At 84, the live-wire, piano-playing rock pioneer remembers a rival, friend and fellow trailblazer.
I just feel sad about Chuck going. I didn’t even know he was sick. I lost a really great friend — one of my best friends in music. I love Chuck. I’ve been with Chuck all my life, really.
We went around and toured America and Europe together. Most of my favorite moments were watching him just do the duck walk and play. Sometimes his daughter came out on the road with us. I remember one day he gave me a gold horseshoe to hold — “Feel this. How do you like it?” — and then he said, “OK, now give it back!” I said, “Chuck, you’re not an Indian giver!” “No, I’m not!” He was one of those kind of guys. He would always say to me, “You got some pretty skin, Richard.” I would just say, “Shut up, Chuck. Next joke!”
It was some beautiful times we had together. One or two times I played the piano on some of his songs. He’s a rocker, he could really rock, for real. He ain’t just jiving around. He really puts it down and picks it up and throws it out to the audience. He was the greatest rock’n’roll musician, though he could play more than that, he could play all types of music. I learned those rock’n’roll riffs he had. He had the kind of riff that makes your big toe shoot up in your boot.
He was a real thoughtful person in the business, and I learned a lot of business things from Chuck: Get paid before you go onstage. Get your money in front. And he stuck to that. There were some honest, good promoters, but some people, you had to get it in front or you wouldn’t get it at all.
When Chuck and I played together, Chuck always wanted to close the show, and I wanted to close it, too. We were always banging at that. “I’m the star of the show!” “No, I’m the star of the show!” Really, Chuck was the star of the show. But we’d be onstage together and we sang together. I’d tell him, “I’m the creator of rock’n’roll,” and he’d say, “I am.” But I have to admit, he’s older than me; he came before me.
The truth is the truth. Chuck Berry’s songs are rock’n’roll standards, and mine are classics, also. “Roll Over Beethoven,” “School Day,” and here I come with “Good Golly Miss Molly” and “Long Tall Sally.” Chuck had more hits than I had. But we both contributed. It has been a blessing and a lesson, and I thank God for letting me live at this time so I could be a part of it.
Fresh off the success of “I Love Rock ’N Roll,” she brought The Blackhearts to Berry’s hometown — and snagged the man himself as backup singer.
We were playing in St. Louis in maybe ’83, and we got a note that Chuck Berry had come to see us and was turned away at the door. Kenny [Laguna, Jett’s musical partner] went running out the backstage door and caught Chuck in his black Cadillac Seville, just about to pull out of the parking lot: “Please come back in, we want you to be our guest.” We asked if he would introduce us onstage, and he went out there and said, “Let’s hear it for rock’n’roll, let’s hear it for St. Louis, let’s hear it for Joan Jett and the Blackhearts!” When “I Love Rock ‘N Roll” came around, Chuck was by the side of the stage and he jumped onto the mic and started singing with Kenny.
The next day we had a day off, and he invited us to Berry Park to just hang out. He was so ahead of everything: He had huge TV screens on the wall and satellite TV, he was watching all the music shows — he was really into MTV. He knew what was going on. He drove us down the road to get a bite at the local diner, and on the way, I guess he must have cut somebody off because this trucker comes in screaming at Chuck, pretty vile stuff. Kenny and I of course want to get in and defend him. But Chuck goes, “Just let it go.” I’m sure Chuck had many run-ins in his life with people who found a reason to have a problem with him.
Several years later, we were both at a festival in upstate New York, but not on the same stage. I was walking around backstage and all of a sudden I feel someone come up behind me, wrap their arms around me and pick me up off the ground. I was scared — I thought someone was attacking me! I threw my elbows back and head butted him, and guess who it was? Chuck Berry. But he understood. This is a guy who had been through a lot in his life. He knew, you come up behind a girl and grab her, she’s going to get you. I apologize, [all these] years later.
The Aerosmith guitarist recalls talking shop with his root beer-sipping rock idol.
