Chuck Berry Gets a Loving Goodbye from the City He Always Called Home
By Jaime Lees
Mon, Apr 10, 2017
It is impossible to overstate the significance of Chuck Edward Anderson Berry. He’s been frequently credited with inventing the entire genre of rock & roll music, but his influence reached much further than the radio. His existence changed the world.
Berry was the ultimate cultural icon. No other figure in the history of modern music has had such a lasting, measurable impact. And as a native and proud St. Louisan, Berry has always held an extra-special place in the heart of locals. Chuck Berry, you see, belonged to us. He was the embodiment of all that is magical and special about St. Louis culture, and when he died last month, a huge part of our history died along with him.
It took a few weeks to put together, but Berry’s family planned a wonderful series of events to celebrate his life. Chuck loved an audience, and this entire past weekend was set up so that fans could participate in saying goodbye. There was a toast held outside on Delmar Boulevard on Saturday night, followed by a viewing of Berry’s body on Sunday morning at the Pageant that was open to the public.
The private service for the family was scheduled to commence immediately after the public viewing, and the Berry family gave out passes to the private service to three hundred members of the public who queued up excitedly in the hopes of witnessing this historic event. It was a generous offering to many of Chuck’s biggest longtime fans.
Some of those fans had been waiting outside the Pageant since 5 a.m., when the line for the viewing started. There was a steady stream of mourners all morning, but most just popped in for a minute or two, paid their respects and then left. There was never a long, intolerable line to get into the viewing. In fact, for most of the day visitors could pretty much just walk right in.
Many fans who expected the process to take longer spent the rest of their day hanging around outside the venue, enjoying the breezy weather while trading their favorite Berry stories. The majority of these fans had managed to see Berry play live, something that all agreed was a special event.
In a live music setting, Chuck Berry could not be beat. He played a monthly show at Blueberry Hill’s tiny basement venue, the Duck Room, well into his ’80s. Though those shows got progressively looser over the years, Berry made up for his slipping technical abilities by piling on the charisma. He stood there and smiled and the entire crowd smiled back, overjoyed just to be in the same room as him.
And though he was always untouchable on stage, Berry’s behavior off stage was more than troublesome. To put it simply: Chuck Berry was not always a hero. He had a long and documented history of assaulting women and this fact did not go unaddressed on the day of his service. A small group of protesters held up signs outside of the entrance to the Pageant to remind visitors of the darker side of his history.
But inside the venue, it was all love. Berry’s body was laid out tastefully and the room was beautifully decorated and lit. A parade of speakers took the stage to sing Berry’s praises. Many of them took the time to mention that Berry was a civil rights icon: What Berry did with music helped people to cross racial divides out in the streets. White audiences who might not have otherwise embraced a black musician were helpless to resist the power of Berry’s guitar.
Gene Simmons of KISS was a surprise speaker at the service. He was hiding out in the back and looked properly devastated before being asked to say a few words. His impromptu speech was one of the best of the entire event; he told the audience about his own past as a young immigrant to the United States and about how Berry and his music helped to bring people together.
“It’s a sad day, but I think it’s a happy time. Look at the legacy,” Simmons said. “He broke down the barriers and made all kinds of people’s hearts and minds open up to the idea that we all belong to the same people.”
Another crowd favorite was Marshall Chess, son of Leonard Chess of Chess Records. He’s an engaging, delightful storyteller and his charm was on full display. But the speech of the day, appropriately, came from Charles Berry Jr. He was funny, sincere and remarkably composed, given the circumstances. He explained that his father was his hero and that he felt honored to be able to learn from the master. He said that many people taught him how to be a musician, but that his father taught him how to be a man.
Charles Berry Jr. thanked his many friends and family members in attendance and then, in a remarkable display of midwestern hospitality, he took a moment to address the public, who had been seated in the balcony area. He looked up and said, “You’re my friends now, too, because you’re here with me.”
During this moment, and when Berry’s clearly heartbroken grandchildren performed (“We are doing this in remembrance of our grandfather, and for the joy of our grandmother”), the crowd always acted respectfully, seeming to realize that though it looked like a state funeral and the deceased was a world-renowned celebrity, this was absolutely a personal family event.
