Chuck Berry 1998

Ohur father of Rock:

"The thrill is gone", Berry says, but his still an attraction at 72

St. Louis Post - Dispatch

November 15 / 1998

by John M. McGuire

* After 4,600 shows and decades of rejecting interviews, St. Louis' Chuck Berry, the creator of 'Johnny B. Goode' and the duck walk, opens up. Charles E. Berry is now a designated St. Louis tourist landmark. That's because the September issue of Men's Journal, a brother publication of Rolling Stone magazine, made Berry a Missouri must-see in a state-by-state guide of unusual events and sights. He also made the network news recently on the occasion of his 72nd birthday, Oct. 18. His entry in Men's Journal is above the "See Sheep Fly" attraction in Reedpoint, Mont. There, you can see 100 stuffed sheep dolls parachuting toward you, all part of Sheep Drive Sunday, with its renowned "smelliest sheepherder" contest. Under Missouri, you're encouraged to "partake in the legend of Johnny B. Goode himself, and, yes, you can see him do the funky duck walk, a performance that simply must be experienced live." Men's Journal is referring to Berry's monthly show at Blueberry Hill in University City. There, the rock 'n' roll icon continues doing what he's done for nearly half a century. Maybe not with the full-tilt vigor of the 1950s and '60s but still pretty amazing for someone born in 1926. Someone who still commands a stage, with looks and gestures and suggestive body language.

But he says, "the thrill is gone." Why? Because he's done some 4,600 shows, going back to the mid-'50s. He told this to Post-Dispatch photographer Laurie Skrivan just before show time, as he sat in a darkened dressing room behind the Duck Room's stage left. The thrill may be gone, but the old rock warrior shows no signs of letting up. Besides, Blueberry Hill and owner Joe Edwards are special to him. "It's a whole different ballgame playing here because of the warm relations between Joe and myself," Berry said. "I didn't ask to be accepted here, but the acceptance has meant a lot. "So, let me stop on that before I start crying," and everyone in the Cigar Room erupted with laughter. There does appear to be a genuine trust and admiration between Berry and Edwards. "Since the first time I saw him, the dude has not changed a bit," said Berry. "Wouldn't think the dude had any money, had any position, any properties, you know, just another guy. I keep saying dude. To me, a dude is a real good friend. "I try to be the same, too. People say I have fame, which don't mean a thing to me. Really, it's nice to have it; lets you make a little money.

Berry may feel the thrill is gone, but on a recent chilly Wednesday night his performance brought a father and son down from Minneapolis, just to see him do his hour-long show. Roger N. Hastings, who sells medical devices for Stereotaxis Inc., of St. Louis, had a bemused look as his 24-year-old musician son, Joe - who goes by the name Guitarzan - showed off a felt-tip-pen Berry autograph (with a smiley face), which covered most of the underside of his left forearm. Guitarzan Hastings, with the hair style and looks of a British rocker, told his dad he was having the autograph tattooed first thing in the morning. Edwards recommended the Iron Age tattoo parlor in University City. "His mother's going to be upset," said Roger Hastings. He and his son were part of a packed-in crowd of about 350. Admission is $15, and the shows reportedly sell out every month. And why not?

Berry has been called "the greatest of the rock 'n' rollers." That's in the estimation of Robert Christgau of the Village Voice. He's the former music editor, now a senior editor, who narrated a 1979 NBC Radio Network special about Berry, co-produced by William Dunlap, a former Post-Dispatch reporter, now living in Lake Oswego, Ore. Said Christgau: "He invented the music. He taught George Harrison and Keith Richards to play guitar long before he met either. "What distinguished the Chuck Berry Combo (which began as pianist Johnnie Johnson's Sir John's Trio) was the way he cut traditional blues with country-influenced guitar runs and humorous narrative songs; coupling a rhythm and blues beat with an unembarrassed electrification. "He created a musical style with biracial appeal."

His music will float around in space for more than 2,000 years. Back in the early days of the space program, some of his songs were launched in a NASA capsule, bound for the outer reaches of the galaxy, beyond our solar system. Maybe extraterrestrials will catch a version of "Roll Over Beethoven," a 1956 Berry recording that is on Time magazine's list of the five most significant rock songs ever. And Berry's image pops up in unusual places. The main stage of Beijing's Hard Rock Cafe features a triptych, with Berry, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. Berry's never been to China, but a huge, Mao-like picture of him is there. Berry, a St. Louis native, is not much for giving extended interviews, particularly with the local newspaper.

When he did the NBC radio interview 19 years ago at his Berry Park near Wentzville, he charged $2,000 for his time. Soon after, he went off to Lompoc federal penitentiary in California, where he served 120 days for income tax evasion. In prison - his third institutional stay going back to 1947 at what he calls his alma mater, the old Algoa Reformatory - Berry worked on the first draft of his autobiography, and observed his 31st wedding anniversary. "Chuck Berry: The Autobiography," published in 1987, was done without a ghost writer. Berry doesn't put gloss on anything about his life up until that time; he was 60 then. As The New York Times' critic said, "the book reads like 300-plus pages of 'Johnny B. Goode,' marked by breezy word-play, obsessive rhyming and alliteration, and the backbeat of a Berry song." Not only does he write about his incarcerations, beginning with Algoa, but he details his romantic dalliances, likes and dislikes and, of course, his music. In typical Berry fashion, he wrote lightly of his last imprisonment, saying that he'd been "set free for a third time, right at 17 years apart," adding: "My next fall is due around year end 1996, so I have a while yet."

