Nova special report – March 2017
NASHVILLE — Musician par excellence Chuck Berry, 90, died March 18, and while not known as a country artist, his songs were recorded by such stars of the genre as Ernest Tubb (“30 Days To Come Back Home”), Buck Owens (“Johnny B. Goode”), and Emmylou Harris (“You Never Can Tell, C’est La Vie”). Primarily hailed as a pioneer of rock and roll, and attesting to his impressive credentials, no less than Beatle John Lennon once proclaimed, “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry.”
Reportedly St. Louis native Chuck died of natural causes at his home in suburban Wentzville. During his debut performance in high school, he sang Jay McShann’s country-flavored song “Confessin’ The Blues,” receiving a well-remembered standing ovation, and when he learned to play guitar from friend Ira Harris, he incorporated a lot of country riffs in his playing.
In 1952, Chuck started off in a club band, playing a mix of songs, then the following year was in a combo called Sir John’s Trio (with pianist Johnnie Johnson and drummer Ebby Hardy), performing regularly in East St. Louis’s Cosmopolitan and Imperial Clubs. Recalling those club days, Berry said, “Curiosity provoked me to lay a lot of our country stuff on our predominantly black audience, and some began whispering, ‘who is that black hillbilly at the Cosmos?’ After they laughed at me a few times, they began requesting the hillbilly stuff and enjoyed dancing to it.”
Admittedly, Berry fashioned his 1955 breakthrough hit “Maybelline” after an old country tune he learned to play early on, “Ida Red.” Personally, I was in his corner from the first time I heard a Marine Corps soul buddy from Baltimore, playing his uptempo tunes, notably “Maybelline” (#1), “Wee, Wee Hours” (#10, 1955) and “No Money Down” (#8, 1956). Yet, never imagined I would someday meet up with this icon, in of all places, Germany.
“From childhood, I was already a country music devotee of the three Hanks – Williams, Snow, and Thompson – but thanks to that fellow Leatherneck, was soon hooked on the likes of Johnny Ace (“Pledging My Love”), Elvis Presley (“I Forgot To Remember To Forget”), The Drifters (“Honey Love”) and Berry, another solid addition to a growing list of musical heroes.
It wasn’t until the next decade that I learned of his growing up in The Ville, a segregated district in north St. Louis, and attending all-black Sumner High School, from which activist-comic Dick Gregory graduated six years after Berry. He was actually born Oct. 18, 1926, in San Jose, Calif., as Charles Edward Anderson Berry, son of Baptist deacon-carpenter Henry and his schoolteacher-wife Martha Berry, who moved to St. Louis when he was a year old (Chuck also had two brothers and three sisters). Later, reviewing his childhood, he insisted, “I wasn’t like Muddy Waters, people who really had it hard. In our house, we had food on the table. We were doing well compared to many.”
A youthful string of robberies in Kansas, however, got Chuck some hard time (1944-’47), and despite subsequent success as an entertainer, he spent 1962-’63 behind bars for misconduct with an under-aged Apache Indian prostitute, but claimed he was not all that guilty. In 1979, after pleading guilty to a $200,000 tax evasion charge, he was sentenced to four months in jail.
We met in July 1973, when as European Stars & Stripes entertainment editor (and weekly Variety stringer), I was covering Frankfurt’s 2nd Annual Summer Rock Festival at the outdoor Radstadium, courtesy of MaMa Management. MaMa’s youthful founder Marek Lieberberg was sponsoring the two-day event on a shoestring budget. Word was out that the fledgling promoter was short on capital and thus advertised name acts such as Sly & The Family Stone, Black Sabbath, Canned Heat, Rory Gallagher, Faces (with Rod Stewart), and Curved Air threatened cancelling (see original poster). Lieberberg sought out Paul McCartney & Wings (who declined), and Chuck Berry (who had been touring in the UK), hoping to beef up his headliners, though still certainof the Spencer Davis Group, Curved Air, Gentle Giant, Marsha Hunt and Jon Hiseman’s Tempest, along with such then non-super groups Back Door, Heavy Metal Kids, Blue, Hardin-York and Fumble, a little known British band that had recently opened for Berry at London’s Rainbow Theatre.
Many of the near-20,000 tickets sold were to American service members stationed in Deutschland, who read about the two-day event in the Stars & Stripes daily newspaper. Despite all the last-minute line-up changes, the GIs would be pleased seeing Berry, then enjoying a career resurgence, thanks to his 1972 sexy #1 comeback single “My Ding-A-Ling” (his all-time best seller).
Seems the American singer-songwriter-guitarist was at Radstadium, but had heard about the iffy pay situation, and was not going on stage. In panic mode, Marek approached me to see if I could talk to a fellow American and convince him to go on, so as not disappoint the crowd. Went backstage seeking Berry, but was told he was underneath the structure, refusing to see any German reps. Hearing he was pretty hot under the collar, I was rather reluctant to approach him; however, I ventured below and upon introducing myself as a Stripes reporter, he shook my hand. The moody, mustachioed entertainer seemed really tall, and rather uptight right then, as I looked down, noting his fist and fingers were huge. But he smiled slightly.