The entire service was overwhelmingly and impressively touching. There were musical performances from Marlissa Hudson, Dwayne Buggs, Johnny Rivers and Billy Peek. Outside after the service, the Funky Butt Brass Band played a devastating rendition of “St. Louis Blues” as the coffin was loaded into the hearse. (Little Richard had also been scheduled to attend and sing a gospel song, but he had fallen ill and couldn’t make it.) Near the end of the service, condolence letters from Bill Clinton, Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones and St. Louis mayor Francis Slay were read to the crowd. Slay’s proclamation was read by new mayor-elect Lyda Krewson, and it praised Berry for always sticking close to home.
Legendary local bluesman Mat Wilson is a huge fan of Berry and attended every event this weekend that honored his hero, including the public toast and moment of silence held at Berry’s Walk of Fame star outside Blueberry Hill on Saturday night. A scholar of American music with a special interest in regional history, Wilson praises Berry easily and enthusiastically.
“My band, the Loot Rock Gang, got to open for Chuck, and I also had a chance to open for Chuck playing guitar for my wife, Little Rachel,” Wilson says. “It was quite the honor. Chuck is the grandfather of rock & roll and I think it was really special to have him here in our neighborhood. He’s the originator. It’s not to be taken lightly that the originator of rock & roll came from our own town.”
Echoing this sentiment, St. Louis native and real life guitar hero Richard Fortus (Guns ‘N’ Roses, Love Spit Love, Thin Lizzy, Pale Divine) also stopped into Berry’s viewing on Sunday afternoon to pay his respects.
Fortus said, “For me, this was a big part of my growing up, being from St. Louis. Not only his music, but his persona. The early videos for me were huge: seeing Chuck Berry on TV and what an enigmatic performer he was. I remember playing down on the Landing when I was a kid and him coming in and grabbing a guitar and yelling at people if they didn’t know his songs. It was awesome.
“It was special, growing up in St. Louis and knowing that he was part of the lineage,” he added. “He’s one of the biggest parts in the history of rock & roll.”
The Funky Butt Brass Band plays Chuck out:
link: Riverfront Times
Legs McNeil became one of my favorite authors when I first read his Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk as a young teen. Even if you don’t own the book, you’ve undoubtedly seen its ransom-note-styled spine on the bookshelf of your music-loving friend. It’s an assertion that’s been made by others many times before, but I’ll say it here one more time: Please Kill Me is the definitive account of the early New York punk scene. (Trust me, I’ve read them all.)
But McNeil’s pedigree far precedes my birth. He has many professional accomplishments under his belt, but he’s probably best known as the cofounder of Punk Magazine, a New York-based pop-culture magazine famous for documenting the CBGB scene in the 1970s. (Through this, McNeil is also frequently credited with popularizing the word “punk” as we know it.)
Exactly a year ago this week, McNeil came through town on a book-reading tour, and I arranged for him and his beautiful, kind-souled assistant to stay with me. (I came in contact with him a few years back when he interviewed me for an upcoming book.) His St. Louis tour stop was set up at the Silver Ballroom, the friendly punk-rock pinball joint. He did his reading there, gave a great interview at KDHX and in between we basically spent a few days hanging out on my porch and drinking tea while McNeil gamely entertained any of my friends who stopped by with delicious insider tales of Patti Smith, Blondie, the Stooges and all of the rest of our favorite artists.
I texted McNeil a couple of days before his arrival and asked if he wanted to see Chuck Berry while he was here. He replied with an immediate “FUCK YES,” and my wonderful friend Jim got in touch with Joe Edwards and they got us hooked up with tickets to see Berry play his monthly gig at Blueberry Hill’s Duck Room. As a proud St. Louis native, I’m always glad when I get to take out-of-towners to see our rock & roll legend in that super-intimate room. McNeil was as impressed by Berry as I was with him, calling him an “original punk.” We stopped for touristy photos at the Berry statue on Delmar Boulevard on the way home.
That night, after thoroughly inspecting my bookcases, McNeil said, “You’re really going to like my next book.” He was right.
Here’s the back-story on the book: McNeil lives in a small down in Pennsylvania and is friends with the man who runs the post office across the street from his house. One day this man’s daughter came by his house to borrow a book, and when McNeil asked her what she’d been reading, she said that the best thing that she’d read lately was a diary written by her best friend’s older sister, Mary Rose, who had died.
