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Ahead of Chuck Berry PBS Show, Longtime Talent Agent Dick Alen Looks Back

Chuck Berry
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Chuck Berry does the splits as he plays his Gibson hollowbody electric guitar in circa 1968. 

"I was a lucky son of a bitch" is the way talent agent Dick Alen describes how he navigated a 60-plus-year career working with a slew of some of music's biggest stars. "You do what you do, and it turned out very well for me and my clients."

Alen's stacked roster doubles as a list of American icons. From Aretha Franklin to Barry White, as well as James Brown and Ray Charles, Alen had a front row seat to music history. "I've handled a large number of very famous artists over the years and certain ones just have a way to make the audience love them," he explains. "I just went along for the ride with people who knew how to make the public like them. If I knew how to make that happen myself, I would have taken some kid and made them a star."

Currently living in Los Angeles (he moved there from New York in 1969), Alen is speaking to Billboard in honor of another one of his luminary clients, Chuck Berry. The deeply influential father of rock n' roll is the subject of a new PBS program premiering Feb. 29 dubbed Brown Eyed Handsome Man. It traces Berry's vast impact on the cultural landscape by showcasing rare performances courtesy the likes of The Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, Linda Ronstadt and The Rolling Stones, all covering Berry's vast guitar-driven catalog of classics. Along with footage of Berry, included are the Fab Four's rendition of "Roll Over Beethoven," a Jimi Hendrix spin on Berry's trademark "Johnny B. Goode" and Berry and Keith Richards teaming up on Berry's "Carol."

"Chuck never tried to influence anybody and he never tried to be a teacher," Alen explains. "He just did his music his way, and people like Keith Richards and on and on heard his music. It was their inspiration."

While Alen doesn't exactly remember the first time he met Berry ("You're talking about something that happened back in the '50s!"), he does recall the general circumstances. As a young agent with Universal Attractions, he signed Berry who was recording with the legendary Chicago-based rhythm and blues label Chess Records. "I heard his music from Chess Records and thought this was something that the public would like," Alen says of the simple reason he signed the rock architect. "He really didn't pay that much attention to the honorary part of it all. He just played his music. He said, 'If they follow me, great.' There's nothing he did on purpose except make music."

In fact, Alen says the reason he and the star got along so well is because Berry knew Alen was completely dedicated to the business side of the industry, evidenced by the fact that he "wasn't hanging out till 4 o'clock in the morning" with his clients. "As an agent you have a job to get them employment and if I did it, they liked it," Alen explains. "My relationship with him was a working situation. As we did more business, he was happier. As he played bigger buildings, he was happier. Only because he got more money."

In stark contrast to other clients ("Barry White would travel with 40 people"), Berry would hit the road by himself and pick up musicians for hire along the way. "Chuck was always interesting and the most literal person there was. But he didn't have a great reputation on the road because he was completely inflexible as to what he wanted." Case in point: A specific amp he'd perform with. "There was a certain one he liked and there weren't many of them, except in Memphis, New York and Houston. Whenever they didn't set him up with the right amp, they'd call me."

According to Alen, raking in cash was at the forefront of Berry's mind, even when the Beatles and Rolling Stones began covering his tracks during the British Invasion. "When the Beatles came to America, I don't think they were so earth shattering," says Alen, who attended their 1964 Washington Coliseum concert, which is featured in the program. "They were wonderful and I liked them, but that were going to blow up to be the biggest act in the world, I had no idea. When they wanted to play 'Roll Over Beethoven,' Chuck's question was 'What royalties do I get?'"

Berry had the same thought when it came to licensing his songs in movies ranging from Pulp Fiction (which prominently features "You Never Can Tell") or Back to the Future (in which Michael J. Fox's character is portrayed as playing the riff to "Johnny B. Goode"). "The question (first and foremost) was always, 'How much is the license?'"

Eventually, Alen joined the ranks of William Morris where he worked for 39 years, serving as head of their music department for several years and later as a senior vice president before retiring in 2010. When Berry passed away in 2017, it ended a lifelong working relationship; Alen was made an honorary pallbearer at his St. Louis funeral. (Alen was bestowed the same honor at Franklin's funeral the following year.)

"When I'm asked about my career, my answer is that I thank my lucky stars for it," he says. "I'm old and a little shaky, but still upright. I've dealt with some wonderful artists and hey, it's just been a great run."


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