Esquire’s Luke Dittrich on How He Got the Chuck Berry Feature, in the January Issue
Just last week, Esquire published this thorough and fascinating Chuck Berry article. Berry is notoriously wary of the media, so author Luke Dittrich couldn’t take a direct route to his subject. We spoke with Dittrich, a contributing editor at the magazine, last weekend about his super savvy journalistic methods and his thoughts on our hometown hero.
Jaime Lees: I was wondering if you’d ever lived here because there’s your Chuck Berry article, and I also read your Joplin article and it was amazing. So I was wondering if you were from here or if you had family here.
Luke Dittrich: Well, thank you very much. Yeah, the reason I have those two Missouri stories is because I went down to St. Louis to profile Chuck Berry and I arrived the day after Joplin was hit by the tornado. So I spent about a week reporting on Chuck Berry and I had planned to stay working longer on the Chuck story but then eventually just decided that I was going to sort-of put Chuck on hold and go to Joplin. It compelled me to go there.
So, the first thing that I wanted to ask you is pretty simple: how did you get the interview? Because Chuck lives here and he’s around but he’s still kind of a mystery to us.
Right, yeah, I went through a friend of his, Joe Edwards, who owns Blueberry Hill?
I contacted him, but before I went to Joe I tried to get to Chuck through his agent, but his long-time agent had just retired and I never heard back from him. He’d been Chuck’s agent for, like, literally 50 plus years — I think since the 1950s — so he’s probably an interesting character himself, but I never connected with him.
Then I went through another person who works sort-of licensing deals out for him, who works on the rights to Chuck Berry’s image and all that. So I contacted that guy and he said “Well, I don’t know. Even when I’m trying to get a hold of Chuck he only communicates through faxes and it’s this long ordeal to get to him and I’ll do my best but I can’t promise anything.”
And so finally, I knew he was friends with Joe Edwards so I called Joe up one day and Joe didn’t promise me anything but Joe said “I can promise you that I’ll get him a letter if you want to write up a letter. And I’ll either fax it to him or hand-deliver it to him.”
So I ended up faxing Joe a letter, addressed to Chuck Berry, laying out what I wanted to do and why I wanted to talk to him. And I guess it worked because about a week later Chuck said he agreed. And to be there at the following Blueberry Hill show.
How did you know to get a hold of Joe?
Joe has been mentioned as a friend of Chuck Berry’s in several other stories that I’d read so I knew that he was close friends with him. And I was kind of grasping at straws to figure out who to talk to, so I figured that he was worth a shot, and now it seems like he’s the perfect person to call if you’re trying to get a hold of Chuck Berry.
So why did you want to write about Chuck?
You know, I can’t honestly say that I’ve grown up listening to him or anything, because it was before my time that he was really at the top of the charts, but I’ve had a fascination with him for quite some time. Ever since I saw — there was a great documentary called Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n Roll?
When that came out it painted this fascinating and kind of enigmatic portrait of Chuck Berry as both a great artist and sort of a supremely complicated individual. So I found that very intriguing, and so I’d been intrigued by Chuck Berry. And after seeing that documentary, I bought some CDs of his and became a fan, really, of his music. And then I didn’t really think of doing the story until maybe a few months before the interview, because I’d read somewhere about his shows at Blueberry Hill or I saw some YouTube clips and I saw that it was just this very small venue, not the sort of venue that you would expect somebody to play who has had such a, you know, an amazing effect on American culture in general and world culture. If we are saying that — and I made it clear in the story– that it’s hard to actually say that he invented rock and roll, but he came as close to inventing rock and roll as any single individual has done. And his sound has influenced all of subsequent popular music. And the fact that this person has had this amazing influence…
Basically, he’s had as much of an influence on world culture today as any living person, I’d say, yet so many people aren’t even aware that he’s still alive. And he’s playing these monthly shows at this small place, probably not for huge tons of money. Anyway, that surprised and intrigued me and basically I wanted to see what he’s like in person. It was a treat to get to meet him in person but also to try to figure out what he’s getting out of this. What’s the father of rock and roll doing winding down his days, in a certain sense, playing this small club that’s very much like the small clubs that he launched his career in?
