Chuck Berry: An American Life

Hachette. Nov. 2022. 432p. ISBN 9780306921636. $32. MUSIC
Smith (The One: The Life and Music of James Brown) explores the controversial legacy of rock pioneer Chuck Berry (1926-2017). Understandably, he concentrates the majority of the book on Berry’s early life: his childhood in St. Louis; a three-year stint in a reform school, where he became fascinated by music; and his early and now classic Chess recordings, such as “Maybelline,” (1955), “Roll Over Beethoven” (1956), “Rock and Roll Music” (1957), and “Johnny B. Goode” (1958). Smith details the singer/songwriter/guitarist’s three-year prison sentence after the 33-year-old Berry transported a 14-year-old girl over state lines for sex; his conviction for tax evasion, his problematic associations with white women, and dozens of legal actions taken by women who sued the rocker for harassment and sexual depravity. The book also explores Berry’s seemingly endless series of concerts in rock-and-roll revivals, a documentary about him, and his less-than-forthcoming autobiography.
VERDICT This account may become the standard biography that may appeal to general readers. Smith lauds Berry’s accomplishments in music but also characterizes him as a lonely, self-destructive, moody, and aggressively sexual man.
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