Chuck Berry was the Ernest Hemingway of rock’n’roll, a storyteller for the ages. He wrote the textbook, the lexicon, the poetry. He had two distinct voices — his guitar voice and his singing voice. Both were riveting.
He once came to an Aerosmith gig in St. Louis. He showed up in my dressing room, where we talked for hours, picker to picker, about his affinity for the Gibson and the state of the world, as he sipped on a Virgil’s root beer. That empty can, marked with tape that says “NEVER THROW AWAY!” has become a talisman. It goes with me on the road and sits in my dressing room before every show.
Filming Hail! Hail! Rock ’N’ Roll, the blues guitarist and singer backed Berry — and soaked up the behind-the-scenes scene.
I had never met Chuck Berry before, but I had gotten word about being part of this [film] and was asked to pick out a couple of tunes, one of which I might perform onstage. I picked “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” because I remembered my dad playing it a lot.
Keith Richards introduced me to Chuck. I was the new kid on the block, and I was treated that way by Chuck, and it was great. Where he was giving Keith all kinds of grief, it was “Come on, Robert, you want to have a cup of coffee?” Keith — bless his heart — was honoring his hero, and his hero was treating him like a young, derelict kid!
We were at Chuck’s place, Berry Park, for a week of rehearsals. And I was in the backup band as well, so we practiced the songs that I was going to be backing Chuck up on. Show day comes, I’m presented with my list, and there’s about twice as many songs. I was sitting next to Eric Clapton when I received it, and he goes, “How do you rate?” He got really pissed off because, once again, Chuck was at work. He meant for those guys to see that I was going to be on more songs. (Laughs.)
Onstage, he was like a walking statue, so I kept my eyes glued on him all the time. And there were quiet moments offstage, too. He and [late pianist] Johnnie Johnson would play songs like “Cottage for Sale,” just the two of them. It was a beautiful thing to see and be a part of.
The singer-songwriter grew up revering Berry (like Dad did), then got to join him onstage for “Johnny B. Goode.”
I was, and still am to a degree, quite a shy character, so to be invited to perform with Chuck Berry [in Hail! Hail! Rock ‘N’ Roll], and to be filmed doing it, was quite an overwhelming experience. I’d known a few of the other performers, like Keith Richards, among others, but that certainly didn’t sway the nerves I had performing with Chuck. I managed to spend a few days, on- and offstage, interacting with him and the others, which was an insight into life in the rock’n’roll world, most of which I’d never witnessed before. Not only the camaraderie, but the tension, too.
When I started learning to play guitar, around age 10 or 11, it was through my gym teacher, who taught acoustic guitar to a few pupils. He had a DA — duck’s arse — hairstyle and was a real lover of rock’n’roll. After a year or so, a few of us managed to buy an electric guitar, at which point we decided to form a band and perform at the end-of-year school show. We may have had one or two original songs, but all of the others were classics, mostly written by Chuck.
Of course, I did have an inkling of how Dad felt about him, too. Around that time [in 1975], Dad released his Rock ’N’ Roll album, which, of course, contained a song by Chuck, as he was one of Dad’s idols, and he’d played with him on The Mike Douglas Show. So quite amazing, really, to see that he influenced two generations of musicians.
As a young bluesman in rural Louisiana, he heard the sound of the future come crackling through the radio.
Never will forget when I first heard “Maybellene.” I was on the farm in Lettsworth, La., out there in the middle of nowhere with nothing on my mind except pretty girls and hot blues. We had this broken-down battery radio with a raggedy antenna. I’m listening to WLAC, where they’re hawking Royal Crown hair pomade and Randy’s record store in Gallatin, Tenn., 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 a 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.
Chuck’s genius was an instant thing: He’d run into the studio without a guitar lick, nothing 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 Johnnie Johnson, his pianist.
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 us all. He busted the thing wide open.
I was in St. Louis 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 down-home 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 — this music is for the world.
