JUDY WOODRUFF: Chuck Berry was a pioneer in his field, often referred to as the father of rock ‘n’ roll who influenced a generation of musicians. Now, three months after his death at age 90, he’s back, in a way.
Jeffrey Brown explains.
JEFFREY BROWN: You know it when you hear it. Beginning in the mid-1950s, Chuck Berry helped define the sound and look, the attitude and raw power of rock ‘n’ roll. The man is now gone, but his music lives on, in a new album, titled “Chuck,” berry’s first album since 1979.
He’d worked on the project off and on for several decades, and on his 90th birthday, five months before his death, had announced its imminent release.
MALE: So, here’s one of his Cadillacs.
JEFFREY BROWN: I was joined recently by the star’s son Charles and grandson Charlie at the National Museum of African-American History and Culture for some personal memories of the man and his music.
CHARLES BERRY, JR.: This was a guy when he was a little boy he sold vegetables off a cart with his father. This is a man that worked at a General Motors plant, not assembling the cars, but as a janitor. He heard from other people the significance that he brought to the table, but my — he didn’t really dwell on that.
CHARLES BERRY III: I remember in elementary school, I’d have teachers coming up to me like, who’s your grandfather? I’d be like, Pa Pa. They were like, that’s so cool.
JEFFREY BROWN: Did you have any idea who your grandfather was in history?
CHARLES BERRY III: I always knew he played the guitar, but I didn’t think he was like this bigger than life person to everybody else because he was just pawpaw.
JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. Oh, boy, did he play the guitar, huh?
CHARLES BERRY III: Oh, yes.
JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, both Charles and Charlie play the guitar and had the chance to play with Chuck. Charles is part of the band for many years. Since Chuck’s death, they’ve played on, here just recently promoting the new album on “The Tonight Show.”
The album charts Chuck Berry’s life in stages, an autobiographical epitaph of sorts. In the song “Big Boys,” he returns to his childhood with the ambitions of a teenager, while “The Eyes of Man” describes the wisdom of women in his life.
CHARLES BERRY JR.: It’s almost to the point that he was being philosophical over his life and letting everybody else knows, like, hey, from a wonderful woman to a big boy to an eye of a man, here’s my book. Here’s the next chapter of my life that you get to have, and I hope you enjoy it.
JEFFREY BROWN: Berry continued to perform into his late ‘80s, including his renowned monthly gig at Blueberry Hill, a diner and music venue in his native St. Louis.
ERIC CLAPTON: He’s really laid the law down for playing that kind of music.
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: When I’m 65 or 70, I’ve got to tell my grandkids. Yes, I met Chuck Berry. As a matter of fact, I backed up Chuck Berry one night. You did? Yes.
LITTLE RICHARD: My favorite song with Chuck is all of ’em.
JEFFREY BROWN: His influence is everywhere in rock music. The initial cultural jolt was jokingly portrayed in the 1985 hit movie, “Back to the Future.” And honored nine years later in” Pulp Fiction.”
KEVIN STRAIT, Museum Curator: Rock and roll has such a firm place in our cultural memory.
JEFFREY BROWN: Kevin Strait is a musical historian and curator at the museum.
KEVIN STRAIT: He’s one of the primary sonic architects of rock and roll. So, he helped establish this art form that we all know and love, and that really sort of took over the world. Its helm really was this young musician from St. Louis. And, you know, he really sort of helped to sort of establish the template for how rock and roll should sound. You know, he’s a phenomenal guitar player, phenomenal showman.
JEFFREY BROWN: Strait acquired objects from Berry for the museum’s musical crossroads collection, including this prized guitar.
KEVIN STRAIT: This guitar is pretty special. It’s a Gibson ES-350T. I mean, it’s one of his early touring and recording guitars that he used, and it’s nicknamed Maybellene after his first hit.
JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, quite a first hit. Quite a name, right?
JEFFREY BROWN: And that red 1973 Cadillac Eldorado?
Berry drove it on stage in 1986 for his 60th birthday and the filming of the documentary “Hail, Hail Rock ‘n’ Roll”. That was at the Fox Theater in St. Louis, which had denied him entry as a child because he was black.
CHUCK BERRY: And my forefathers a few blocks away were sold on the civil courthouse steps, sold, and that’s a big change.
CHARLES BERRY JR.: It was difficult, absolutely, but as opposed to, man, these white people are just, they’re playing me. My God, I can’t — nope. My dad took it as, oh, so you’re telling me I can’t go in the front of this venue to play in front of this crowd. OK, I’m going to keep writing my music. They’re going to change. I’m going to make it. I’m going to make a scenario where the people that are listening to my music are having such a blast that skin color becomes irrelevant.
JEFFREY BROWN: How do you see what your grandfather, what he went through and what he achieved?
CHARLES BERRY III: That you could go from selling out a packed house to then being told you can’t stay in this hotel room. That is like I that probably would have left me pretty bitter throughout the rest of my life. But I don’t know because what he’s done with his music and everything, it’s just that much more amazing because he was able to do it during that time.
JEFFREY BROWN: A pioneering life that had dramatic ups and downs, for sure. Now, “Chuck” the album adds new music to what was already an enormous legacy.
For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Jeffrey Brown in Washington.