Paul Janensch: Chuck Berry and Jimmy Breslin: two icons

March 21, 2017 GMT

Two of my heroes are gone.

Chuck Berry, a celebrated pioneer of rock ‘n’ roll, died at 90 in Missouri. The next day, Jimmy Breslin, a celebrated newspaper columnist and best-selling author, died at 88 in New York City.

I loved Chuck Berry’s music. I loved Jimmy Breslin’s writing.

When “Maybellene,” Chuck Berry’s first hit, was climbing up the charts in 1955, I was a student at New Trier Township High School in Winnetka, Illinois.

Winnetka is an affluent suburb north of Chicago. About 90 percent of the students were white, including me.


But I listened to Chicago’s black-oriented stations that played jazz and rhythm and blues.

Rock ‘n’ roll, aimed at teens, was catching on. As performed by white soloists and groups, it was a toned-down version of R&B.

But Berry’s rock ‘n’ roll retained R&B’s energy and sass.

I especially enjoyed Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven” because I liked classical music as much as his rock ‘n’ roll.

I never saw Berry in person. I did see him on the movie screen doing that distinctive duck-walk around the stage while banging his guitar.

Ah, Jimmy Breslin, the voice of your typical Noo Yawkuh.

While a student in 1963-64 at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, I devoured his column in the now-deceased New York Herald Tribune.

Breslin was never dull. When President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Breslin profiled his grave digger. But I learned he was not above mixing fiction with fact.

One day, Breslin came to the Columbia J school to accept an award. (Not a Pulitzer. He won one in 1986.)

Afterwards, two of my classmates and I escorted him to the subway station just outside the university’s gate. He smiled lopsidedly, shook hands with each of us and trotted down the steps.

The next day, Breslin told his readers that as he walked out of the J-school he was confronted by Marvin the Torch, an arsonist who popped up in his column from time to time.

Breslin wrote that Marvin asked him if any money came with the award. No, Breslin said he told him. Then, according to Breslin, Marvin reminded the columnist that he (Breslin) owed him (Marvin) money.

Well, we students saw no Marvin. The tale could have been told by Damon Runyon, an earlier newspaper columnist about whom Breslin published a biography in 1991.


Nobody’s perfect. Breslin may have been prone toward embellishment in juicing up a column. May have made something up — once anyway. Chuck Berry went to prison three times - for robbery, “transporting a minor across state lines for immoral purposes” and tax evasion.

As far as I know, these two flawed icons never met. At least not down here.

“Just think: right now Jimmy Breslin is interviewing Chuck Berry,” Rob (@robg0927), another fan of both, posted on Twitter.

Paul Janensch, of Bridgeport, was a newspaper editor and taught journalism at Quinnipiac University. His weekly “Memo on the Media” can be heard on wqun.com. Email: paul.janensch@quinnipiac.edu.