posing for a photo, Mr. Berry?” I asked as my friend Bill Greensmith fired up my little point-and-click Kodak. “No,” he said firmly. “I don’t wanna. The flash hurts my eyes.”
You can see the hilarious result below.
The whole night was so memorable that I came home and immediately wrote it up as the last chapter of Brown Eyed Handsome Man. But I added a twist, so I could have the last word on the incident. I wrote myself into the biography as the disappointed fan on page 256.
I don’t believe that Chuck’s passing this week will be the end of our story together. While there is still interest in the legend–and the upcoming release of the fabled “new” album I was writing about fifteen years ago tells me the interest will be around for some time to come–I am sure I will still get the odd phone call or an email from some interested fan or journalist. There is also the possibility that I may be called upon to revise Brown Eyed Handsome Man at some point down the line. But until that happens, thank you, Chuck, for sharing your wonderful, weird and fascinating life with me. And rest easy, knowing you have my word that I will do what I can to honor your legacy for as long as I am able.