Honey, Is That You?

Will the real Chuck Berry please stand up? Competing biographies paint radically different portraits of the St. Louis legend.

There's no shortage of opinion when it comes to Chuck Berry. Over the years, he's been both revered and reviled by those who have crossed his path. Friends have been quick to point out examples of his generosity; critics are even quicker with tales of penny-pinching and deception. He's been called both cunning and cruel. Yet despite the wellspring of emotion surrounding Berry, remarkably little has been written about him throughout his tumultuous 50-year career.

That all changed recently with the publication of not one but two new Chuck Berry biographies. Together these books represent the first objective effort to tell the tale of one of rock's most iconic figures. Unfortunately for anyone hoping for a clear and definitive portrait of Berry, the waters may now be muddier than ever. The two books present vastly differing interpretations of Berry's legacy and life. And for now, at least, the authors have agreed to disagree while readers are left to ask: Will the real Chuck Berry please stand up?

The first of the two books to find space on U.S. retail shelves was Brown Eyed Handsome Man: The Life and Hard Times of Chuck Berry, penned by first-time author Bruce Pegg. Published in October, the book reflects its writer's chief passions: academic research and rock & roll. Pegg is a writing instructor at Syracuse University, and his pedigree shows in Brown Eyed Handsome Man; it's a measured, carefully constructed tome built upon meticulous research, yet it avoids the sort of dense, impenetrable style of so many scholastic rock bios.

"I was very aware that Berry has appeal that is popular as well as appeal for an academic," the British-born Pegg says. "I really was very conscious all the way through the book trying to steer that middle ground between the two positions."

Although Berry's music never falls far from sight in Pegg's portrait, the author also focuses a tremendous amount of attention on his subject's numerous legal run-ins. In fact, Pegg's extensive research into the criminal trials that ended with Berry's imprisonment in the early 1960s may be the book's most significant achievement. The trial and its subsequent appeal centered around Berry's transportation of a fourteen-year-old girl across state lines, allegedly for purposes of "immoral activity."

"Going back through the court documents was fascinating because that was stuff that nobody had ever really looked at," Pegg says. The trials, he argues, reveal a legal process fraught with racial bias and irregularities. He believes this was also true in the 1990s, when Berry was again embroiled in legal action, this time for secretly videotaping women in the public restroom of his restaurant in Wentzville.

At around the time that Pegg's biography went to press, another book, titled simply Chuck Berry: The Biography, was published in England. Written by John Collis, the book is now available in the States through Aurum Press. Collis is the author of several books on music and musicians, including a history of Chess Records, the label for which Berry made his most notable recordings.

Side by side, the two Berry biographies are a study in contrasts. Whereas Pegg's book is a measured, affectionate profile of its subject, Collis' biography is raucous and irreverent, full of salacious details and glib asides. It's a fun read and contains no shortage of good information, even if it seems to lack the authority of Pegg's book, which benefits from a greater number of firsthand interviews and deeper research into Berry's legal troubles. However, the chief differences between the two books have less to do with writing styles and research methods than about basic assumptions regarding Berry. Both authors celebrate Berry's musical genius, but they find little common ground when it comes to Chuck Berry the man.

Contacted by e-mail, Collis is blunt in his assessment of his subject matter. "At base, the inventor of some of the most joyous, life-affirming, zestful rock & roll is a mean, suspicious, dirty old man," he says. "I think he is someone who says, 'If it ain't broke, break it.' He is willful and stubborn. He revels in causing discomfort."

Pegg, by contrast, goes out of his way to explain away some of Berry's more indefensible actions. Referring to the singer's legal battles of the 1960s and 1990s, Pegg writes that "both incidents resist easy moralizing." And though he admits that Berry's personal irresponsibility was a factor, he contends that much of the blame rests upon "the racism inherent in the American justice system at its many levels." Perhaps that's true, but in general terms, having sex with minors and videotaping unsuspecting women in the act of defecating is the kind of stuff that gets people in trouble, regardless of race or celebrity.

Another area of disagreement for the dueling biographers concerns the role of Berry's longtime bandmate Johnnie Johnson. Johnson's much-publicized lawsuit against Berry, wherein he claims he deserves songwriting credit and royalties from 57 songs in the Berry canon, is handled very differently in the two books. Unsurprisingly, Pegg lands on Berry's side, whereas Collis supports Johnson's claim.

"The evidence for Johnnie's role is in the records, the ways he found different ways to dress up the same tune," Collis says, "and it's in his extraordinary humility and transparent honesty. If he says he helped, I'd believe him over Chuck or the courts any day."

In Brown Eyed Handsome Man, however, Pegg argues that "Johnson would always be nothing more or less than a gifted piano player."

So where is the common ground between the two authors? As to be expected, perhaps, it's in the music. Both cite "Nadine" as their favorite Berry song from a lyrical perspective, and both speak of the enduring impact of "Johnny B. Goode."

"Everybody gravitates toward "Johnny B. Goode," and that's still a fantastic song," Pegg says. "Try to imagine what it must have been like when that song was first recorded in '58. It's a whole different world that he's portraying."

Although neither writer will admit to having read the other's book, that doesn't dissuade them from making some comparisons.

Collis says that he imagines the contrasts between the books to be a matter of perspective: "I guess the difference is between professional rock & roll writer and state-paid academic." It's an ambiguous comment, but it hardly sounds like praise for the competition.

Pegg, too, manages a quick shot. "Talking about Collis' book, I've not read it. I have no opinion about it," he says before going on to offer one anyway. "I know John's work. I'm sure he and I were trying to do two very different things. I don't think John's critical depth will be the same as mine, but I can't say that for sure. I haven't read it."

Both men were well into the writing process before learning that they had competition.

"I heard about Bruce Pegg's book while I was writing mine," Collis says. "I just thought, 'Bugger it.' You wait 50 years for a book, and then two come along at once -- just like buses. Good luck to both of us. There's nothing we can do about it. I haven't bought Bruce's book yet, but of course I will, and I look forward to it. It's too late to change anything now."

For Pegg, the surprise wasn't that someone else was writing a Berry biography. It was that no one had done so already. "When I first found out that John was writing that book, I was just kind of shocked again that nobody had thought of this until then," he says. "It took two Brits to figure this out. One of the most important people in American popular music in the twentieth century has been ignored. It's just stunning."

Perhaps these two very different, yet equally fascinating biographies will ensure that Berry's contributions to rock & roll are once again front and center in the public's mind. As for his merits as a human being, this is one Berry trial for which the jury is still out.

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