PHOTOGRAPH BY GREG RANNELLS
He came in alone, the way he always does, through the back door to Blueberry Hill, carrying his guitar. This was his birthday concert, October 15, three days before he turned 82. Waiters were apologizing to one table after another: “Sorry, man, the tickets sold out in two hours. They always do.” The disappointed would have to watch the presidential debate on the bar TV, while downstairs in the Duck Room, Berry reclaimed his legendary “Johnny B. Goode” — played repeatedly by the McCain campaign, without Berry’s knowledge, because it was a surefire way to rouse a crowd. First, though, Berry ducked into the St. Louis Room and kindly granted one of those things he normally dreads or scraps altogether: an interview.
You once sent a BBC crew away empty-handed. What do reporters do or say that annoys you? Oh, it doesn’t affect me at all, other than I give them a negative answer. I think it affects them more than me.
So it’s safe to ask if you knew you were inventing rock ‘n’ roll? No, and I still don’t. But since everybody says that, I’m not going to dispute it.
What do people not realize about you? That I have no idea what other people think of me. I cannot answer what is in their mind.
In [the tribute documentary] Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll, Bruce Springsteen said, “I wanted to write the way people talk, because that’s the way he’d write.” Eric Clapton said that after your double strings, nobody could play rock ‘n’ roll any other way; it’d sound too thin. You inspired the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys and Elvis Presley. So who were your influences? Well, I copied as much as I could from Carl Hogan of Count Basie, and Muddy Waters and T-Bone Walker.
And you loved Nat King Cole’s voice. Nat King Cole had diction. I still say his diction was better ‘n Blue Eyes’. Nat came at the wrong time; Nat was under Blue Eyes like I was under Presley.
I was wondering what you thought of Elvis Presley. I think he had a wonderful manager. [Chuckles.] But one thing Presley had that no other person had was that voice. He had a voice better than Bing Crosby’s. That’s another thing: I came up believing that singing did not mean just saying it with ups and downs and varied melody. Singing is almost like swinging: It vibrates.
Did being sexy help your career? You sayin’ I’m sexy? [Mock incredulity.] Sho’ nuf! I do know that when I look at my pictures from 15 on, I was pretty good looking, I may say so. I don’t think I knew it, but I’m old enough now to say it, ’cause it’s gone.
You once called poetry your blood flow; John Lennon said it was the meter of your lyrics that influenced him and Dylan. Did you always speak poetically? No, but I liked poetry, and that might have been where it came from. And then, for the music, the lyrics came pretty much first. You had to match the notes to the words — so I had somebody write the music. I could read it and sing it, but not write the [notation].
What were your happiest years? Pretty much always. ‘Cause when I was a kid, I didn’t know what happy was; I was just interested. I wanted to know about things, tear them apart. Sometimes that was naughty. But I was comfortable, contented. After I got it tore up, I’d put it back together. Even in reform school — everything was new, and I learned a lot there.
Like what? Aw, come on! [After a here’s-trouble grin, he turns formal.] I learned how to type; I passed my CPA. But I wanted to make money instead of majoring in it!
You went to beauty school with your sister Thelma? Yeah, Poro College in the Ville. They were charging $5 and $8 and $10 to do hair, and I was making $2 and $3 building houses.
You also painted decorative friezes? There you go. I did it for the money. Snowcapped mountains aren’t very hard to draw, and you only need two colors.
Why has money always been so important to you? Now, you’re padding that question! [Turns serious.] I knew you couldn’t make it without money. Money was the answer to receiving whatever you were seeking.
Are your brothers and sisters anything like you? Oh, I was the black sheep of the family, no doubt about it! They said I was the one that did best, got along the most, and I guess so, if money is involved.
Your parents were upstanding, proper, strict — you must’ve given them a heart attack with your restlessness! Well, they were religious, if that’s strict. Oh, those Baptist hymns! Mom brought Dad into the church choir. He had a beautiful voice, very low, and he led the bass section, and Mother sang all day long.
Are you religious? I believe anything that’s true is what’s going to carry you through. Truth will shine. Truth —
Sets you free? Yeah. And I’ve been unfree, too.
You once said that if rock ‘n’ roll was anything, it was freedom. I did? Was that in my autobiography? I’ve been saying for the past two years, I need to read that book! Rock ‘n’ roll is music. That’s my one-word answer. It’s a mixture of a lot of music, like bluegrass. It fades into this and fades into that. Most people’s impressions overlap other people’s impressions, and music is like that, too.
