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Chuck Berry’s Life — From The Ville To The Duck Walk — Featured In PBS Documentary

Chuck Berry, left, is pictured here with early radio executives, disc jockeys and Chess Records founder Leonard Chess.
Courtesy of Berry Family Estate
Chuck Berry, left, is pictured with radio executives, disc jockeys and Chess Records founder Leonard Chess.

In the 1930s, long before he became “the father of rock ’n’ roll,” Chuck Berry was a boy in St. Louis’ vibrant Ville neighborhood — and learning to love poetry.

“From 5 to 9 years [of age], all that I heard around the house was poetry,” the late legend recalls in a soon-to-premiere documentary from PBS.

Berry biographer Bruce Pegg credits the musician’s mother, a trained schoolteacher, with instilling that early love of art, and Berry’s father with passing down a spirit of independence and entrepreneurship to his son. These characteristics would serve the musician well throughout his career.

But not everything about Berry’s upbringing was beautiful. St. Louis was segregated and discriminatory, as Pegg points out in the new “In their Own Words” episode about Berry’s life.

“At one point Chuck’s father decided that he was going to take the family to the Fox Theatre to see ‘A Tale of Two Cities,’ which he felt had great literary merit, only to be turned away at the box office [and] told that they did not allow Blacks,” he says.

The experience stuck with Berry, who was drawn to the world of entertainment early in life. By the age of 12 or 13, he took up guitar, and by age 14 he began doing some performing. But later in his teens, after a failed attempt to make his way to California to pursue the stage, his participation in a robbery landed him in prison for three years.

His meteoric rise was still to come. And when it did, the success continued for decades, with Berry making major inroads in an entertainment field still controlled by whites.

Chuck Berry signs autographs for fans circa 1956.
Courtesy of Berry Family Estate
Chuck Berry signs autographs for fans circa 1956.

The new documentary episode, which features everyone from Berry's widow Themetta "Toddy" Suggs and his children to musician Keith Richards and even St. Louis developer Joe Edwards, explores Berry’s trajectory throughout the decades — both the highs and lows.

Filmmaker Chuck Dalaklis, an executive producer on the “In Their Own Words” series, admits that distilling Berry’s story down to 52 minutes was a months-long challenge.

“Whenever you’re telling these stories, you have to whittle things down to the big picture, and you also have to do that by telling personal stories. … And what you end up with, at least what I think we ended up with in this film, was his full story,” Dalaklis said Thursday on St. Louis on the Air.

He and Pegg, who is the author of "Brown Eyed Handsome Man: The Life and Times of Chuck Berry," joined host Sarah Fenske for a preview of the project, which will premiere on Nine PBS the evening of July 27.

Along with some of Berry’s formative childhood experiences, the documentary episode delves into how they shaped Berry’s personality as he became a star.

Filmmaker Chuck Dalaklis (at left) and biographer Bruce Pegg joined Thursday's show.
Chuck Dalaklis and Bruce Pegg
Filmmaker Chuck Dalaklis (at left) and biographer Bruce Pegg joined Thursday's show.

“I think he became very guarded as his career progressed,” Pegg said. “He tells the stories in his autobiography of being ripped off by his managers and then later on by local promoters and all the different places that he played. And so my feeling is [that] what he eventually decided to do was put up a mask, put up a persona that to outsiders made him very difficult to work with. But I think it was just a very calculated way for him to protect himself in a very difficult world.”

The episode includes footage of striking interactions between Berry and Richards. The latter served as music director for a 1987 Berry tribute film.

“Keith signed on to do that because it was his dream to play second guitar for Chuck Berry,” Dalaklis said, “and Chuck Berry just beat him up, over and over and over, because that’s who Chuck Berry was.”

But as becomes clear in the new “In Their Own Words” series episode, Richards remained grateful for the opportunity to work with Berry, in spite of everything.

'In Their Own Words' Series Episode Explores Highs And Lows Of St. Louisan Chuck Berry
Listen as host Sarah Fenske talks with one of the film's executive producers and a key interviewee.

“Mind you, here’s a guy who got punched in the eye by Chuck Berry because he picked up his guitar to see what guitar he was using,” Dalaklis noted.

The episode briefly discusses Berry’s 1959 conviction under the Mann Act, which led to 20 months in prison, as well as Berry’s IRS issues. Allegations that he secretly recorded women using the bathroom of his St. Louis restaurant, and the criminal charges he faced for punching a girlfriend, are included only as newspaper headlines glimpsed in passing.

“There were a lot of discussions internally about how much time we spend on the multitude of difficulties that Chuck came across throughout his life,” Dalaklis said. “[Toward] the end of the film we do feature some newspaper articles that speak directly to those charges. But when you’ve got 55 minutes to tell a story, you have to start to decide at what point you spend time getting deep into things.”

The filmmakers did ask Berry’s widow, Suggs, for her perspective on the more troubling aspects of the musician’s life and her continued loyalty to her husband.

“I outright and simply asked her why, and she said, clearly, she came from a generation where you stood by your man. She came from a generation where when you agree to spend your life with somebody you do that through thick and thin,” Dalaklis said. “And in spite of who and what Chuck Berry was, there was a really, really deep and unbroken bond and love between them — complicated, sure — but I think she also said in the interview that she understood he was a rock ’n’ roll star.

“She understood that from Day One, that she was marrying into somebody who was complex, she was marrying into somebody who was not going to be a cakewalk, but she fell in love with him and stuck by him.”

Related Event
What: Broadcast premiere of the Chuck Berry episode of “In Their Own Words”
When: 7 p.m. July 27
Where to watch: Nine PBS

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Paola Rodriguez is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.