Long before “Come to My Window,” she covered “Johnny B. Goode” in Kansas bars.
In the early ’70s, I was starting to play in local bands around Kansas, and “Johnny B. Goode” was a staple. Every time you did a Chuck Berry song, people were on the floor dancing, and getting people dancing was your job. Growing up in this lower middle class, suburban white bread existence, his music had no color. The things he was singing about were cool and interesting but they didn’t scare you. It was celebrating the joy of being in high school, it was that rock’n’roll dream. You looked at him and went, “Well, I like that guy!” Of course, he made the biggest impression on me with “My Ding-a-Ling.” I was in middle school, and that was just the naughtiest song I’d ever heard!
I did meet him at the  Rock and Roll Hall of Fame concert in Cleveland. Bruce Springsteen came backstage and said, “Hey, we’re going to do ‘Rock and Roll Music,’ you, me and Chuck Berry.” My God, OK! It was kind of a disaster though. Chuck told Bruce and I that he was playing in the key of G, but he told the band E. I found out later he’d do that for fun, just to mess with people.
Before becoming Sony chairman, he visited St. Louis to meet a man fond of flamboyant cars and pretty girls — who could turn out a stellar song overnight.
While I was president of Atco Records, Chuck agreed to do an album with me [1979’s Rock It, Berry’s final studio album prior to the forthcoming Chuck]. Co-producer Kyle Lehning and I flew to St. Louis, and Chuck picked us up from the airport in what I recall was an elongated Cadillac with actual horns on the front fenders. It was a really flashy car. On the way back to Berry Park he kept making different stops. I said, “Why are we stopping at all these places?” He said, “I like hitting on all the girls here. I figure I get about one out of every eight.”
Chuck was a lot of fun, a big personality, but he was very serious about the music. We went to his studio and recorded with Johnnie Johnson from his original band. The first day Chuck played us some material, and it was all slow, Muddy Waters-type blues songs. I said to him, “I can’t put out a blues album. Where’s the uptempo stuff?” and he was like, “I haven’t done that recently. Give me till tomorrow.” The next day he had a whole album of jump tunes.
I remember we had to pay Chuck in cash, for everything. When I asked him why, he showed me a cigar box full of checks that had bounced.
The masterful guitarist and singer has played with plenty of rock legends, but never met Berry (though he did open for him).
It’s like guitar for beginners: Whether they realize it or not, most people who play guitar start off learning Chuck Berry. I remember hearing “Maybellene” as a kid, and growing up in the ’80s I, of course, saw Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future doing “Johnny B. Goode.” But [Berry] always stood out to me. The way he approached songs, it was just complete freedom.
When I was a teenager, I got a chance to open up for him at the Paramount Theater in Austin. He had hired a backing group called The Eggmen, a Beatles cover band, and the only direction they got was “We’re going to play Chuck Berry songs.” He drove up in this white Lincoln right before the show, did his thing for maybe two hours, and these poor guys did the best they could. I never got a chance to speak to him, because he got in there, got his money, got back in the Lincoln and left. It was like something out of a movie — so badass.
There was something about his presence and his confidence, his willingness to try to push the bar. His tone changed the game. I like the little, subtle things in his technique. He’s got this rhythm guitar thing that has this island beach vibe to it — just listening, you might not pay much attention, but if you try to play it and sing it, it’s not easy. And then there’s that repetitive digging into the same note over and over again, but using octaves and multiple strings. You can hear Chuck Berry in most guitar-solo playing.
I wish I could have had a conversation with him, just to ask what he was into, what he listened to. I’m a guy that likes to take perfectly good things and pick them apart and try to put them back together, so it’s fun to think about what his sources were. I think about how he influenced artists like Jimi Hendrix. As a musician, you can get stuck in a box, stuck in repetition, because you think you 100 percent know what you’re doing. To have the foresight to change? That’s a pretty bold move. “You guys are doing this? Well, I’m going to do this.”