Published:  12:00 AM, 21 March 2017

The black hillbilly who defied daunting racial barrier

Chuck Berry helped create both rock 'n' roll and modern youth culture becoming one of the first African American stars to win a wide white audience.

With "Johnny B. Goode," a 1958 song that so defined rock 'n' roll that the US space program chose it to introduce the music to potential extraterrestrials, Chuck Berry created a now classic character -- the scrappy guitarist who triumphs through pure skill.

Berry, who died Saturday at age 90, helped create both rock 'n' roll and modern youth culture, becoming one of the first African American stars to win a wide white audience. Yet Berry was also forced to navigate a delicate line in a country that was still largely under the institutionalized discrimination of Jim Crow laws.

His career suffered a major blow when he was imprisoned for allegedly sleeping with an underage waitress -- a conviction seen by many as a warning from the white establishment against African American artists who rise too far.
As for the music, Berry achieved his success in part by his skill in understanding the racial divide. Born to a middle-class family in St. Louis, Berry played blues guitar but knew that white audiences wanted country.

He combined the two -- joking he was a "black hillbilly" -- as well as other genres, creating the sensation that became rock 'n' roll, even if he hesitated to call himself its father.

Berry managed to capture "the rebelliousness, the playfulness, the irrepressibility" of a generation, said Jack Hamilton, an assistant professor at the University of Virginia and author of "Just Around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination."

"For a black man to do that in the 1950s was pretty groundbreaking. He wrote what became the soundtrack for American youth, both white and black," he said.He touched more directly on race in "Brown Eyed Handsome Man," which he wrote after visiting California and being struck by being around so many fellow African Americans and Latinos.

In a cruel irony, Berry was in prison just as white rockers led by The Beatles and The Rolling Stones took over the United States with the British invasion. Rocker Tom Petty, in a speech last month as he accepted a lifetime Grammy award, saw the imprisonment of Berry as part of long conspiracy against rock and its racially mixed origins.

"The music became popular and it empowered the youth of America. The government got very nervous -- ?especially the Republicans," Petty said.

"They put Elvis in the Army and they put Chuck Berry in jail. Things calmed down for a couple of years. But it was too late -- the music had reached England. And they remembered it."


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