Chuck Berry's Cadillac A-Rollin' To The Smithsonian

Dec 3, 2011
Originally published on December 3, 2011 5:27 pm

When rock 'n' roll legend Chuck Berry navigated his music career, he didn't rely on agents or record labels; he drove himself to his own business meetings and concerts in his fleet of Cadillacs.

Now Berry has donated one of those cars, a candy-apple red 1973 Eldorado, to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, set to open its doors in 2015. NPR's Rachel Martin went with curator Kevin Strait to watch Smithsonian fleet manager Bill Griffiths restore the car in Suitland, Md.

Thanks to Berry's care, Griffiths says, the car looks much newer than its 38 years.

"One of the things that's rare is that, for as old as this vehicle is, the chrome is immaculate," he says. "The fact the hood ornament on here is factory original, it's amazing, and I think it's just a testament to the way he kept his cars."

Berry was reluctant to part with the car when the museum approached him. So, Strait says, he traveled to Berry's estate in Wentzville, Mo., to persuade him. Once the deal had been sealed, Strait shared an ice cream sandwich with the musical giant.

"For my money, Chuck Berry is the primary sonic architect of rock 'n' roll," Strait says.

Still performing occasionally at age 85, Berry is best known for hits like "Johnny B. Goode" and "Maybellene." His early lyrics often referenced the freedom that comes with taking to the open road in a Cadillac.

"The Cadillac is a sort of lyrical fixture," Strait says. "Mr. Berry would brilliantly fuse these kinds of lyrics, you know, focus on teenage life, consumerism — the general youthful obsessions of [the] World War II generation."

Berry is also known as one of the first artists to break the musical color barrier. In a scene from the 1987 biopic documentary Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll, Berry drove the red Cadillac onto the stage of St. Louis's Fox Theater, which had turned him away as a child because of his race.

Strait says the Cadillac symbolizes Berry's "ability to sort of commandeer his own career."

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The National Museum of African American History and Culture doesn't open its doors to the public until 2015. But from time to time, we check in and get a sneak peek at the newest additions to their collection. And the latest addition, a 1973 Eldorado Cadillac convertible that belonged to the father of rock 'n' roll, Chuck Berry.


MARTIN: I got to see the Cadillac for myself just outside Washington at a warehouse that the Smithsonian uses to store exhibit pieces. Wow. And it is a beautiful car, a Cadillac, candy apple red with matching leather interior. Mechanics have been working on it, trying to get it in shape to make its public debut as part of the permanent exhibit at the museum.

With me was Bill Griffiths. He's the Smithsonian's fleet manager, which means any car that finds its way into a Smithsonian museum has had to go through Bill first. Bill likes cars, and this one in particular.

BILL GRIFFITHS: One of the things that's very rare is for as old as this vehicle is, the chrome is immaculate on this. And the fact that the hood ornament on here is factory original, it's amazing, and I think it's just a testament to the way he kept his cars.

MARTIN: The car is going into the museum, yes, because it's just a cool-looking car, but more so because of what it represents about Chuck Berry. Kevin Strait is project historian for the museum, and he tagged along with us to check out the car.

KEVIN STRAIT: Mr. Berry is really a keen businessman and has this keen business sense, and the Cadillac sort of symbolizes, I would say, that sort of agency in his ability to sort of commandeer his own career.

MARTIN: Which was a big deal back then in the 1950s. Black musicians were making inroads into white audiences and Berry was the ultimate crossover artist appealing to crowds with his hit "Johnny Be Goode" and "Rock 'N' Roll Music."


MARTIN: But Strait says what made him so unusual was his business skill. Instead of surrendering his career to an agent or a record label, Berry drove his Cadillac from meeting to meeting, making his own music and his own deals.

STRAIT: For my money, Chuck Berry is the primary sonic architect of rock 'n' roll.

MARTIN: So Strait flew to Wentzville, Missouri, to ask Berry himself if he'd be willing to donate his Cadillac to the new museum. There was a bit of back and forth, but in the end, they sweetly sealed the deal.

STRAIT: We shared an ice cream sandwich and, you know...


MARTIN: Doesn't everyone when they finish a big business deal?

STRAIT: Exactly. Exactly, you know?


MARTIN: The next challenge, getting the 5,400-pound car back to Washington. By the way, that is way heavier than an average car today. And Strait and his movers felt every pound of that Cadillac.

STRAIT: Well, it was parked on the grass, but it had rained the night before. So we had to sort of push it out a little bit, gently, of course, and with gloves on.


STRAIT: But we pushed it out and eventually put it into the truck.

MARTIN: Wait. So it was stuck in the mud.

STRAIT: It definitely needed a little bit of oomph.


MARTIN: A little nudge.

STRAIT: Needed a little nudge.


MARTIN: Berry's Cadillac also represents the vibe of a lot of his music. It was light, free-wheeling, music for a generation of people who had seen their parents endure World War II, and they wanted to play, to rebel, to lose themselves in a song or on the road in a cool car.

STRAIT: The Cadillac is a sort of lyrical fixture, I would say. Mr. Berry would sort of brilliantly fuse these kinds of lyrics, you know, focus on teenage life, consumerism, the general youthful obsessions of World War II generation.

MARTIN: Kevin Strait and the other curators are hoping that by putting this classic Caddy in the museum, they'll be able to build a new Chuck Berry fan base, starting with the young man working on the car. Odel Lovedahl is one of the mechanics charged with fixing up Berry's Cadillac, and he looks the part, wearing a short-sleeved collared mechanic shirt with his name stitched right on the front. How old are you, Odel?


MARTIN: You're 30?


MARTIN: Did you know who Chuck Berry was?



LOVEDAHL: I'll be honest, yes.

MARTIN: But I imagine it's still pretty cool to work on his car.

LOVEDAHL: But I've got a pretty quick update on him.

MARTIN: And ultimately, that's one of the goals of the museum - to introduce a younger generation to a part of American history they hadn't thought about before, be it the story of a rock 'n' roll legend, his music or his car.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JOHNNY B. GOODE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.