Chuck Berry: Complex Enigma But A Rock Icon.

By Keith Sharp:

Rock music lost a true pioneer Saturday March 18th with the passing of Chuck Berry who was found unresponsive by police at his Charles County Missouri residence. He was 90 years old.

Born Charles Edward Anderson Berry in St. Louis March 18 1926, Berry didn’t record his first song until he was 31 years old when he released “Maybelline”. Under the guidence of Chess Records’ magnet, Leonard Chess, Berry racked up over one million copies of “Maybelline” taking it to the top of Billboard’s Rhythm & Blues chart in 1955.

Berry then chalked up a remarkable series of hit songs; “Johnny B Goode”, “Nadine”, “Roll Over Beethoven” , “Rock N Roll Music” (both recorded by The Beatles), “Sweet Little Sixteen”, “Sweet Little Rock N Roller (recorded by Rod Stewart) and “Back In The USA” (recorded by Linda Ronstadt) plus many more. Between the mid-50’s and early 60’s, Berry along with Little Richard, was primarily responsible for introducing black oriented R&B music to a white audience with his trade mark` Duck Walk’ guitar style. Surprisingly Berry’s only No 1 hit on the Billboard singles chart was his 1972 novelty hit, “My Ding A Ling”

As The Beatles’ John Lennon once said, “If you had to come up with another name for Rock Music it would be Chuck Berry.”

When asked about his music surpassing the racial divides of America at the time of tension and segregation, Berry told the New York Times in 2003, “I made records for people  who would buy them, no colour, no ethnic, no political – I don’t want that, never did.”

One of the first musicians inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame when it opened in Cleveland in 1986, Berry release a staggering 19 studio albums, 11 live albums and 35 compilation albums between 1957 and 2014. Berry had announced he was planning to release his first album of original material in 38 years with a record titled “Chuck” to be released later this year.

Unfortunately, Berry had his run-ins with the law. In 1959, he was arrested  under the Mann Act for having sex with a 14-year old native Amercan girl and transporting her across a State line, where on appeal he served 18 months of a three-year sentence. His penchant for only taking cash payments for his performances eventually ran him into trouble with the I.R.S and he served four months in prison in 1979 as well as forced to serve 1,000 hours of community service. Berry was also charged with video taping women in the restroom of his St Louis restaurant and settled a class action lawsuit against 59 women by paying a settlement of over $1.2 million dollars.

Add to this a marijuana conviction during that 1959 police raid (six-month suspended jail sentence and $5,000 donation to a local hospital and Berry’s star reputation began to slide.

Even through the 1970’s and 80’s and into the 90’s,  Berry continued to tour, performing his catalogue of hits, usually just him and his guitar. Promoters were entrusted with supplying local musicians to serve as his back-up band on the premise that everyone knew his material. Historically, when Berry played one such date in New Jersey, his back-up band featured a young Bruce Springsteen.

Famed movie director Taylor Hackford made a 1987 documentary film about Berry titled “Hail Hail Rock N Roll” to celebrate his 60th anniversary. Co-produced by Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards, and Berry, the film centres around two concerts at The Fox Theatre in St Louis and also features Richards along with Eric Clapton, Linda Ronstadt, Robert Cray, Etta James and Julian Lennon.

By all accounts, Berry was a difficult character to deal with. Check out the DVD extras from Hackford’s movie to see what a horror story it was to film that documentary. Former Music Express publisher, Conny Kunz also had a first hand experience dealing with Berry when he was booked into perform at Calgary’s Refinery Nightclub in 1975.

She was working as the venue’s accountant when Berry was scheduled to perform two sets for $10,000 cash (U.S funds). Club manager at the time was the late Lou Blair, soon to become manager of Loverboy, who had sold out the two sets to fund Berry’s performance.

So as Blair tells the story, “Berry rolls up in a rented vehicle and we go to my office upstairs to go over the details. I confirm he is playing two sets as agreed but Berry is insistent that he has only agreed to play one 45-minute set for the 10 grand and that if I want him to play a second set, I would have to double his fee. So I look at the contract and sure enough, it said one set for $10,000.”

“So I am kicking myself, I know I agreed with his agent (William Morris) for two sets but somehow I had missed that on the contract and had only signed him for one. I didn’t have the money to pay him for second set and what is he going to do in 45 minutes – “My Ding A Ling ran about 20 minutes alone.”

Now Lou Blair cut an imposing figure, a bear of a guy about the size of an NFL linebacker, he was insistent that Berry play two full sets but chose to work on the side of diplomacy, the issue not being settled until he called through to the William Morris Agency to explain his plight. “So the agent, talks to Berry, it all gets resolved, Berry asked me if we could fix him up with some female companionship for the early evening, which we did and he must have been impressed with his date because he came back, all smiles,  did two great sets, did an interview with the Calgary Herald and in the end, we couldn’t get him off the stage.”

Chuck Berry, a complex enigma but one of Rock’s legendary icons.

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