Last month, Berry did something he doesn't often do. He granted an hour and half interview in the place where he's comfortable, Blueberry Hill. It's not that he doesn't talk to the press, it's just he's become more circumspect. He likes his privacy. "My desire to be interviewed dwindled over the years as I would read back what I was supposed to have said to reporters," he wrote in his autobiography. And he has the same misgivings with taped and edited interviews, not only for print, but radio and television. But this day - probably, in part, because Joe Edwards was there - Berry was in good form. Jovial, funny, with quick answers. It was just weeks after his latest European sojourn, something he's done for the past 20 years. This tour, a dizzying 16 cities in 18 days, from Germany to France, the Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland, Sweden and Denmark, doing shows with other vintage rock characters - Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. In Denmark, they were joined by blues great B.B. King. Earlier this year, Berry and his longtime bassist, Jim Marsala, helped open a new Hard Rock Cafe in the Persian Gulf state of Dubai. Marsala, who lives in St. Peters, has been a sideman for Berry for 26 years. Chuck Berry has been big overseas for some time.

During our conversation, the name Louis Armstrong came up, and Berry clapped his hands and said - "Satchmo. I met my man in Stockholm. And this was in the '60s, when everyone was marching (in the civil rights movement.) "A reporter asked him, 'Hey, Satchmo, how's race relations in the States?' "And he says, (and here, Berry does his gravelly immitation of Armstrong's voice) - 'I tell ya, white folks still in the lead'." Here are some other things Berry said in our chat, which went almost two hours:

* On his music: "I've got a voice like James Brown. I've got a Ray Charles kind of voice. I could sing the blues, but I like the more danceable songs that tell a story. And I've done blues, like 'Wee Wee Hours.' You know, it doesn't seem natural. It's like Ladue blues. How can you be bluesy in Ladue?" Edwards says Berry's house in Ladue is like something out of "The Great Gatsby." For years, Berry talked about starting a big band and making orchestra arrangements for some of his better-known rock songs. He dropped that idea because of "drugs and stuff. That's why I don't have a steady band now, because I can't baby-sit them. When drugs began to become popular, I let the band go. Because two or three guys in the band were carrying it."

* On why he stayed in St. Louis: "Fame didn't take me away because my family is here. One thing I found out is that almost every place is just about the same. The language may be different, and there may be a difference in architecture, and the relations of people may be a little freer and better in other places, like New York. But in St. Louis, you just have to know where to go to find different things."

* His favorite places to perform: "Places that have the largest stadiums and largest auditoriums, because they seem to offer you more. If you play at a stadium, it's like playing at five nightclubs, and that's four days you can do something else. Like playing at four more stadiums. I'm American; life is short."

* On dealing with promoters: "Work on a flat guarantee and have it paid in advance. You can make more working on a percentage (of the house), but if you do, you have to have somebody watch the box office. Then you have to have a couple of people watch them. And before you know it, you've got an entourage, coming out from the back stage to the front office. And that costs more, sometimes, than you make." Bo Diddley talked about Berry -- he called him "a great man, no other way to put it" -- for the 1979 NBC radio show. He talked about his business acumen: "The man, a lot of people will jump and say - Chuck Berry this, Chuck Berry that - Chuck Berry is a businessman. I admire him for being a businessman. The name of the game is dollar bills." (In 1988, St. Charles County officials estimated Berry's worth at $36 million. Back then, Berry said, it was more like $8 million. During our Blueberry Hill interview, Berry slapped a table and laughed. He said he hadn't been audited by the Internal Revenue Service in nine years.)

* On dying: Did he consider taking October off because of his 72nd birthday and 50th wedding anniversary? "No, I'm going to take the whole month on. Come on, this could be my last one. I'm not a young whippersnapper anymore. I have nothing to lose; I've had a full life. 'Cause I always was not going to faaaade away. It's going to be SNAP, and that's going to be it!"

So this was a special October. To mark his golden wedding anniversary, there was a party at the Hyatt Regency Hotel at Union Station. Berry's brother, the Rev. Henry W. Berry, presided over the renewal of vows between Berry and the former Themetta Suggs of Chicago. Their son, Chuck Jr., orchestrated the event, and daughter and singer Ingrid Berry Clay and her husband Chuck performed. Their other two daughters were there, along with some of their 14 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

Even though he's been called the father of rock 'n' roll, or in the words of the Beatles' John Lennon - "If you tried to give rock 'n' roll another name, you might call it 'Chuck Berry"' - the Berry entries in the Post-Dispatch archives have a decidedly nonmusical cast to them. Such as this July 1958 story summary: "Rock 'N Roll singer fined for traffic violation . . . "rock and roll" driving." And that's one of the more tame entries. These are mostly stories from the troubled side of his life in St. Louis; controvery was never a stranger. Most recently, he was embroiled in a highly publicized legal scrape in St. Charles County over videotaping the women's bathroom at a restaurant he owned in Wentzville, the shuttered Southern Air, and restrooms at his Berry's Farm. The class-action suit, brought by about 60 woman, was settled in 1994, with a payout of more than $1 million. (Berry denied having anything to do with the videotaping.) It wasn't our intention to dredge this up, but he mentioned it in his autobiography. "Strangely enough, I intend to go for another (book)," he wrote. "One that I will enjoy, the true story of my sex life. It shall not infringe on anyone or thing but me and my excesssive desire to continue mel ting the ice of American hypocrisy regarding behavior and beliefs that are now 'in the closet' and only surface in court, crime, or comical conversation."

