On Monday September 1, 1997, I finally “got” Chuck Berry.
I was standing at the curb near the entrance to the lobby of the Long Beach Airport Marriot on a smoldering hot Labor Day afternoon in Southern California. I was standing next to and conversing with the great Johnnie Johnson and his family. We were waiting for a van that would take us to the backstage area of the Long Beach Blues Festival grounds.
The end of the huge three day event was drawing near and the headliner, Chuck Berry, would soon be reunited for the first time, in a very long time, with Johnson, the pianist with whose trio Berry launched his career and with whom he collaborated, performed and recorded with for much of the 1950’s and 60’s.
Johnson also joined Berry for the historic concert in their hometown of Saint Louis which was the centerpiece of the Taylor Hackford film, Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock n’ Roll. That film commemorated the 60th birthday of Chuck Berry ten years earlier. The movie was generally well received. It had the tag line, “Everybody knows the music. Nobody knows the man.”
In the documentary style film, Berry played mostly familiar tunes with a parade of special guests and was backed by an all-star band led by the concert’s musical director Keith Richards. Berry shared stories of his past and growing up in Saint Louis. Virtually every rock and roller Hackford could round up shared with the director and his audience their universal affection and admiration of the music of Chuck Berry.
Hackford also let people in on what many knew, or at least suspected, which was that Berry could be a difficult man with whom to work. Nothing I suppose illustrated this more than the infamous scene where Berry interrupts a rehearsal over and over again and chastises Keith Richards repeatedly for getting the “guitar slur” wrong on the song Carol. “If you want to get it right...then get it right,” Berry says to Richards who had been trying to do a favor for his biggest hero. He was clearly frustrated with Berry’s perfectionism.
The film’s director, long time Hollywood producer and writer, Taylor Hackford has been quoted in recent days as saying that Berry’s behavior had been “diabolical’ and goes on to characterize the musician as, “the most difficult human being,” with whom he had ever worked. If you have been around Hollywood for as long as Hackford that statement is a rather damning indictment.
To me the question was always, ‘Why?’ Why is a man, who is almost universally recognized and admired as a one of a kind talent, so infuriatingly difficult? Was it drugs or alcohol? Was it ego? Was it the residual effect based on the indignity of racism? Did he feel underappreciated or marginalized in some way? Was it the bitterness left in the wake of a couple of prison sentences? Maybe it was all of these things, but with Chuck Berry I had always suspected it was something more.
As I stood at the curb waiting for a white panel van to pull up and take myself, along with Johnson and his family, to the venue a brand new, light brown Fleetwood pulled right up to the curb where I was standing. Out jumped a spry 70 year old Chuck Berry. Depending on how much cream you put in your morning Joe, I was staring directly at a coffee colored Cadillac and one of the 20th century’s largest musical and cultural icons.
Just as a point of reference, I’ll turn 60 years old next month. I have heard Chuck Berry’s music on the radio for as long as I can remember. I never have changed the station during a Chuck Berry song...ever. The thought never even crossed my mind.
The music of Chuck Berry was, and will, remain something that is held in such universal high regard that it is easy to take for granted. As we observe the passing of this pioneer and innovator of American music we should stop and thank our lucky stars that we live in a world that has enjoyed the music of Chuck Berry. I can’t imagine or simply don’t want to think of a world without the joy that his music brings.
With a musical form that had just been given an official name, “rock&roll,” Chuck Berry used his intelligence, wit, and deft use of language to provide a template for this new music, which he aimed directly at the youth of America. It caught on everywhere of course and served as a pretty good primer into Mid-Century American culture.
He was raised by two parents who had a deep appreciation for poetry and literature which they instilled in their children. Young Charles would find a new and exciting way to express his abilities as it relates to our language. He brought this, along with an excellent singing voice and an electric guitar, to the band stand. That instrument became the symbol of a musical revolution and he played it well... ‘...just like ringing a bell.’
Chuck Berry snubbed convention and did so with a type of brash elegance and a somewhat worldly sophistication that represented a new way of doing business. In a nutshell, Chuck Berry had “swagger.” He not only invented a new template which virtually all rock&roll would at least attempt to follow, he gave all rock & rollers a figure (for better or worse) to emulate.
When he joined the rhythm & blues band of pianist Johnnie Johnson, The Sir John Trio, he asserted his dynamic personality and original songs, which he either wrote or co-wrote with Johnson, and a new light on the horizon appeared. He took Johnson from his regular gig in Saint Louis to Chicago and began a recording career at Chess records. Berry would be paired with that label’s great musicians. He was often backed by the rhythm section made up of Willie Dixon on bass and drummer Fred Below.
