Buddy Guy Reflects on Chuck Berry: 'His Genius Was an Instant Thing'

Chuck Berry photographed circa 1958.
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Chuck Berry photographed circa 1958.

Following the death of Chuck Berry on Saturday (March 18), Billboard spoke with blues legend Buddy Guy about the late rock architect's incalculable impact on music and why "Chuck's genius was an instant thing." Here are Guy's reflections on Berry, as told to David Ritz.

Never will forget when I first heard “Maybellene.” I was still on the farm in Lettsville, Louisiana, out there in the middle of nowhere with nothing on mind ‘cept pretty girls and hot blues. We had this broken-down battery radio with a raggedy antenna sticking up in the back. When it rained, the radio would crackle and fade, but luckily on this day the sun was shining bright.

I’m listening to WLAC where they’re hawking Royal Crown Hair Pomade and Randy’s Record Store in Gallatin, Tennessee, and here comes something I never heard before. Mind you, I was a good student of the blues. I knew all about Lightnin’ Slim and Muddy and Wolf and Little Walter and John Lee. But this shit was different. The guitar had a different twang and the story had a different twist. It was all about a V8 Ford chasing Coupe de Ville and catching up with Maybellene on top of the hill. First time I saw how a song could be poetry in motion.

Two years later I’d moved to Chicago and eventually hustled my way into Chess Records, where I worked as a sideman for my masters. Muddy was my main man. It was Muddy, in fact, who told Leonard Chess about Chuck. And then it was Chuck who made Leonard rich. But rightly so, ‘cause Chuck got rich himself by knowing how to put that country thing into rhythm-and-blues and write them stories that got the white bobby soxers to dancing.

Chuck’s genius was an instant thing. By that I mean he’d run into the studio without a word or a guitar lick. Nothing was written down. Then in 10 or 15 minutes, he’d write the song and record it on the spot. Of course he had the help of my good buddy Johnny Johnson, his pianist. Johnny said he co-wrote all those big hits. He claimed he gave Chuck the music and Chuck wrote the story.

“I wrote `Roll Over Beethoven,'” Chuck told Johnny. “I came up with the idea.”

“You did,” said Johnny, “but I wrote the chord changes. I wrote the notes. You just wrote the lyrics.”

“Hell,” said Chuck, “it was those goddamn lyrics that sold the song.”  

By the time Johnny got around to suing Chuck, decades had passed and it was too late.

I’d have to call Chuck a mystery man. He traveled his own road, and he traveled alone. Later I got to open for him several times, but there wasn’t any hanging out. He was a hit-and-quit cat. Gone before I had a chance to tell him how much I appreciated what he’d done for all us. He busted the thing wide open.

I was in St. Louis, his hometown, when I heard he passed. Made me do some deep thinking. You can talk about Guitar Slim being the first to use a long cord and stroll out of the club into the streets to grab the people’s attention. You can talk about T-Bone Walker being the first to marry up that fine jazz feeling with downhome electric blues. But I believe Chuck had a bigger first. He was the first to say that this music called rhythm-and-blues ain’t just for folks down south or up north. Chuck showed — hell, he proved — that this music is for the world.

-- Buddy Guy