Yeah, I thought that was a good point when I read that in your article, it is like a lot of the places that he used to play. It might even be smaller than the places that he used to play when he was first starting out.
Yeah, have you seen him play there?
Yes, yes, I have. I go at least once a year. But it’s hard because… there’s kind of a weird relationship there. Being a St. Louisan we kind of forget that he’s there because he’s there every month, you know?
It’s amazing. I think it’s very similar to a lot of people who live in New York City who have never gone to see the Statue of Liberty, for example. It’s one of those things you’re so close to it that you kind of take it for granted.
Exactly. It changed a little bit after he collapsed on stage in Chicago. People were sort of like “Oh shit, I really need to go see him before I can’t see him anymore.” I think he still sells out every time, though. Every time I go it’s always interesting to talk to all of the people there. There’s always fans in from Japan, from Australia, from all over the world. And they spend tons of money getting here just to see Chuck and it makes me feel like a jerk for not going every month when it would be so easy for me to do. What’s the general sense that you got from the people at the shows? Do they think that these shows are adding to his legacy or hurting his reputation?
I think, ultimately, what’s important is that he’s doing it for himself at this point. I think he genuinely enjoys playing — it’s such a profound part of his being, his playing music — and I think it has to be. And as you can get a sense from the article, my actual interview with him was a challenge because he didn’t have his hearing aid in, so it was tough to get some of the answers from him that I might have wanted to get, had we been able to have a conversation that wasn’t compromised by a lack of a hearing aid.
And not to put words in his mouth, but I would think that it’s a joy for him to play and it must be a joy for him to play with his kids. And as well as for them. I think it’s something that they love doing. And nobody can expect an 85 year old man to be able do duck walk like he did when he was in his 30s, right? But I think the fact that he’s doing it, and that he still has passion enough to do it, and he does it in a braver way than most younger bands do, in a sense. They still never have a set list, it’s still a bit of a grab bag in terms of even the band members never know what they’re going to get. But obviously his performance or energy is going to change over the years. But no, I wouldn’t say that he’s hurting his reputation.
Whenever people are talking about did Chuck or didn’t he invent rock in roll — you mentioned this in your article — that the argument pretty much comes down to Chuck Berry and Ike Turner. And as a St. Louisan, that makes me super happy because as I see it either way I win — because we claim Ike as ours. I just think those two in particular are very interesting. I was glad to see Ike in there because they are both guys who are known not just for their music but for their possibly-not-so-good personal lives. I just think that they’re both fascinating characters.
Yes, they are. And who know if it’s mellowing with age or whatever, but he [Chuck] certainly was extremely nice and gracious with me. And I had no clue how… I’d obviously read a lot a seen a lot of stuff [laughs] about his previous encounters with journalists.
You brought a knife just in case…
Exactly, yeah! But he was disarming in that sense. He was easy to talk to but he just, unfortunately, couldn’t hear everything I was saying.
On stage he seems like every other sort-of winking dirty old man that I’ve ever met in my life. And I’m into that, that’s fine.
Have you ever gotten up and danced on stage at the end? I assume he does that every show?
Yeah, I haven’t gone up yet, that would make me sort-of nervous to do. But I do intend to freak dance on him one of these days. So did you have any other cool observations that you couldn’t fit into your article?
You know… I do have a feeling that like a lot of people of his level of fame he kind of avoid interviews and he’s very wary and cautious about the press and the media and all that. But I don’t think that he lives a particularly cloistered life. Like, I remember when I was trying to convince him to let me spend a couple of days following him around– and he turned me down eventually flat out– but also he was like “Oh, I’m not going to be doing anything. I’ve got some storm damage on the house” and he was going to go oversee the contractors who were fixing the roof over his garage and stuff like that. [laughs] So while he’s a very private man and still remains an enigma, I don’t think he leads a very diva-ish life when he’s out of the spotlight, you know what I mean?
But do you think he wears the sparkle shirts at home?
- link: Riverfront Times