Other blues giants from the Chess label would join Berry on his recordings, most notably guitarists Matt Murphy, Jimmy Rogers and Hubert Sumlin. This crew, along with Johnnie Johnson and, of course, the great singing of Berry, along with his absolutely one of a kind attack on the guitar, made music that was simply irresistible.
Berry took some general concepts and musical ideas from his hero Louis Jordan and the guitar player in his band, Carl Hogan, and made them his own. Other important influences he has sited are Charlie Christian and T-Bone Walker.
By the time Chess put out the first album of material from his singles in 1957, Chuck Berry was 30 years old, married and had two kids. At roughly ten years older than Elvis Presley, Berry was in fact the big daddio of the 1950’s.
Songs like Maybelline, Rock and Roll Music, Memphis Tennessee, Carol, School Days, Sweet Little Sixteen, Roll Over Beethoven and Johnny B. Goode dominated the pop charts. Many of Berry’s contemporaries on the Chess Label and at other so called race record labels had a broad appeal in the African- American community. However, Berry wanted what he called, “the other nine cents out of every dime.”
By the end of the decade Berry was becoming quite wealthy as a result of a string of hit records and near constant touring both as a solo performer and as a headliner in “package” rock & roll shows. He invested his money in Saint Louis real estate ventures and even opened an integrated nightclub in his hometown. The latter infuriated many of the city fathers and when an employee of his club turned out to be an underage hat check girl, who was also turning tricks, the authorities came down on Berry like a ton of bricks. They used the very popular Mann Act to punish Berry, who had become the bane of their existence.
In the days before the so called ‘war on drugs,’ which is simply a popular euphemism to engage in mass incarceration of African-Americans, they used what was called the Mann Act to lock up blacks that they didn’t like. This included this wealthy, handsome, intelligent, talented rock & roller who, by their way of thinking, was infecting America’s youth with his jungle music. So off to prison went Chuck Berry in 1961.
It has been widely reported that by the time Berry got out of prison in 1963 he was a bitter and distant man. He also returned to a world that focused its attention on rock & roll music coming from England. Chuck Berry more or less assumed the mantle of the elder statesman of rock&roll. The Beatles famously recorded Berry’s Roll Over Beethoven and opened their first ever North American concert in Washington D.C. with that tune. The Rolling Stones, it seemed, couldn’t make an album or perform a concert that didn’t have at least one Chuck Berry song in the mix.
Berry continued to write and perform exceptionally good music. No Particular Place to Go, You Never Can Tell and Nadine were among the songs he produced during this period.
His personal tastes musically covered a broad spectrum of style mostly from an earlier era. He was quite fond of Nat Cole, for instance, and famously covered Bobby Troup’s Route 66 which had been a hit for Cole. He has said that he loved jazz and blues as well as country music. Chuck Berry combined all of these loves into his own sound.
Throughout his career Berry recorded many seldom heard songs that he knew had very little commercial appeal. Originals like the Caribbean influenced Havana Moon to straight blues like In the Wee Wee Hours sat beside old covers like his take on Count Basie’s One O’Clock Jump and Earl Hooker style slide guitar instrumentals. Any exploration that goes deep into Berry’s recorded catalogue will pay dividends to listeners who may have only heard the continual stream of hits which are still in heavy rotation on oldies radio stations.
The music of Chuck Berry was becoming so deeply ensconced in our collective psyche that it became almost easy to dismiss. There are those who felt that Berry himself didn’t even take his own music seriously. By the 1970’s he began using pick up bands with whom he had never worked. He was driving himself in his own car from gig to gig across the country. This seemed, to many, like odd behavior for a star of Berry’s stature.
As the decades march on, the music of Chuck Berry has become so familiar to all of us that it is easy to overlook the sheer genius behind the sound. His guitar playing and singing has been emulated to the point where even these wonderful sounds, which were so unique when we first heard them, sound almost pedestrian today.
Don’t kid yourself, it isn’t pedestrian. It is perfection. To encapsulate complete detailed operatic themes in a two and half minute song with lyrics which have a phenomenal sense of meter is nothing less than pure genius. Berry did this with such consistency that he made it look easy. Any discussion of great songwriters in popular music has to begin and end with Chuck Berry. When you get right down to it, he is without peer.
So in 1997, when the producers of the Long Beach Blues Festival were assembling the line-up, which was a three day tribute to Chess Records, it was a no brainer who the headliner should be, the biggest selling artist on that label’s impressive roster, Chuck Berry.