McNeil was intrigued. He arranged to meet the girl’s mother, read the journal, and they decided to publish it. Because Mary Rose died when she was a minor, the journal was considered part of her estate and thereby controlled by both of her parents. According to McNeil, Mary Rose’s father was a creep who never paid child support and showed little interest in his child unless he thought he could profit off of her. McNeil and Mary Rose’s mother took him to court to gain control of the publication rights. Six years, four judges and $50,000 later, the diary was finally theirs to publish.
Dear Nobody: The True Story of Mary Rose arrived in the mail at my house last week and, honestly, I didn’t want to put it down. I blew through all 330 pages in two sittings. It’s a fast read and compelling. Mary Rose was resilient, confused, troubled and brave. She wrote about everything she experienced in her young life, from boy troubles to new hair styles to family problems and chronic disease.
At times, I identified so much with Mary Rose’s troubles I worried that I am immature. But Mary Rose’s teenage fretting, lostness and bravery in the face of pain and illness is something that any reader can identify with from time to time. Her words express the kind of deep truths that can only be written in a private journal.
I called McNeil over the weekend to interview him about this new book and about Mary Rose. In the interview he is his usual blend of smart, curmudgeonly and kind.
Jaime Lees: Tell me what drew you to the story of Mary Rose.
Legs McNeil: Nonfiction stuff is just gripping to me, you know. Also, when I read Go Ask Alice I knew it was fake. Even when I found out that the editor had kind of made it up, before that I knew that it was fraudulent. Because no one used the slang that they used in that book. I’d never heard anyone use it. It really pissed me off for some reason, probably because they sold it as a true diary. I don’t know. It just made me furious that they confused everyone. So I’d always been kind of looking for the real Go Ask Alice, and I think I found it in Dear Nobody.
Did you follow the A Million Little Pieces scandal? Do you remember that one, from like, six or seven years back?
Yeah, and what was the one with… the [J.T.] LeRoy book? Yeah, that just seemed like more bullshit, you know.
Yeah, I’d rather read true things any day. But I think I’m weird like that. I think you’re weird like that, too.
You know, you can tell when something is authentic or not. And I think that’s part of what’s great about Mary Rose, is that there’s no doubt about the authenticity. Also, we’re posting original pages from the journals so people know that it’s not another fraudulent literally scandal.
Tell me about the legal issues you had in getting the book published.
Oh, that was a nightmare. In about 2009 when we were going to go out to sell it — after we’d spent a year and a half editing it — our New York lawyer said that because she was a minor when she died that her parents inherited her estate. When a minor dies, the parents automatically inherit the person’s estate. So that meant her deadbeat dad was entitled to half of the money from the mother’s share. And he was really…I mean…this guy was an asshole. I just felt like he wasn’t entitled to anything. So we went to court to open the estate and have him removed as the beneficiary. And that took four and a half years, because no male judge wanted to make a ruling on it, so they passed it to the next judge because they didn’t want it to be overturned in a higher court. I don’t think they knew what the fuck was going on, you know?
It was really frustrating. And it wasn’t until we got a female judge who understood and who ruled on it when we went to court. And I knew the father was a deadbeat asshole, but I didn’t realize how much of a deadbeat asshole he was until the mom testified in court. He wanted to pull [Mary Rose] off life support the week before she died so he could collect on the insurance policy he took out on her. He’s just a scumbag, you know?
So, what do you think is the most interesting part of the Mary Rose story?
Hmm. That’s a good question. I think…she can be so profound one moment and so bratty and just an asshole the next. The main contradiction with her seems to be adolescence, you know? That roller-coaster ride of emotion and mood swings. You know [she wrote things like], “I love him. I love him. I love him. I hate him. I hate him. I hate him.”
I can relate.
[Laughs] Yeah! She just seemed to capture all of those dumb mistakes. She gets high, and she wakes up in the hospital, and they throw her in detention or wherever. I could relate to those fuckups, you know?
When you came across the story, you already knew the ending and you knew that she had died. What if you came across this journal and she hadn’t died? Like, what if you knew her as an adult and she gave you this diary? Is it as interesting to you then?
See, I don’t know. I think I was attracted to it because I knew she had died. It wasn’t until I really read it and realized how shitty this girl’s life was that it really affected me. I think I was just thinking about it superficially when I heard about it, but when I read it and could see all of the pain and torment that this girl went through…it was just shocking.