You’ve traveled the world, built an amusement park, laid the foundation for rock guitar and committed quite a few of what you call “naughty-naughties” … I’d wager you’re somebody who gets bored easily?Monotony drives me crazy.
Did you mind Sen. John McCain using “Johnny B. Goode” for his presidential campaign? You shouldn’t fight city hall; I’m sure not going to fight the feds.
Your father once told you, “Take what you have and make what you want.” Did you? Yeah, and “If a task is once begun, never leave it till it’s done. Be its labor great or small, do it well or not at all.” I learned so much from my dad. Horse sense, too. He worked for a real-estate company on Chouteau, going right into white people’s homes. He’d say, “If a white woman smiles at you, you never smile back.”
So he had a strong effect on you? Yeah, when I got in high school, I couldn’t get a girlfriend, ’cause he said, “Don’t smile.” To get a girl, you gotta smile, or something!
You grew up in the Ville, a cultured enclave of middle-class blacks. There’s nothing quite like that now … What changed? Pride. And the morals have bent a little from the olden days. A lot goes on that would never have been dreamed about with teenagers today.
At age 4, you saw white people and said they glowed like light bulbs? They were firemen, and the light was flickering, and I thought, “Boy, these people are something. They glow!”
You ran into a lot of racism in the early years. What stung the most? Well, I don’t get so much of it now, because of the fame. I’m enjoying much of a free life, and people treat me way better than they did when I was young: I go to the casino, and women I don’t even know speak to me, n-i-i-i-i-ce looking women. But I had noses turned up when I was young.
When you toured in the South, you coined one of your famous words: “hospitaboo.” What is it again — hospitality mixed with taboo? It’s those people who speak to you and don’t even know you — yet they didn’t speak to me when I was growing up, because I was black.
What conditions need to be right for you to perform? I can work with a symphony orchestra, a jazz orchestra, a school band. It’s just if they know music just as well as I do. Which is only from a magazine that had the guitar chords printed. I put my hands where the dots were and came along from there.
Who would you have liked to play with? Nat Cole. Tommy Dorsey. And really, with my mom. She’d sing hymns, and I’d follow along trying to do my dad’s part, get the bass as low as I could. Me and my mom could have had a show together.
She must’ve been proud of you. She always used to say, “That boy’s gonna be a millionaire.”
It’s been said, “The more you find out about Chuck Berry, the less you know about him.” True? That could be. ‘Cause there’s a lot of me.
So have you and Joe Edwards [Blueberry Hill’s owner, and one of the few people Berry trusts] booked your 100th birthday celebration? Not since I planned to open up for George Burns’ 100th. I don’t plan too far ahead anymore.
What’s hardest about getting older? Getting near the crossroads. Biblically, heaven or hell.
So you believe in hell? I believe in anything that I know.
Where do you think you’ll wind up? I don’t predict such things.
Is there anything you still want, here on Earth? Yes, I want to add about 20 more years. Not more than 20, though, ’cause 3-D will be in, and you won’t know whether you’re really living.
What would your life have been like if you had become a CPA? I’d be poorer, I think. And I don’t know whether people would like me just because I straightened some figures out for them. When you sing for people, you create a feeling. I’m just creating the effect in them — but they are saying I’m doing it.
How does it feel to lift so many people’s hearts, give them instant energy, get them dancing? It feels like one feels when another says they love you.
Berry goes downstairs, puts on a spangly turquoise shirt and steps onstage. Members of the audience yell, clap, dance, flash cameras and accompany him on “My Ding-a-Ling,” filling in the blanks of the charmingly raunchy song that, unbelievably, was the only one of his legendary hits to top the pop charts. He sings classics like “Nadine,” does his famous original guitar licks and the stomps, hops and kicks of a far younger man, plays bluesy rock with his daughter Ingrid on harmonica and his son Charles Berry Jr. on guitar. Then, after extolling the virtues of “enchiladas and old El Dorados that shine,” not to mention women and wine, he sings, “They tell me it ain’t good for me, but I’m still feelin’ fine.” Soon after, he waves his guitar by the neck in a single noncommittal farewell and steps offstage.
He’s long gone when the crowd, drunk on rock, starts singing “Happy Birthday” to him. There’s a reason Chuck Berry was the first inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and performed at Bill Clinton’s inaugural, and had a clip of his music put into the Voyager I spacecraft.
Whether he likes the adulation or not, it’ll never stop