I am finally getting around to reading Chuck Berry’s 1987 autobiography, 20 years after it was first published. Better late than never. This honest portrait of this great lyricist’s interesting musical life feels especially poignant, knowing that every word of the story is Berry’s own.
One story in particular about the Jim Crow South caught my attention. It was early 1956, and Berry had been booked for a show in Knoxville, Tennessee. He’d arrived two hours early for his 8 p.m. curtain call and knocked on the stage door to be let in. After explaining to the big burly guy at the door that he was there early to rehearse with the local backup band, Berry was laughed at and told that Chuck Berry was performing a sold out show there that night. Pulling out his papers, Berry showed the door guy his contract for the night’s gig. He was told to wait outside. This time, a higher-up came out to say that there had been a mix-up. He explained to Berry that “it’s a country dance, and we had no idea that ‘Maybellene’ was recorded by a [black] man.” They couldn’t allow him onstage due to a Knoxville city ordinance that prohibited black artists from performing live. Berry lost the gig, and the white hillbilly pickup band performed his songs that night without him.
Many listeners assumed Chuck Berry was white because he infused songs like “Maybellene” with a hillbilly twang. His superb diction and elocution only added to the misperception. Berry wanted to appeal to both black and white audiences. And he certainly succeeded, which was rare for a black artist in the 1950s.
The same public misperception happened to Mose Allison, but in the reverse. Born in Tippo, Mississippi, Allison also began his career in the mid-1950s and was a sublime poetic lyricist, just like Berry. Growing up, he’d cross the street from his family’s dry goods store to listen to Big Bill Broonzy, Tampa Red, and Memphis Minnie on the big Seeburg jukebox at the local Tippo gas station. That was how Allison picked up his own southern twang, listening to all that blues and R&B.
When I interviewed Mose Allison for my first book, Stolen Moments: Conversations with Contemporary Musicians, he told me that he’d heard from so many people who told him that they’d mistaken him for black, that he began to think that maybe he was. He even recalled seeing a poster of himself somewhere during his first visit to Los Angeles, where he’d been depicted as a black man. And, in an interview with Jet Magazine: “They asked me where I went to college, and I told them I graduated from LSU.” (Louisiana State University was then a segregated institution). “They said, ‘Were you the first black man to graduate from LSU?’ and I said, ‘Well, wait just a minute, there’s something you should know.'”
I don’t know if Mose Allison ever lost a gig because a club owner in the Jim Crow South mistook him for black, but it’s clear from Chuck Berry’s experience that racial segregation posed a serious concern for performing artists in the South back then.
In fact, even Charlie Parker spun his own version of the truth while touring the South with his mixed-race band in 1950. As the band took the stage, he introduced his curly red-haired, white-skinned trumpet player, Red Rodney (born Robert Chudnick, 1927), by saying, “Now I’d like to introduce our newest member, Albino Red!” The audience believed Bird’s little white lie, so there was no problem at all.
Listen for yourself to Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene.”