Chuck Berry Celebrates 75th
Chuck Berry still unleashes the bent-kneed duck walk and one-legged hop that helped make him famous in the days of sock hops and soda shops. "Sometimes I forget, and the fans remind me I can still doChuck Berry still unleashes the bent-kneed duck walk and one-legged hop that helped make him famous in the days of sock hops and soda shops. "Sometimes I forget, and the fans remind me I can still do it. So I'll fire back," says Berry, who turns 75 today (Oct. 18). "If they want it, they got it."
For the flashy showman behind "Johnny B. Goode," life hasn't been bad. "Rock's so good to me. Rock is my child and my grandfather," he said a few days before his birthday bash at the Pageant, a club in his hometown of St. Louis. He was to perform, along with his friend Little Richard.
"I'd live this life again, with the exception of a few mistakes," Berry said. "But you can't live without the negatives, and the positives have outweighed the negatives."
One of rock 'n' roll's most important architects, Berry pioneered a musical revolution that began decades ago when couples bopped to his guitar-driven hits like "Maybellene," "Roll Over Beethoven," "Sweet Little Sixteen," "Rock and Roll Music," and "No Particular Place to Go." He helped inspire Elvis and the Beatles, was inducted into both the Rock and Roll and Songwriters halls of fame and last year got one of the nation's highest awards as a Kennedy Center Honor recipient.
"I think he's enduring," says Little Richard. "I think he's a great songwriter, great entertainer and one of the greatest businessmen -- black or white -- in the business. He knows what he's doing."
Berry learned to play guitar in his teens. Even Little Richard can't believe he's turning 75. "I didn't know he was that old. I was really shocked," the 68-year-old says. "But I'm glad to see him make that age and still be energized to do what he's doing, still doing the split and all that stuff. That's a blessin' and a lesson."
Together, Berry and sideman Johnnie Johnson -- another St. Louisan and the inspiration for "Johnny B. Goode" -- blended blues, boogie and country to help shape rock music in the early 1960s. Johnson composed the music on piano, and Berry converted it to guitar and wrote the lyrics.
Along the path to fame, Berry hit some sour notes. At 18, he spent time in prison for armed robbery. More prison time followed in the 1960s after he illegally took a 14-year-old girl across state lines. In 1979, he was sentenced to a few months behind bars for tax evasion.
In the past dozen years, Berry pleaded guilty to harassment and paid a small fine after being accused of punching a woman in New York; the woman sued him for $5 million. Another lawsuit alleged Berry secretly videotaped women using a restroom in his one-time St. Louis-area eatery. Lately, he's been fending off a federal lawsuit by Johnson, who says Berry took sole copyright for some songs they co-wrote, depriving Johnson of royalties.
To Berry, such matters are among the "negatives" he doesn't care to revisit. "Even the Kennedys had difficulties," he says. "I'm not an angel."
Berry hasn't made an album in nearly two decades, but he still draws crowds. On the road, he plays hour-long gigs in venues ranging from ballparks to casinos, amphitheaters to armories. "I'm glad to be anywhere," says Berry, who has four children and six grandchildren. "I'll be doing the same thing as long as it doesn't hurt anybody, especially if it brings somebody happiness."
He isn't worried about his legacy, and casts himself only as a man "trying to do my best." "I have very little concern for sure about time and age," he says. "If I feel 14, I act like it. If I feel old, I'll lay down."
"My grandfather smoked a pipe when they found him lying deceased in his bedroom. I'm hoping I'll have just finished a practice in my room, with a guitar in my arms. That's the way I want to go."
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