Yeah, and it wasn’t just that she died, it’s that she knew she was going to die. So she sort of has that hanging over her head the whole time.
Yeah. Impending doom. So, you kind of don’t blame all of her stupid choices. You think about “Well, what the fuck would I have done?” Probably something very similar.
Or worse, even! So, Mary Rose wrote that she liked Nirvana, but what other music did she like? Do you know?
Well, in the actual journals she had all the bands names that she loved, like Hole, Nirvana, Pavement. Who else was in there? She liked those Bikini Kill kind of things. You know, those grrr grrr…
The Riot Grrrls?
Yeah, in the ’90s. I think the book takes place between 1996 and 1999.
Yeah, that’s about the right time period.
Oh and L7, I think, she was into. She had really good taste in music.
She also kept describing that her hair color would change.
[Laughs] Yeah, I know.
Do you have any pictures of her? Or do you know what she looked like?
No, in fact, I refused to look at any pictures of her while we were editing. Because I didn’t want to be swayed by it. I’ve only seen one picture of her.
Are people trying to give you stuff of hers now? Have you become the caretaker of her legacy?
No, no her mom is the caretaker of her legacy. No, I don’t think I’d want that responsibility.
Does this book make you more interested in teenage-girl diaries? Did it change your taste in things that you might find fascinating?
A lot of girls have said to me, “Wow, you should have read my diary.” And I say, “Well, let me read it.” And they say, “I destroyed it.” Or they lost them. And that’s something that is kind of tragic. But I’ve always been kind of interested in teenage writing. I mean, that’s what Please Kill Me is.
It’s teenage writing?
[Laughs] Well, it’s very emotionally retarded. It’s also very smart, like Dear Nobody. But at some point we’re all stupid. Like when Cheetah Chrome throws the guinea pigs out the window, you know? It’s just like, “What are you doing?”
Yeah, there are some adolescent tales in there, that’s for sure.
But you know what? When I was a kid — and I have them all now on the bookshelf right next to my desk — I have all of these gang books from the ’60s. Like Run Baby Run and Down These Mean Streets, and that’s kind of what Please Kill Me was based on. These gang books. I always wanted to be in a gang. I grew up in the suburbs where the only gang of kids were, like, toddlers riding in big wheels. So I always liked the city. And hanging out on fire escapes and smoking cigarettes was always very romantic to me.
Well, you did it!
Yeah! When we did Punk Magazine I did a lot of that, but it was more hanging out on stoops and drinking beer. Talking to girls as they walk by and stuff like that. It was fun. I tried to live out those books, but I was too much of a wimp to join a gang.
Was it as great as you thought it would be? Sitting around on stoops and hollering at girls?
Yeah! And drinking beer! And smoking cigarettes!
Speaking of, when you were here you saw Chuck Berry. Can you tell me about that?
Oh, it was great! I really wanted to see Chuck. I mean, he couldn’t really remember the words, but it was so much fun just to be in the same room with the guy when he’s playing, you know? And he was fuckin’ ancient, wasn’t he?
He’s ancient plus a year, because that was a year ago this week.
Was it? This week? You know, it’s like Chuck Berry will never die. Ever. Even when he physically dies, he will never die.
Well, that’s sort of what you did for Mary Rose, too.
Oh, who knows? It will probably come out and nobody will read it…
Oh, shut up. Now tell me, do you often see bands when you’re out on book tours? What’s your musical intake?
I’m really into garage bands from the ’60s. So over the summer I’m going to try to see a lot of garage bands. I’m going to see the Standells. They’re touring, actually. Their tour starts now. I just want to see them do “Dirty Water” live, you know? And I’ve been buying a lot of records these days. Vinyl is back!
Dear Nobody is available now at Barnes & Noble and other retailers.
link: Riverfront Times
link: OC Weekly
Chuck Berry Given Lifetime Achievement Award: “It’s Beyond My Dreams to be Here this Long, Really.”
By Jaime Lees
Tue., Jan. 22 2013 at 4:17 PM
Last night the Arts and Education Council kicked off its 50th anniversary year with a ceremony to honor various contributors to arts and culture in St. Louis. The event was held in the beautiful Chase Park Plaza ballroom with a whole big ceiling full of modern sputnik chandeliers. The floor was filled with tables set for dinner and there were large screens flanking the stage with clear graphics and a high-quality feed of what was happening on the stage.