Asking did he plan to perform, he replied in a low, but adamant voice, only if paid his fee in full first. Apparently offered a portion via check, with the balance to be paid upon completion of the assignment, Berry opted for cash only. Knowing Lieberberg, an ex-singer in a local ’60s rock band Mike Lee & The Sound of Rangers, I was aware he was new to the concert business and still struggling. His dream was to establish rock festivals in Germany, a la our famed Woodstock, later confiding: “I believed that festivals were a way of liberating society. Besides from that, I hoped that they would be successful and I could make a living out of it.” (Original MaMa Management promo poster in Frankfurt, Germany.)
Chuck recalled only weeks earlier running into the same set-up in England, when the promoter started to write a check, counting on coming up with the balance from the box office receipts. “I told him ‘no thanks.’ I want mine in cash now, all of it!” As the agent hesitated, Berry said he grabbed his guitar case and was about to head for the exit, but the promoter begged him to wait, while he sought the sum promised. Again, he was ready to put the outdoor arena in the rear view mirror and taxi back to his hotel, but I assured him I would repeat his terms to Marek. Like the British agency, MaMa managed to come up with the money requested and on went the slightly delayed program, but the audience apparently forgot their impatience, giving Mr. Rock & Roll a rousing reception, thanks to “Sweet Little 16” and his signature squatting for his famed duck-walk across the stage. Garbed in red-striped pants, pockets bulging with the bills he’d been paid up front (trusting no one), he was suddenly all showman.
Glancing at Marek, it was plain to see he, too, was pleased to see the legendary rocker giving his all, despite using a pick-up band (comprised, incidentally, of the Fumble musicians, who had previously opened his London gig). They did fine for the most part. Incidentally, in the decades that followed, Marek became one of the top five international concert promoters.
That was the last time I saw Berry up close. In an earlier life, Chuck had worked as a janitor in an automobile assembly plant, a freelance photographer and as a hairdresser, being a bona fide graduate of the St. Louis-based Poro School of Cosmetology. By the way, his “Maybelline” was named after a cosmetic.
Now, rightly so, he’s regarded as a founding father of rock, excelling equally well as singer, guitarist and songwriter. So it’s not too surprising that country newcomer Marty Robbins liked and covered Berry’s #1 R&B classic (which also hit Top Five on Billboard’s pop chart), turning “Maybelline” into an easy 1955 country Top 10. At the tail end of ’55, Texas Troubadour Ernest Tubb covered yet another Berry success “30 Days To Come Back Home,” peaking #7 country. Two decades later, George Jones also took on “Maybelline,” in a duet with Johnny Paycheck, giving the duo a 1978 (#7) hit.
Wonder how many recall that Chuck also penned a rockin’ tribute tune in 1961, titled “Brenda Lee,” which changed her actual Madison High School to the fictional Central, lyric-wise: “Brenda Lee, she’s a beauty/She came in with a handsome guy/She sang songs, she entertained/Then waved her alma mater, goodbye/And had reporters taking pictures of her/Walkin’ out of Central High . . . ” It was featured on his Chess album “St. Louis To Liverpool.”
In 1964, Berry toured Britain for the first time, and there recorded “Two Great Guitars” with another yank, Bo Diddley. Although married to the former Themetta Suggs since October 1947, he seldom took her on the road, and despite his diversions, she remained loyal to their marital vows.
During 1969, Bakersfield cowboy Buck Owens performed Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” live in concert, released it as a single and scored yet another country #1 for himself, also garnering some pop radio airplay as a bonus. Later that year, Waylon Jennings, figuring he also fit the role, recorded Chuck’s “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man,” taking it up to #3 on Billboard’s country list.
Atlanta native Freddy Weller, who enjoyed earlier fame with the rockin’ Paul Revere & The Raiders, switched to country, and in 1970 recorded Berry’s “Promised Land” (#3), then chalked up a Top 10 on Chuck’s “Too Much Monkey Business” (’73), and Top 40 with Berry’s “Nadine (Is It You?)” in 1979. Elvis also cut “Promised Land” (#14 pop, 1974).
Jerry Lee Lewis (with sis Linda Gail) dusted off Berry’s spirited “Roll Over Beethoven” in 1971, as did Narvel Felts in 1982, though neither record was really a radio hit. Emmylou gave a new interpretation of “You Never Can Tell,” landing herself another hit (#6, 1977). Harris’ friend Linda Ronstadt, meantime, dusted off Chuck’s “Back In the USA” (1978), adding a Top 40 to her country repertoire, and it also crossed over pop as a stronger Top 20 entry.
Obviously, other pop figures also recorded Berry’s creations, among them Johnny Rivers, Lonnie Mack, AC/DC, The Beatles and The Who. Instrumentally, Berry was a master, and those who followed marveled at his opening guitar solo on “Johnny B. Goode,” where he utilizes double stops, an innovative technique that required playing two notes at the same time! The 1987 film documentary “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll,” which chronicled Berry’s 60th birthday concert in St. Louis, in particular captured that on-stage magic.