After exiting his Cadillac on that Labor Day afternoon, he popped the trunk of the car open and walked right by Johnnie Johnson and me into the lobby of the hotel as if we were weren’t even there. He didn’t acknowledge fans and autograph seekers either. He was singular of purpose and strode as if he was an apparition floating on air. He had a kind of stately elegance one doesn’t often associate with a rock & roller. Johnson wasn’t the least bit surprised by what many would have interpreted as a personal slight.
Just then our van pulled up. I begged off the ride as I knew that Berry would have to return to the sedan that he had just left.
Moments later he came back pulling behind him a luggage rack in his right hand and holding his guitar in his left. A porter from the hotel chased after him saying, ‘Sir please, let me give you a hand with that.’ Berry shot him a stare which should have made the porter stop trying to be so helpful. He asked again and reached down to give the man perhaps 35-40 years his senior a hand. Berry straightened himself, turned directly to the porter and in a calm, but firm voice that contained a little more than a hint of agitation said, “I will handle this, thank you."
I sat on a nearby bench and watched Chuck Berry do a very revealing thing, load the trunk of a car. I’m guessing that given Chuck Berry’s age and travel proclivities that it just might be possible that nobody has ever loaded a trunk of a car more often. What I observed was a man who knew exactly what he was doing. He knew where every item belonged and where everything fit...just like one of his songs. It was then that something clicked in my head. I finally “got” Chuck Berry.
Keith Richards has played Carol in front of literally millions of people with his very popular rock & roll combo. It wasn’t until the mid 80’s that he discovered he wasn’t doing it right when the auteur himself corrected him. Then where does anybody get off playing any Chuck Berry tune correctly? Might as well hire a rented band in each city...Chuck Berry knew exactly what he was doing and why he was doing it. It had been there all the time. Chuck Berry is perfect and he knows it. It isn’t a matter of the entire planet of humans forced to tolerate and try to accommodate this very difficult man. At that moment, I realized in his mind, it is he who has to put up with an entire world of people who aren’t Chuck Berry
So it was off to the festival for the enigmatic mastermind of rock and roll. He was going to drive himself to work. Work meant playing Chuck Berry music, doing duck walks, the splits and anything and everything that people have come to expect from him. He didn’t need a road manager or entourage for this task. He didn’t even need a driver. All he needed was a guitar and that apparently didn’t even need a case.
He did his job and in true Chuck Berry fashion he reasoned as per usual, ‘If somebody is going to screw this thing up it’s going to be me.’ He went far over his allotted time slot. The crowd loved it. Nobody was coming on after him so what’s the problem? The security detail was paid up to a certain time and as Berry exceeded his time, they stopped doing their jobs and headed home. That was the problem and surely Berry new this. The backstage area filled up with people who now had his Cadillac, which was sitting near the base of the stage, surrounded.
One great Chuck Berry tune poured out of him and his band, made up of a collection of side men from other bands that day and, of course, Johnnie Johnson who was pounding away on a grand piano which was brought in just for this occasion. They were tearing up the joint. The crowd had been whipped into a frenzy and they couldn’t get enough. Berry gave it to them. He closed with Reelin’ and a Rockin.’
I was positioned at the top of the stairwell and was tasked with getting Berry through the crowd and into his car. When he was finally finished he turned to walk off and ducking in behind me said, “Let’s go.” I led him down the stairs with his axe held over his head with one hand and his other on my shoulder. I had very little difficulty making my way through the crowd and to the car. He handed me the guitar while he got behind the wheel he said, “Just toss it in the back seat.” For the record, I placed it there very carefully and asked where he was heading. Looking straight ahead through the windshield, he said, “Las Vegas,” and punched the accelerator while people in the backstage area of the festival grounds scurried out of the way of the speeding car. He was gone like a cool breeze.
The next day he was going to go back to work and be Chuck Berry all over again. God help anybody who tries to help him.
- David Mac
Post Script: Chuck Berry continued to perform regularly at a Saint Louis nightclub as recently as last summer. In the very near future there will be a release, which had already been scheduled, of new music by Berry. This will be the first such offering in decades. The preeminent re-issue label Bear Family Records out of Germany has released a massive career retrospective on Chuck Berry. It is entitled Rock and Roll Music - Any Old Way You Choose it – The Complete Studio Recordings…Plus! This is a 16 CD package that includes two hard bound books with a combined 396 pages of text and rare photographs. It has been widely reported that CD sales of the music of Chuck Berry have gone up 9,000 % since his death last month.