CHUCK BERRY REFLECTS UPON HIS LIFE

On “Johnny B. Goode”
“I guess my mother has the right to be the source of ‘Johnny B. Goode’ as any other contender in that she was the one who repeatedly commented that I would be a millionaire someday.... “Johnny” in the song is more or less myself although I wrote it intending it to be a song for Johnnie Johnson. I altered the predictions that my mother made of me and created a story that paralleled. It seems easy, now that it’s been around so long, that it took only a period of about two weeks of periodic application to put the lyrics together when I worked on “Drifting Heart” almost four months and it sold scarcely twenty copies.

It is obvious that a story that brings a subject from out of the boondocks to fame and fortune is more dramatic than one out of midtown to somewhere crosstown. ‘Rags to riches’ even sounds more attractive than ‘fortune to fame’. It was with this in mind that I wrote of a boy with an ambition to become a guitar player, who came from the least of luxury to be seen by many, practicing until the listener believes he has all but made it to the top as the chorus prompts him like his mother’s encouraging voice, ‘Go Johnny Go’.

The gateway from freedom, I was led to understand, was somewhere ‘close to New Orleans’ where most Africans were sorted through and sold. I had driven through New Orleans on tour and I’d been told my great grandfather lived ‘way back up in the woods among the evergreens’ in a log cabin. I revived the era with a story about a ‘colored boy named Johnny B. Goode.’ My first thought was to make his life follow as my own had come along, but I thought it would seem biased to white fans to say ‘colored boy’ and changed it to ‘country boy’.

As it turned out, my name was in lights and it is a fact that ‘Johnny B. Goode’ is most instrumental in causing it to B’.”


On financial success
“Up to 1972, my career and success had not registered to the point that I believed I was a “legend”, as had been stated here and there in articles on my music and performances. I had been so elated with the possessions I’d accumulated that whatever fame had accentuated the achievement was greatly underadministrated due to the attention I paid to the income I was collecting. Many of the things I had dreamed of in life were coming to me and I was determined not to let loss come to whatever I’d obtained.

By the only wife I’ve ever had, I now had four grandchildren from Ingrid and Melody’s marriages. They seemed to partially pacify Toddy’s loneliness at home while I was traveling worldwide in an attempt to stretch the good living to my immediate kinfolk. My five brothers and sisters had granted me nineteen nieces and nephews, who all lived in St. Louis. Up to then I had owned a total of twenty-nine automobiles, most of them purchased new and most of the new ones Cadillacs, which was then the epitome of well-off. During the twenty-two years of marriage I’d purchases twenty-three pieces of property located from Los Angeles to Kitchener, Ontario, costing $677,000 in total.”


On race
“I never accepted the few roles presented to me during my career for just that reason; they (media) overplay traits and customs of the American black person, especially the male and too often the black female. The time is coming, though, when all races and nationalities in the United States will be merged into, let’s say “Americanese” people.

Now, wouldn’t that be real nice? A one-race, normal-face, average-shade, medium-made, balanced-weight, open-fate society with no disturbing variants. As my father used to say, ‘It won’t happen in my lifetime.’ But I can see the great change that has happened in mine, such as being turned away from the door of the Fox Theater as a child and being paid what I consider a fortune to be featured there forty-five years later.”


On hearing his own music for the first time
“Suddenly from the mouths of babes came remarks that they’d heard ‘Maybellene’ on the radio and shortly after I picked it up while driving home from Dad’s house in the station wagon. There is no way to explain how you feel when you first hear your first recording for the first time in your first new car. I told Toddy (his wife) as soon as I reached home and we celebrated as you can imagine how!
Johnnie (Johnson) told me that while coming home from the Cosmopolitan Club one hot night he was tuning his radio for some blues and on station WGN in Chicago heard the unmistakable rhythmic bounce of ‘Maybelline’ being played over and over. WGN was a big rock station, bringing a linked-up program by a New York disk jockey.

All excerpts from Chuck Berry, The Autobiography (New York: Harmony Books, 1987.)