Photograph by Kevin A. Roberts
Last May, Esquire’s Luke Dittrich traveled to St. Louis to interview a man known for not giving interviews: Chuck Berry. To him, it was intriguing that a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer would spend his days playing in a restaurant’s basement, singing songs like “Maybellene” and “Roll Over Beethoven” with his son and daughter, duck-walking across a diminutive stage at age 85. After all, this was the man who’d blended elements of country and blues so many years ago to create a little something we call rock ’n’ roll.
“Some musicologists say that the first rock ’n’ roll record was actually recorded by a different guy, Ike Turner,” Dittrich’s article noted, “who came up playing in the same club scene as Chuck Berry.”
And that scene was humming in the ’50s. Turner and Berry—not to mention Tina Turner, Johnnie Johnson, and Albert King—played all night in venues like Club Imperial and the West End Waiters Club before crossing the Mississippi to play into the wee hours in East St. Louis, in the same town where Miles Davis learned trumpet. “When I first came here in ’49, there was a band playing on virtually every corner,” jazz pianist and saxophonist Hugh “Peanuts” Whalum told SLM in December 2008. He and others like James Crutchfield, Jeanne Trevor, and Trebor Tichenor frequented the jazz and ragtime clubs in Gaslight Square. They built on a tradition started by the likes of Scott Joplin, Tom Turpin, and Robert Nighthawk—and carried on by Willie Akins, Kim Massie, and many others.
Today, some of those names are etched along the Loop, on the St. Louis Walk of Fame: Michael McDonald, Nelly, The 5th Dimension, Fontella Bass… And across the street from Blueberry Hill stands a bronze statue of St. Louis’ original rocker, forever crouched in that iconic stance and joyfully belting out the songs that shaped a genre.
To New Yorkers, it might seem strange that Berry still works so hard after achieving so much, wowing audiences onstage and cutting his own lawn offstage. But Berry’s managed to keep things in perspective. “It’s one of my beliefs that I’m just a small portion of music,” he told Rolling Stone’s Neil Strauss in 2010. “It’s like the sun and a blade of grass. There’s grass all over the earth, but for somebody to pick me out? I appreciate that.”