Chuck Berry Remembered Through Song by The Beatles, Rolling Stones & More in 'Brown Eyed Handsome Man'

The rocking special premieres Saturday on PBS.

A sweaty good time: That’s no doubt what occurred every time Chuck Berry performed or when stars from Bruce Springsteen and Linda Ronstadt to The Beatles and Rolling Stones covered one of his timeless rock and roll songs. The proof is in the viewing when the special Chuck Berry: Brown Eyed Handsome Man premieres on PBS stations this weekend (Saturday) as Black History Month 2020 closes out.

Narrated by actor Danny Glover, Brown Eyed Handsome Man was produced by Ron Weisner Entertainment, S Pictures and Liberation Hall.

The tribute film is packed from beginning to end with illuminating, full-length performances culled from rare and classic footage dating back to 1964. That’s when The Beatles performed “Roll Over Beethoven” at the band’s first U.S. show in Washington, D.C., while The Rolling Stones, fronted by a gyrating Mick Jagger, played "Around and Around” during a U.K. concert. Among the 90-minute film’s other standout moments: Jeff Lynne and Electric Light Orchestra delivering a powerful live mash-up of Berry’s “Beethoven” and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony; Ronstadt having fun with “Back in the USA”; and an undeniably reverent Springsteen and his E Street Band working out alongside the man himself on “Johnny B.Goode.”

There are also plenty of riveting Berry solo runs -- featuring his signature duck walk -- for longtime and new fans to relish. These include classics such as “Maybellene” and “Sweet Little Sixteen,” accompanied on the latter by the artist’s former backing band, Billy Kingsley & Rockin’ Horse. These fiery performances, along with Jimi Hendrix’s own indelible, teeth-plucking 1970 interpretation of “Johnny B. Goode,” sparked raucous applause when the Grammy Museum previewed the film earlier this week.

During a post-screening Q&A moderated by the Grammy Museum’s Scott Goldman, the film’s co-producer Weisner noted the stellar artists  that allowed their footage to be used helped push the Berry tribute film to the next level. “We looked at a hit list of people who’d covered Chuck’s songs,” he noted. “And not one artist declined. They all wanted to be a part of this. These songs are 50-60 years old and still just as timeless today.”

Also sharing colorful insights about the influential father of rock and roll (who died in March 2017) were Berry’s son Charles Berry Jr., award-winning film director Taylor Hackford (Ray) and Earth, Wind & Fire co-founding member Verdine White. Renowned singer-songwriter Bill Withers briefly joined the panelists onstage during a surprise appearance. The 81-year-old got down to basics when it came to his reverence for Berry while growing up in West Virginia. Noting that his favorite song is “Maybellene,” Withers added, “He was my musical hero because he wrote intelligent words about cars and women.”

Rebecca Sapp/Getty Images for The Recording Academy
Ron Weisner, Taylor Hackford, Verdine White, Charles Berry Jr., Scott Goldman and surprise guest Bill Withers.

Berry’s fascination with cars and women was also underscored by his son—just one of several memorable takeaways from the Q&A session:

Berry’s huge hands and his distinctive musicianship: “My dad had huge hands with thick fingers,” Berry Jr. recalled. “And that gave him the ease to pull those strings and take guitar [playing] to another level. Him, B.B. King and Freddie King … they could just walk out the door and say, ‘I got this [the playing] handled. My dad listened to Bob Wills and the Texas Cowboys, Conway Twitty, Charlie Christian, T-Bone Walker, Hank Williams and Louis Jordan—that [music] was always in his head. He observed and implemented it into his sound. He didn’t go in [targeting] any particular group of people. He went in to be popular. Fun, love and cars … that was the formula.” [Note: Last October, Gibson announced the launch of the new Chuck Berry 1955 ES 350T, an historically accurate replica of the singer-musician’s favorite guitar.]

The wordsmith’s influence and ego: “There’s nobody who wrote songs like Chuck Berry,” said Hackford, who directed the landmark 1986 film Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock ‘N’ Roll from which Berry’s and Keith Richards’ electrifying performance of “Carol” for the new film was drawn. “Like Ray Charles, Chuck had a true love of music. He also had an ego because he created it all,” Hackford continued. “But he didn’t take credit when credit wasn’t due. Prince told me, ‘Without Chuck Berry, I wouldn’t be here.’ Bob Dylan said the same thing. Chuck had the ability to take lyrics and shape them into everyday experiences in a way that was brilliant. Many people think that Johnny Rivers wrote ‘Memphis.’ There’s no question that Chuck is the father of rock and roll and an amazing guitar player and singer. But he was also a great lyricist. There will never be another Chuck Berry.” [Note: Shout! Factory reissued Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock ‘N’ Roll (Collector’s Edition) for the first time on blu-ray last November.]

Mainstream pioneer: White remembered first hearing Berry on New York City radio station WBLS. “I’d never heard guitar like that before,” he said with a laugh. “You can see the reverence that Keith [Richards] and Bruce [Springsteen] have for him in this film. Earth, Wind & Fire saw Berry walking down the sidewalk once in a town we were in. But we were too afraid to go over and say something to him. That’s how impressed we were. Groups like the Stones and Beatles that loved him and the show American Bandstand broke Berry to the masses. He was mainstream way before we got there.”

Berry’s final album Chuck was released posthumously in June 2017. His first studio album in 38 years, the 10-track project features the noteworthy selections “Darlin” and “Eyes of Man.” Performances featured on the forthcoming Chuck Berry: Brown Eyed Handsome Man include:

“Carol” – Chuck Berry and Keith Richards
“Maybellene” – Chuck Berry
“Wee Wee Hours” – Chuck Berry
“You Can’t Catch Me” – Chuck Berry
“Around and Around” – The Rolling Stones
“Roll Over Beethoven”– The Beatles
“Johnny B. Goode” – Jimi Hendrix
“Back in the USA” – Chuck Berry and Linda Ronstadt
“Nadine”  – Chuck Berry
“Sweet Little Sixteen” – Chuck Berry with Billy Kingsley & Rockin’ Horse
“Johnny B. Goode” – Chuck Berry and Bruce Springsteen
“Roll Over Beethoven” – Jeff Lynne/Electric Light Orchestra
“Carol” – Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
“Brown Eyed Handsome Man” – Paul McCartney
“Let It Rock” – Chuck Berry with Billy Kingsley & Rockin’ Horse
“Memphis” – Chuck Berry with Billy Kingsley & Rockin’ Horse