Music producer and Rolling Stones Records founding president Marshall Chess first met Chuck Berry in the 1950s. The son of Leonard Chess, one of two brothers who ran Berry’s label, Chess Records, Marshall toured with Berry in early 1960s, which led to a longstanding friendship with the rock-and-roll pioneer. When Berry died from natural causes on March 17, at the age of 90, Chess, 75, spoke at his funeral and shared his recollections of the ceremony with Billboard. An edited transcript of his account follows:
There’s so much more to Chuck Berry than most people know. Here’s a story I didn’t tell at the funeral. Chuck came to the office one summer, and my dad said, “Take him across the street and have lunch with him. By then I had a relationship with Chuck from being on the road. So, we sit down in the booth, and when the waitress asked what we wanted, Chuck said, “Strawberry shortcake and bacon and eggs.” She said, “You mean strawberry shortcake for dessert?” And he said, “No, I want it to start.”
Later that day, I told to my Dad, “Wasn’t that weird?” And he said, “That’s one of the things that makes Chuck great. He does things his way, and he doesn’t care what other people think. That’s why his music is so original.”
After Chuck died, his wife Themetta asked if I would speak at the funeral. My son Jamar and I flew into St. Louis on Saturday and took a taxi to the Moonrise Hotel. It’s next to a beautifully restored concert hall called The Pageant, where the service was held on Sunday. Those two places are at the end of a strip on Delmar Boulevard that’s called The Loop. Chuck was very influential in reviving that area. It used to be a ghetto-y neighborhood, and now it’s like you’re in New Orleans for three blocks. There are restaurants and live-music clubs, the biggest of which is Blueberry Hill, where Chuck played once a month until 2014.
When our taxi got to the beginning of The Loop, every building had sign or banner on it, that said, “Hail, Chuck Berry” or some other tribute to him. There was a bronze statue of him covered in leis. It gave me the chills. Chuck Berry is royalty in St. Louis. That night, there was a city-wide toast to him at 10:00 p.m. because that’s the time he always started his shows when he played Blueberry Hill.
On Sunday morning, we went to pick up our tickets to the funeral, and the line of people who were waiting to view Chuck’s body stretched around the corner to the next block. I asked a cop who was there, and he said it had been that way since 6:00 in the morning. Chuck was in a beautiful custom-built casket, wearing his white captain’s hat, and his red Gibson was bolted to the lid.
Then 800 people filed into the funeral service. The seating had all been done by his wife Themetta. She sat everyone. I was impressed at how well-orchestrated it was. Man, 200 members of Chuck’s family were there — Chuck’s four kids and their kids and multiple generations of great grandchildren. When they talked about him, they called him “Charles,” and what blew me away is that he took care of all of them. Until the funeral, I hadn’t really spent time with his family.
To me, he was Chuck Berry, the rock and roll guy and a friend of my Dad. But at The Pageant in St. Louis, I got a glimpse of how he had lived his life and taken care of his family. His money had gone into homes and college educations for them.
I’d say that 90 percent of the audience at the memorial was black, and they were all dressed for Sunday morning service. The beginning of the funeral was like a Baptist church service. Psalms and Scriptures were read, and hymns were sung. Then Congressman William Lacy Clay got up and read a letter from Bill Clinton. Chuck had played at the President’s inauguration and reelection celebrations, and Clinton wrote that he and Hillary had been fans from the beginning. Paul McCartney and Little Richard also wrote letters. Gene Simmons of Kiss was there. He happened to be in St. Louis for a comics convention and asked to speak. He actually teared up a few times.
They were the only major musicians to play some role in the funeral. I was looking for Keith Richards or someone else from the Stones, but I didn’t see anyone. I found out later though that they had sent an extravagant floral guitar with a card that read just, “The Rolling Stones.”
Paul Shaffer from the Letterman show was there, and I met Nathaniel Rateliff, who drove all the way from Denver to be at the funeral. I have to say I was disappointed that the English guys didn’t show up to the funeral. They know who they are: Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood, Eric Clapton. They owe Chuck everything. They should have chartered a plane, and they should have played for his family. You could tell they were set up for it: they had amps and a drum kit on the stage. But Billy Peek’s performance of “Johnny B. Goode” was the only performance of Chuck’s music.
Themetta was front and center, so when I got up to speak, I mostly I spoke to her. I started with the story of how in 1955 I was riding around with my dad Leonard. Back then, car radios had buttons that you programmed to go to your favorite stations, and my dad was a maniac. He never listened to an entire song. He would just keep pushing buttons. That time, though, he pushed a button, on came a song, and my Dad said, “Oh my God,” and slapped the steering wheel. I said, “What’s going on?” And he said, “That’s the number-one white station in Chicago and they just played “Maybellene.”
I had no idea who Chuck Berry was then, but I met him about a year later when my father took me to Alan Freed’s Rock n’ Roll show at the Brooklyn Paramount. Then in 1963, when Chuck got out of prison he drove right to Chicago. I was 21 and working at Chess Records’ offices, and he came in with his guitar and a teeny overnight bag. He wanted to make music and get back to his career. We had tried everything to get him out of prison. It was a racist thing.
Chuck wasn’t dressed very well when he came in – his clothes looked a little raggedy – and my dad handed me a $100 bill and said, “Take him down to Max’s on 8th Street and buy him some new clothes. He’s going on the road soon.” In those days, that was like $500, and I got him a few outfits. That week, Chuck recorded “You Never Can Tell,” “No Particular Place to Go” and “Nadine.” We decided to rush out “Nadine.” Chuck wanted to get back to making money and getting out there, and my dad assigned me to go on the road with Chuck for a series of one-nighters.
That’s when I got to really know him. It was just Chuck and his guitar. We used pick-up bands. He would walk up to the band and say, “You know my songs. Do this while I do that.” If the promoter was a fan and got him the best musicians in town, the gig would be great, but, when the band wasn’t good, well, he was hurting the magic. We had an argument about it once, but Chuck did things his way.
The last story I told at the funeral was about the last time I saw Chuck. This was probably in the late ‘90s. He was touring with his kids Ingrid and Chuck Jr. and he played B.B. King’s in Times Square. Jamar wanted to meet him, so we went backstage. We were hugging and kissing, the whole thing. He introduced me to his kids, and I introduced him to Jamar. I told him, “You know, Chuck, I’ve never thanked you.” He said, “For what?” I said, “My family’s life changed because of you.” And he looked me in the eye and took my hands and said,” Don’t you know? It’s the same for me.”
At the end of the service, six pallbearers with white gloves carried Chuck’s casket out of The Pageant, where there must have been 500 people. The main street there was closed, and they had a New Orleans-style band playing a funeral march. It was so mournful. There were 13 white Cadillac stretch limousines and a police motorcade to take the family members to the cemetery. Chuck loved Cadillacs, and he went out in a white one with gold trim — like the king of rock and roll. As this long train of limousines pulled away, I waved to everyone. I was crying a little. I am now, actually.