As the summer continues I found myself in the park again digging through Bruce Pegg's biography on Chuck Berry. Amidst an abundance of Elvis books, a good Chuck Berry book is hard to find. Which really is a shame if you take Berry's pivotal role in R&R's development into account. Though that might not be just because almost every Rock and Roll superstar of the fifties tends to stand in the shadow of Elvis' star. Berry was notoriously reluctant in giving interviews and never worked with the same people very long. At the same time, R&R wasn't covered as extensively in the fifties as it is today. As Pegg's book shows, most reviews of the time focus on the fad or the threat of R&R, contemporary articles of the fifties rarely took an in depth look at the stars of the day. Profound analysis and an interest in what moved the stars of R&R didn't come until the late sixties, early seventies. Which means that sources on Berry's life, especially the formative years of his career, are spars. Pegg had to fall back on meager news coverage, trial transcripts, a concert film and a few interviews with people around Berry, willing to talk, to construct his portrait. To Pegg's credit he manages to give us a fairly interesting read.
What makes the book interesting is the effort Pegg put into reconstructing the social fabric of the time. Starting from a social portrait of 'the Ville' in Louisville where Berry grew up, Pegg branches out to the broader social context we need to understand the phenomenon of R&R. In Berry's case the racial relations in America were an important part of the fabric. Berry grew up and rose to fame in an America that was still segregated in the South, exploiting its own system of apartheid. The success Berry enjoyed were as much an important sign of the times as it was a motor behind the change. Berry's pop success amongst teens was an element of what helped America to integrate. Pegg shows a deep understanding of those mechanisms in his book and because of the subject matter and his breezy writing style Brown Eyed Handsome Man is a much more pleasant read than the many history books on this subject.The book, in all honesty, is a bit low on the juice session details or the road yarns you might hope for. Pegg's agenda is clearly different. Pegg's book draws you in with R&R and tricks you into learning quite a bit more about America than you might have bargained for. R&R, in my mind, is the perfect subject matter for such a ploy. Across the world there are few music styles that are so entwined with the social development of a country as R&R is. The genre especially is an eye opener to the uncomfortable race relations within the US.
I however do feel that Pegg goes a little overboard from time to time. Pegg takes great pains to underscore the relations between W.E.B. Du Bois' and Booker T. Washington's philosophies and Berry's way of conducting business. Berry was notorious in providing detailed contracts to promoters and fining them, sometimes by shortening the show, if they failed to provide what he stipulated. Even though Berry came from a Black middle class well educated background I must wonder if Berry applied those philosophies quite as conscious as Pegg claims. The sketches of Berry's way of handling promoters on the road sooner draw a picture of a man who got business savvy through street or road smarts. These are minor gripes though. Especially since Pegg's explorations of the racial fabric becomes key in understanding Berry's clashes with the law. Pegg makes a pretty strong case that Berry's run in with a 14 year old prostitute at the height of his career, might never have led to a prison term if he hadn't been black. Here Pegg again takes time to allow us a finer understanding of the Mann Act that led to Berry's imprisonment and takes the time to go through the court transcripts to establish that at no point it wasn't even for certain that Berry slept with the girl. Though that doesn't make for juicy and sensational writing that is so appealing in a lot of R&R biographies, it is to Pegg's credit that he doesn't play the myth building game and takes his time to create an as fair as possible portrait of Berry as possible.
As said, with Berry, this is a difficult task. Pegg managed to interview few people surrounding Berry and Chuck himself has always been a star veiled in a shroud of mystery. Even Berry's biography fails to touch key events in his life. Berry never talked about his jail time and was very spars in detailing on his conflicts with the law himself. The people Pegg does speak to like Billy Peek, the guitar player Berry used sort of continuously later on in his career, do allow us enough insight in his character, while at the same time explaining his shroud to make the book interesting. So while you'll never get the "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" through this book, this is probably as close as you'll get to gaining an understanding of him.