It was clearly a rich people event (with tons of gorgeous quilted Chanel purses in attendance), but it wasn’t stuffy. These are rich people who are supporters of the arts, after all. The hosts of the evening manged to be warm and light-hearted while still stressing the importance of arts and art education. They presented a brief history of St. Louis and the arts, commemorating the opening of the Fox and the Black Rep, the founding of COCA and the recent renovation of the public library downtown, among others.
The gravity of this ceremony being held on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was not lost on anyone in the room, least of all the organizers. They took a minute to honor Dr. King at the very beginning of the ceremony, even before thanking their sponsors. Classy.
After the initial formalities and with apologies to the other honorees, announcer and Fox2 news anchor Kevin Steincross acknowledged that Berry was the true star of the event and the Chuck portion of the night began. Steincross introduced a video that included many knowledgeable talking heads, including Berry bestie Joe Edwards, who explained Berry’s cultural significance and historical role in bringing all people and races together with the power of music.
As the video closed, Berry was called onstage to thunderous applause. A few minutes before he was just a regular guy who seemed way into eating his steak, but if you give Berry a microphone an stage, he comes alive. His charm and charisma are irresistible, and it’s impossible not to smile if he’s smiling.
As the applause faded, Berry stood behind the podium, looked out on the audience, flashed that contagious smile and then kicked out his leg and made an exclamatory noise that can only be described as the sound made by Charlie the Unicorn.
His acceptance speech was bittersweet and very, very short (“It’s beyond my dreams to be here this long, really.”), but he’s Chuck fucking Berry, he can do what he wants and we will gladly take whatever he chooses to give us.
Following the award presentation, legendary St. Louis blues guitarist Billy Peek led a band in a performance of Berry’s best-known songs. Peek has an impressive musical history, including touring with Berry. (And he’s a dude from the South Side, so we will forgive him for his involvement with Rod Stewart.) Peek played inspired renditions of “Maybellene,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Sweet Little Sixteen” and “Johnny B. Goode.” He even imitated Berry’s signature stage moves, including the Duck Walk. (And who was Peek’s bass player? He was phenomenal.)
During the performance, many audience members stood up at their tables and commenced to boogie, proving that not only are Berry’s songs irresistible even when performed by others, but that offering a free cocktail hour before any event is always a good idea. It’s safe to say that good times were had by all.
St. Louis is a weird and magical place, but sometimes our collective inferiority complex is silly to the point of being obnoxious. St. Louis is strong and interesting and thriving, just ask the Arts and Education Council. And if anyone steps to your civic pride with claims of lack of culture or significance, just remind them that we made Chuck Berry, goddammit, and he made rock and roll. Argument won.
Here is the Painting Sinead O’Connor Gave to the Prophet Chuck Berry on Monday
By Jaime Lees
Wed., Oct. 10 2012 at 11:05 AM
A favorite topic here at RFT Music, Miss Sinéad O’Connor wrote a blog post on her website about a recent visit to St. Louis to meet Chuck Berry.
Her blog lovingly describes both our city and our rock & roll daddy. We contacted her and asked her if we could quote from her blog (she requests that you not in the fine print) and she was kind enough to let us share some of her thoughts with you. She also sent us pictures of the, as she describes it, “scriptural writing/painting things” that she made for Mr. Berry in the bathroom of her room at the Moonrise Hotel.
Some of the key passages from her post about St. Louis:
Chuck Berry is a man who was born into segregation and racism and chose to transcend both using music, in the most loving, affectionate and amusing ways possible, lyrically speaking. And with his big brotherly personality… You watch him on you tube. Live, London 1972, playing ‘My Ding-A-Ling”.. and you realize God sent this man to show everyone music is the thing that smashes all segregations of any kind.
he created the thing that gave life to all of us the world over.. ‘Rock n Roll’. Without which I, along with most of the human race, would be either dead, in jail, unemployable, or in the nut house.
I hope to spend lots more time in St Louis as its always been my favorite part of America because it seems its the most ‘African American’ run town i’ve ever been in. Consequently its fun, full of music, and righteousness of an artistic nature.
everywhere u go u see Chuck. So proud they are, rightly, of their most famous citizen.
