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Remembering Chuck Berry and His Extremely Complicated Legacy

He was as much of an American icon as he was a black one, but his legacy has always been complicated.

You know who Chuck Berry is. Even before his death at the age of 90 on March 18, you knew his name, knew his guitar playing, or felt his legacy. His hits were innumerable. Songs like "Maybellene" and "Johnny B. Goode" are pillars bearing the weight of the genre he helped create. Let's repeat that—he helped create an entire genre of music. "Rock and roll" now seems like an outdated, white bread category in the very cross-pollinated 2017 (see: Drake's More Life). However, it was born from black musicians and the genres they had already created, like jazz and rhythm and blues. Yet even though he pioneered arguably the most influential genre of music the world has ever seen, Berry's historical status as both an American and black hero has always been complicated due to his own faults.


Berry's gross and confusing treatment of women should have equal billing with his music, but in most profiles it'll be missing. There's that eternal question: Can you separate the artist from the art they created? Berry's transgressions make him comparable to people like Bill Cosby and Mel Gibson. The difference between Cosby and Gibson is that the former is a black icon to a community with few of them, and the latter is enjoying an alarming redemption tour at the time of this writing. The cliché line of "never meet your heroes" can be repurposed for Berry: "Never find out absolutely everything about your heroes."

Chuck Berry was born in St. Louis, Missouri, to a middle class family that afforded him time for the arts. Music called him from an early age, and he was performing by high school. Berry's first brush with the law also happened when he was a student at Sumner High School in 1944—he was arrested for armed robbery. After due time at a detention facility, he married, worked a variety of odd jobs including stints as a factory worker at automobile plants, and kept playing music. By the early 1950s, Berry had moved from playing with local St. Louis bands to playing with Johnnie Johnson, a jazz and blues pianist who would eventually be his long-time collaborator.

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