One night he came in and the waitress came over and said, “Chuck Berry wants you to come to his table.” So I go over and I’m nervous and he says, “Billy, I really admire your playing. Would you be interested in playing at my park, Berry Park in Wentzville” -- it was like a country club, with membership. I said absolutely, one thing led to another, and I played out there for quite a while. During that time he would sit in occasionally, and through that we became a little closer personally and musically.
I went to California in 1965 and I didn’t see Chuck until I came back to St. Louis in ’69. I was playing a club and he came in one night and said, “Billy I’ve got a gig for you, a rock and roll revival concert, but there’s a catch -- you’ll have to back all the other acts: Gary U.S. Bonds, Bo Diddley and Jerry Lee Lewis.” I said, “Okay, I’m game.” I guess that was my test, because then he started taking me out on almost everything. He kinda took me under his wing and made me his protégé; he was already my mentor.
We were playing Las Vegas one Friday night in ’72, and in strolled Elvis. He came back the following night with Sammy Davis Jr. The rumor was -- and I don’t know if this is true -- that as he was leaving, someone heard him say to one of his bodyguards, “You just saw the real king of rock and roll.”
Chuck was one of those guys who didn’t have an entourage or a manager or anything, he just went out and got his money himself. He got half in advance and the other half in cash right before he would play the job. We ran into some problems with that in a lot of places. One time we played Green’s Playhouse in Glasgow, a 4,000 or 5,000-seat auditorium, and we went to the back and the guy started counting out the money -- and it was in Scottish Pounds. Chuck said, “I ain’t gonna take that Monopoly money! It’s gotta be dollars!” This was on a Sunday and it took the guy about four hours, but somehow he did it. These kids in the theatre were getting so aggravated from waiting that they were tearing the place up, but in the end Chuck did a terrific show and everybody was happy.
On that same tour we were in Bournemouth, England, and we stopped at this Chinese restaurant and the owner was a big fan, so he laid out this big spread. Chuck said, “This guy is really nice, after our concert tonight I’m gonna do a show here in the restaurant.” The owner was beside himself and said he was gonna get the word out. We came back after the show and it was jam-packed, tons of people outside. So we did this little show and everybody went crazy, and after it was over the owner had a table for us and put out another big spread, said it was the biggest night he’d ever had and was praising Chuck. And as we were getting ready to leave he praised Chuck again and then said, “Here’s your bill” -- for both the night and the afternoon. Chuck was like, “See Billy? You see how people are?”
He was really nice to me the whole time I knew him. I always heard how difficult he was and rotten to work for, but that was never true with me. I don’t know why, I’ve never known why, I never questioned it. One time we played a gig in Oklahoma and we got to the auditorium and the promoter had a sad look on his face and said, “Mr. Berry, this show was poorly promoted and advertised and we’ve only sold 400 tickets [for 12,000-capacity auditorium]. I’m not gonna have a man of your stature play for 400 people, so here’s your money.” And Chuck said -- and I saw this -- “You’re a good person, here’s your money back. We’ll try it some other time.” It was a big sum, like $20,000, I think -- and he paid me and the band, too.
But I’ve also seen him where promoters got heavy with him and he got heavy right back. One time we were touring in Italy and we walked into this arena and Chuck looked around and said “Why are all these cameras here?” This guy came up, dressed to the nines in a silk suit, “Hi Mr. Berry, I own this place.” Chuck said, “What’s with the cameras?” The guys said, “This is a small theater, so to defray your costs we’re going to televise the show.” Chuck said, “Okay, that’ll cost you $10,000 more.” And the guy was like a cartoon, you could see the red coming up in his face. He gave Chuck the money and we did the show. But when we went back to the hotel, I hadn’t been asleep an hour before there was a knock on the door and it was Chuck: “Billy, pack your bags, we’re leaving for the airport right now.” He had found out that this guy was gonna try to get his money back when he took us to the airport the next morning.
Touring with Chuck was always an adventure.
The last time I saw him was the last gig he did -- October 15, 2014. It was getting kinda rough. He’d been playing [a residency at St. Louis club Blueberry Hill since 1996], and Chuck used to call me up onstage to play a number or two when I’d see him there. But toward the end, he only played one night a month. For the last four gigs, [club owner Joe Edwards] called me up and said, “Could you come in and play the whole night and kinda help out Chuck,” because he couldn’t remember all the words. So I played with him the last four times at Blueberry Hill, and I’ve got some great pictures -- one of them was the last time he did [his trademark] duckwalk.
That last show was just before his 87th birthday. He was [in good spirits], but you could tell he was failing. Finally it just got to the point where at that last gig, he even told his son, I believe, “I’m hanging up my rock and roll shoes.”
In 2006 I released an indie CD of [covers of] his major hits called Tribute to a Poet, because that’s what I always considered him. I put it out and it sold a little bit here in St. Louis, but the main reason I did it was to show him just how much I appreciated what he had done for me. I didn’t tell him [in advance]. So one night I went to Blueberry Hill and sat in with him for a couple of songs, and after the show I went to his car and said, “Chuck, I’ve got a surprise for you: I made a CD of your songs.” He looked at me kinda funny, said “Climb in the car.” And then, and this scared the hell out of me, he said, “Let’s listen to it.” He got about halfway through the first one, “Roll Over Beethoven,” then turned it down and said “I’m gonna listen to this on the way to [his home in] Wentzville.”
The next day I called [Berry’s longtime secretary Francine Gillium] and said "What did he think?" She said, “Billy, he loved it. He got up this morning and put it on, and he’d stop and say ‘Listen to that! Listen to that riff!’” And that’s all I wanted to hear. I just wanted Chuck to like it.
-- as told to Jem Aswad