We encourage you to read her thoughts in full here. It’s lucid and sweet and provides an amazing outsider view on our fine city. O’Connor sees a lot of the town, too, visiting the Moonrise, Blueberry Hill, Killer Vintage guitars, etc. Apparently, she was here as recently as yesterday. Don’t leave yet, Sinéad! There’s lots more to see! Let’s go see the City Museum and the Arch and the Zoo and KDHX and Crown Candy and Forest Park and we will eat toasted ravioli and provel cheese and gooey butter cake and we will show you cool local bands! Holla!
link: Riverfront Times
Why You Should Go See Chuck Berry As Soon As Humanly Possible
By Jaime Lees
Fri., Dec. 30 2011 at 12:35 PM
One year ago this week Chuck Berry collapsed on stage in Chicago. It was a call to action for many people who had been slacking on seeing his live show at Blueberry Hill.
As residents of this city, it’s hard to get perspective on just how amazing it is that Chuck Berry, the dude who probably invented rock and roll, plays here monthly. And that tickets– while they need to be bought in advance– are mega cheap, relatively.
We don’t want you to miss out on this opportunity so let’s go over some of the reasons that you, St. Louisan, shouldn’t wait any longer to go see the legend in action.
Well, he’s Chuck. Fucking. Berry.
Yes, he’s older now. No, he can’t duck walk for miles at a time. Sure, sometimes he loses his place when playing his songs. But give the dude a break- he’s 85 years old! It’s endearing when he sometimes forgets a line. And chances are that Berry at his worst is still better than you at your best, so put down the Haterade.
Okay, it’s true that he has a sketchy past. He’s been described as scary, intimidating, violent and creepy. He’s been accused of some things that are beyond unsavory. (I’m not even talking about the legendary “sandwich” story, either.)
But he seems to have mellowed. And his musical legacy is still inarguable. As far as history is concerned, he is king. And if Chuck Berry wants to watch me tinkle… well he can, goshdarnit.
He’s an international treasure.
I lived in London for a bit and whenever people asked me where I was from and I said “St. Louis” they immediately said “Chuck Berry!” This happened every time.
The things Europeans knew about St. Louis, in order, were: 1) Chuck Berry 2) East St. Louis and 3) The Gateway Arch.
Kevin O’Connor of STL’s 7 Shot Screamers had a similar experience:
“My singer Mike Leahy and I visited London in fall of 2000. Even though we were both underage by American standards we were of drinking age over there. One night we stumbled upon a place in North London called the Elephant’s Head where, coincidentally, they were having rockabilly/R&B record spin. The local teddy boys in the bar recognized we were from the states and asked us from which part. When we said “St. Louis” they instantly said “Chuck Berry.” That right there was rock and roll diplomacy at its finest. Instant friendship and several pints bought…”
He won’t be around forever.
Music legends are dropping all over the place. Just this month it was Hubert Sumlin. And on the first of this year, we thought Chuck Berry might expire, too.
My sister was at the now infamous Berry show at the Congress Theater in Chicago when he collapsed on stage. She said:
“He was yelling at the other musicians on stage. And then he started slumping over when he was playing his piano. And then people started to assist them and he kept shooing them off, as if they were annoying him. Then it got to the point to where the backup musicians stopped playing the little loop that they were playing. There was a younger lady assistant who came out and she helped him off the stage and he walked off and we call clapped. Then we sat around for about fifteen minutes. My friends and I moved spots to get a better seat because pretty much half of the auditorium left. And then he came back on and basically said thank you for a long time and then he left… I thought he was going to die. I totally thought that I saw the last Chuck Berry show.”
This is something that lots of people wish they could do.
People from all over the world save up for years, spend their life savings or dip into their retirement funds just for the opportunity to travel to the States once to see Chuck Berry play. Each show is full of international travelers and usually more than one celebrity attendee. (I even met Mike Mills of R.E.M. after a Berry show once. He was nice.)
I have a friend who works at Blueberry Hill and has seen Chuck Berry play countless times. One night he bought his dad tickets to the show as a gift. After the show was over, his beaming pops made a declaration that has stuck with him years later: “That was amazing! It was so great to see him real life! Man, John Lennon would have sucked his dick!”
My friend said that it took hearing his dad’s crass remark for him to fully realize what an impact that Chuck Berry has had on everyone, including other legends.
So go see Chuck. And if he asks if you want to share a sandwich, say yes.
- link: Riverfront Times
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