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A New PBS Chuck Berry Documentary Explores The Life And Legacy Of The Rock-And-Roll Pioneer

Chuck Berry performs live at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, Holland in 1976.
Chuck Berry performs live at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, Holland in 1976.
Credit Gijsbert Hanekroot / ALAMY Stock Photo

Chuck Berry has been called “ground zero for rock ’n’ roll,” and his influence permeates the world of music. His first breakout single “Maybellene” took over the AM radio waves in the 1950s, breaking racial barriers between Black and white listeners. The artist’s life and music will be explored in the upcoming episode of the PBS series “In Their Own Words,” a biographical series that covered luminaries like Jim Henson, Queen Elizabeth II and Muhammed Ali in its first season. Chuck Dalaklis is the series executive producer and he joined “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes along with Bruce Pegg, the author of the biography “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man: The Life and Hard Times of Chuck Berry“.

Interview highlights:

On Chuck Berry’s emergence and the alchemy of rock ’n roll:

“What he did was forge two different kinds of music together. He obviously was a big fan of R&B,” Pegg said.”He forged that with what was then called ‘hillbilly’ — what we would now call country and western music — and brought them together in one package. And by the time he gets to 1955 and ‘Maybellene,’ his major hit single, we have this new art form which was christened ‘rock ’n’ roll’ by the DJ Alan Freed.”

“Chuck’s mother was so enamored with poetry that she actually named her younger son Paul Lawrence Dunbar after the famous African American poet,” recounted Pegg. “So yeah, Chuck just grew up in this really literary-rich, and music-rich house. His sister Lucy was a classically trained mezzo-soprano. His father and his mother played in the Antioch Baptist Church choir. So, you know, he just grew up with this as a part of his DNA.”

“It’s inconceivable for somebody to play rock ’n’ roll without at least learning how to play it the way that Chuck Berry played it. It’s inconceivable for somebody to write a rock ’n’ roll song without at least understanding how Chuck Berry put those lyrics together; those beautiful, rhythmic lyrics that paint such vivid pictures,” Pegg said.

The multifaceted, enigmatic personality of the rock pioneer:

“Chuck was a poetic, quiet, thoughtful speaker,” Dalaklis said. “He was not the most chatty guy. And something happened when Chuck Berry got out on stage. And when he would step out on stage, all the self-doubt that Chuck felt as a human being, all the difficulties that he went through in his life, they all went away. And Chuck Berry channeled something on stage, so that even his wife, Themetta, who spoke to us extensively, literally saw him on stage, and put her hands over her eyes and said, ‘I didn’t know you could do that.’”

“You wouldn’t be able to tell the full Chuck Berry story if you didn’t understand that Chuck Berry spent many of his formative years in a prison,” Dalaklis said. “When he was in prison was when the Beatles and the Rolling Stones blew up in America. And he came out of prison and suddenly, he’s like, ‘Wait a minute, what’s going on in the music world? I want to be in that world.’ So how do you tell Chuck’s full story without giving all the elements? Because they all play into who Chuck was, and what inspired him as an artist and as a human being.”

“Chuck was seeking something. And by most accounts, Chuck was seeking acceptance and respect,” Dalaklis said. “The people who worked closest with him, they came out of their experiences with him believing that all Chuck ever wanted was respect. And the things he asked for were not just because he was difficult, but because he wanted to prove his worth to himself.”

Chuck’s infectious appeal across races, ages and cultures:

“Chuck, at the time ‘Maybellene’ was recorded was, I believe, 29 or close to 30 years old. But he had this amazing ability to tap into the teenage sensibility,” Pegg said. “You think, you know, of mid-1950s America, and how the teenage population after the Second World War had just exploded, and he was able to talk to them about the things that interested them the most — cars, school, and of course rock ’n’ roll music. And of course young love, as well.

“Clearly he knew how to speak to that teenage population… Remember, this is a time, too, when AM radio was going out, projecting these huge signals all across great swaths of this country. Before Chuck came on the scene, a lot of blues music, a lot of R&B, strictly was just listened to by Black audiences, and now, all of a sudden, white DJs picked it up and white audiences could not ignore it,” Pegg said. “I think he just had that ability to be able to speak to a generation and across races, to just tap into those primal human emotions of love and teenage exuberance.”

“In Their Own Words: Chuck Berry” will air Saturday, July 31 at 7 p.m. on ATL PBA and again on Sunday, August 1 at 8 p.m.