chuck berry’s childhood -- 11/3/23

Today's selection -- from Chuck Berry: An American Life by RJ Smith. The early influences on Chuck Berry’s music:

“The depression was at its worst, and the Berry family was holding on uncertainly. By 1933, 70 percent of Black St. Louis was unemployed, and another 20 percent had found only part-time work. Henry worked three days a week at a flour mill until 1935, when he got a job doing carpentry for a realty company owned by a local German family. He was paid seventy-five cents an hour and denied raises, the employer explained, because Herny was barred from the white-only union, and therefore the boss was free to pay him whatever he wanted. 

“To make ends meet, Henry bought a used GM truck for thirty bucks and sold vegetables in the Ville. At six in the morning he drove to a produce market, filled the truck, and then Henry and the children circled the blocks around their church and Tandy Park, hawking the day's harvest.


Performance of "Johnny B. Goode"

“Charles would stick his head out the window, calling in rhythm to the motion of the truck, looking to catch strangers' attention, to find the right words, the right note to turn a head and make a sale. ‘The huckster business,’ he called it. ‘Shouting the familiar cry of the street merchant. I loved to open my mouth wide, pitch my head into the air, and sing out “Apples, tomatoes, potatoes .. .” Whatever came to mind, we sang it.’ Free-market improvisation, it would have fed Charles's sense of invention, his desire to create something in the moment that rewarded him with welcome attention. It would have fed the family. 

“Late in life, he was asked a question about the influence of gospel music. Given that so many early rockers who grew up close to the faith carried church sounds into their own, how come Berry did not? To answer, he left church and God behind, returning to the Ville's streets and the days going door to door with fresh produce. 

"‘My dad had a business of his own, selling groceries,’ he explained. Father and son carried baskets of vegetables to strangers' porches, showing the goods, the youth handling money when he was ten or twelve.


“‘I sold a lot because I was young, and they kind of bought from my ingenuity trying to sell.’ You put something across on the porch, and you watched if they liked it or not. He paid close attention. 

“These are the sounds filling ten-year-old Charles Berry’s life: the multiple voices of Paul Laurence Dunbar and the sounds of his own voice, greeting strangers and friends from the street.”



RJ Smith


Chuck Berry: An American Life


Hachette Books


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