Well, he's changed his mind.

"You know," he says now, "I had some suits five years ago, that now I'm wondering why; I think I'll leave it here. I'll write it, but I wouldn't publish it; I can slip a lot of sex in there. "What I'd like to write about are things that would help people, help them live and enjoy the life I've enjoyed. If somebody embarrasses you, don't let it bother you. "The person who says that is so low, so don't let it bother you. You could write six or seven pages on that."

The opinionated Chuck Berry

Here are some of Chuck Berry's likes and opinions, according to his responses to questions posed by Post-Dispatch photographer Laurie Skrivan. Her selections are from the book "If. Questions for the Game of Life," by Evelyn McFarlane and James Saywell.

Q: If you had one piece of music that would play in your mind forever, what would it be?

A: The song "Yesterday." I wish I'd have written it. It fits me to a T. I can hear it over and over and over.

Q: If you had a song written about you, which musician would you want to write it?

A: Me, me definitely, because then it would be perfect.

Q: If you could have composed any single piece of music, what would it be?

A: "Wake Up Little Susie." "Yesterday" is great, but I'm in rock 'n' roll, and that's the best song ever written that Chuck Berry didn't write. "Wake up, little Susie, we got to go home" . . . The innocence, that's something that Chuck Berry's not too much of . . . And the honesty . . . It was all the things I wish I could have portrayed, portrayed in a song I wish I'd written. Two little kids go to sleep, and ooooh la la, what are they going to say about us? It's so cute. (The 1957 song was written by Don Everly, of the Everly Brothers.)

Q: If you could become famous for something you don't already do, what would it be?

A: I'd invent. Creating is the next thing to inventing. So I'd want to invent something. (Berry loves to point out that he was born on the same day, Oct. 18, as Plato and Albert Einstein.) Q: If you could arrange a rock concert with any three musicians or groups, who would they be? A: Hmmmmmm. You said rock 'n' roll, but first I'd have to say Nat King Cole, because Nat can sure rock. The first song he sang, "Straighten Up and Fly Right," if that's not rock 'n' roll . . . The Beatles, second. Then (Elvis) Presley, for draw, mainly. I told you I wouldn't lie, didn't I? The (Rolling) Stones for "Satisfaction." For the audience satisfaction, because they sure can satisfy. That's enough. Because that'll cost a fortune.

It's Berry interesting: Teetotaler's Turs is a bar

by John M. McGuire

* Chuck doesn't drink, but he was the first to have his image on Rock & Roll Beer produced at Blueberry Hill.

Chuck Berry strolled into the new Cigar Room at Blueberry Hill, bopping to some piped-in eight-bar boogie.

He wore his trademark white yatching cap and Planet Hollywood jacket. We were introduced. He raised his arm, we bumped elbows, then clasped hands.

Chuck Berry, gangly and amazingly supple for a 72-year-old, makes an interesting entrance. Not at all surprising for the father of the duck walk, the man for whom Blueberry Hill's basement Duck Room is named.

Berry spends a fair amount of time at the University City establishment and is quite close to the man he calls "my dude," proprietor Joe Edwards.

Their relationship began in 1983, when Berry was the first image to appear on cans of Rock & Roll Beer, made especially for the place owned by Edwards and his wife, Linda.

It was a series called the Heroes of Rock & Roll. Then one night, Berry wandered in and asked if the place had once been known as the Delmar Bar, where he'd performed in 1954. That was before Edwards was born.

Edwards told Berry that Blueberry Hill, which now covers an entire block at 6504-10 Delmar Boulevard, never had a staircase, as the Delmar Bar did.

But Berry and Blueberry Hill became an item, which continues today. There's even a little shrine to Berry just inside the main entrance. The trophy case contains photos of Berry with Bill and Hillary Clinton, taken in the Oval Office. And another with Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

It's curious that his hangout is a saloon. Berry doesn't drink, and he has stopped smoking. In fact, his dislike for drinking and drugs is intense. "I can't stand a drunk. I wouldn't hire one. Because I don't think getting out of your mind, or becoming less sober, helps you in anyway to perform," he said in an NBC Radio interview 19 years ago.

His taste in music is rather catholic. Rap music? "I'm doing the same thing in slow, sentimental stories," he said. "They're talking words in rhythm; I'm talking words in swing and sway.

"If they don't get vulgar and dirty, it's just another kind of music. It's not danceable, but go ahead and do it."