For him, St. Louis represented a love-hate relationship. Despite put-downs by some there, he remained loyal to his hometown, and in 1957 purchased acreage on the outskirts where he opened his Club Bandstand, a venue open to all races, but when pressure was put on by the police, Berry shut it down. Later, he also started up Berry Park, probably modeled on early Disneyland, though it never enjoyed the theme park success he’d envisioned.
Like many black entertainers, Berry encountered discrimination on tours, particularly in the South, but didn’t let that deter him from making music for all. Still, he seemed suspicious and somewhat embittered of his treatment by some in the white community.
In 1993 and again in 1997, however, he was invited to entertain during Bill Clinton’s presidential inaugurals, and could take heart in knowing that his rockin’ “Johnny B. Goode” was aboard Voyager I, launched in 1997 by NASA. He would also share the Playbill with such later superstars as The Grateful Dead, Eric Clapton and Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band.
Up until 2014, Berry performed monthly in St. Louis in Blueberry Hill’s Duck Room, a 340-capacity club, named after his signature scoot across stages around the world. A particular joy was sharing the stage there with daughter Ingrid and son Chuck, Jr. Among books about his life, are his self-penned “Chuck Berry: The Autobiography” (Faber & Faber Publishing, 2001); “Chuck Berry: The Biography” by John Collis (2004, Aurum Press); and “Brown Eyed Handsome Man: The Life & Hard Times of Chuck Berry” by Bruce Pegg (Routledge Press, 2005). As an artist he was appropriately lauded, three of his songs are in the Rock & Roll Record Hall of Fame – “Maybelline,” “Johnny B. Goode” and “Rock & Roll Music” – and he was among the first named to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (1986), fittingly inducted by Keith Richards. In an earlier quote, Keith had acknowledged how much Berry inspired him: “I don’t even know if Chuck realizes what he did. I don’t think he does . . . It was just such a total thing, a great sound, a great rhythm coming off the needle of all of Chuck’s records. It’s when I knew what I wanted to do.” Nonetheless, Keith also recognized Chuck’s faults, citing him as “a bitch sometimes. More headaches than Jagger.”
Hailed as the “First Poet Laureate of Rock & Roll,” Berry was inducted into the National Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1986. He was also the recipient of the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors (2000), along with fellow honorees Angela Lansbury, Placido Domingo, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Clint Eastwood. The Rhythm & Blues Foundation presented him its Pioneer Award, as well. A statue of the Rock Hall of Famer was dedicated to him in St. Louis (see right).
Oddly enough, his actual funeral, attracting a thousand mourners or more, was held three weeks after his passing, on Sunday, April 9, at The Pageant, a performance site, just a few miles from the neighborhood where Chuck was raised. The Rev. Alex Peterson welcomed the crowd, saying, “We are going to celebrate him in Rock & Roll style. We’re not going to sit here and be sad.” Kiss’s Gene Simmons wearing his trademark sunglasses was among the attendees, and spontaneously walked up to the podium, offering a tearful eulogy: “I wasn’t planning on saying anything. These shades are going to help me a lot. But there are real tears behind them . . . Rock & Roll was started by a guy, who just wanted to make people feel better.”
Longtime friend Joe Edwards attended to details at the funeral, allowing an open casket for folks to pass by, and look upon his famous red electric guitar bolted inside, with Berry wearing a white suit, sequined purple shirt and his familiar yachting cap. A standout among the floral displays was a guitar-shaped white bloom of flowers ordered by the Rolling Stones. “Thanks for the inspiration,” read its card, and an accompanying message from the legendary band was read to the congregation: “The Rolling Stones are deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Chuck Berry. He was a true pioneer of Rock ’n’ Roll and a massive influence on us. Chuck was not only a brilliant guitarist, singer, and performer, but most importantly, he was a master craftsman as a songwriter. His songs will live forever.” In addition, that day the Stone’s Keith Richards tweeted, “One of my big lights has gone out.” Beatle Ringo Starr tweeted, as well: “R.I.P. And Peace & Love Chuck Berry, Mr. Rock & Roll Music.” A laudatory letter from Beatle Paul McCartney was read aloud, “As you know, Chuck was a huge influence on me and my companions.”
St. Louis soprano Marlissa Hudson sang “Ave Maria,” before Berry musician Billy Peek picked out the melody of Berry’s historic “Johnny B. Goode” on guitar, then astounded the crowd mimicking Chuck’s deep-squat strut, a.k.a. his signature duck walk. Two of Berry’s grandchildren sang “Summertime.”
Edwards, who owns both The Pageant and Blueberry Hill, earlier founded the St. Louis Walk of Fame, featuring bronze stars in the sidewalk outside the Blueberry, honoring St. Louis’ favorite sons and daughters, including poet T. S. Eliot, dancer Josephine Baker, singer Tina Turner, actor John Goodman and baseball greats Stan Musial and Ozzie Smith. It was Berry’s star that was the first installed, and finally it was at Blueberry Hill he performed for 18 years. At the Sunday service, Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-MO) also read a statement from Clinton praising Chuck as a uniter: “He drew from many different traditions, yet his music was innovative in spirit and he spoke of the joy, hopes and dreams we all have in common. Hillary and I both grew up listening to his music.”