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

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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."

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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