Some years ago, when I became friends with the sports biographer and historian Michael MacCambridge, I found myself eating lunch rather frequently at Blueberry Hill, a restaurant in University City within walking distance of Washington University, my place of employment, and a stone's throw from the city of St. Louis itself. While lunching with Michael at Blueberry Hill, a nostaglic burger-and-fries place with the sort of ambience the Hard Rock Café has bestowed upon the tourist, we would inevitably seek out the owner, Joe Edwards, who in 1988 started the St. Louis Walk of Fame. (Chuck Berry's sidewalk star is in front of Blueberry Hill.) Edwards is something of a St. Louis booster and a bit of an operator, identified with the renaissance of this part of the city, the border of Delmar Avenue, the racial dividing line of the side (north is for Negroes and south is for Mr. Charlie and Miss Ann, to speak whimsically). In short, Edwards is St. Louis' main hipster gentrifier. He loves Berry's music and maybe Berry himself.
Blueberry Hill is famous because Chuck Berry played its Duck Room, named in honor of Berry's dance step, once a month. No visitor to St. Louis failed to check out a Berry show if he or she happened to be in town when Berry was known to be playing. When Michael and I lunched at Blueberry Hill, we would call Edwards over -- he was frequently in the restaurant -- and the first thing Michael would ask was "How is Chuck?" Edwards was thought to know better than anyone else, because as far as anyone knew -- at least, as far as I knew -- Edwards knew Berry better than anyone. Most people who wanted to contact Berry tried to find Joe Edwards.
Berry had the reputation of being a difficult man, prickly, bitter, petty, impossible to deal with. I suppose the only reasons anyone tolerated Berry acting like an ass were that, first, he was for a time in his life a musical genius who composed some very memorable, joyous yet poignant tunes of being young in America; second, everyone assumed that a black man who had been imprisoned three times -- in the late 1940s for robbery, in the early '60s for violation of the Mann Act -- was probably more sinned against than sinning. Everyone in St. Louis knew that Berry did not have the fondest feeling in the world for his hometown, which opposed his youthful interracial (and adulterous) tomcatting at Berry Park in nearby Wentzville in the late 1950s, and later his old-age lechery that resulted in being accused of photographing women while they used the bathroom at his restaurant. It is easy enough to say that Berry was rather like the turn-of-the-20th-century black heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson, who was also imprisoned for violation of the Mann Act, and persecuted because of his penchant (fetish?) for white women, but Berry's temperament and indiscretion complicate his victimhood. When a statue of Berry was erected across the street from Blueberry Hill a few years ago, more than a couple of people signed petitions and protested.
Berry was born and grew up in the black part of North St. Louis called the Ville -- the black world north of Delmar Avenue. When I first arrived in St. Louis, nearly 35 years ago, black St. Louisans, particularly older ones, spoke of the Ville with some real pride. It was one of those "jewels" of segregation, if such an oxymoron is even conceivable: a self-contained racial haven that had most of the city's black businesses, its first black high school (Sumner, the first black high school west of the Mississippi, as every single black St. Louisan told me) and a black hospital, Homer G. Phillips, which closed shortly after I arrived, much to the sorrow and anger of many local blacks. The Ville was where the black elite lived -- side by side with the working class -- during Berry's youth: the owners of St. Louis' major black newspapers, the city's black lawyers and doctors, heads of the Urban League and the NAACP. (It was this very aspect of the Ville, the home of St. Louis' black bourgeoisie, that Dick Gregory, a near contemporary of Berry, criticized about his upbringing in St. Louis in his 1964 autobiography, N - er.) Where else could they live in the age of racially restricted covenants? Ask any black native of a certain age in St. Louis who remembers the glory days of the Ville, varnished over now with the mythology of memory, and they'll say that being in the Ville is what made Chuck Berry who he was, that being a product of that particular black urban environment made him the creative artist he was. This is a way, I suppose, of claiming Berry's blackness; for Berry is, like, say, Jimi Hendrix, a curious artist in that I can never recall him being as beloved by blacks as he was by whites, cannot recall blacks finding his music essential to their understanding of black music. Berry's was a kind of assimilationist music that the Ville, in the diversity of its blackness, inspired: a new way of seeing blackness as universal in its sources. It was this assimilationist vision that led to Berry Park, Berry's 1957 purchase of land west of St. Louis to create his interracial idea of a country club-as-theme park-as-San Simeon, doubtless inspired by Walt Disney's 1955 launch of Disneyland. White St. Louis, for years, was not happy about Berry Park. By the time white St. Louis reconciled itself to it, when diversity finally hit St. Louis 10 years after it was old hat everywhere else, Berry was too old, too bitter, too angry, too self-absorbed, too paranoid to care. Berry died at Berry Park.
To Memphis, St. Louis is the north. To Chicago, it's the south. To Kansas City, it's the east. And to itself, St. Louis is "the gateway to the west." Perhaps it's only fitting the city should dub itself not exactly a location but a portal. St. Louis native Chuck Berry must have felt that he was from everywhere and nowhere simultaneously, as many black St. Louisans do. Perhaps it is this quality of being a transparency as much as a reflection, a kind of looking-glass world more poised than rooted, that makes St. Louis what it is, and made Berry's monumental music what it was.
Gerald Early is an essayist, cultural critic and professor of English and African and African-American studies at Washington University in St. Louis.
This article appears in the April 1 issue of Billboard.