Chuck Berry talks music, race and his ‘difficult’ reputation – Los Angeles Times
He dislikes encores, saying he prefers to put his “all” into the show itself. Through it all, Berry felt no need to explain himself – though he admits the back-up bands were sometimes ragged. His only obligation, he felt, was to live up to the contract. To him, it was never bitterness or indifference, only business.
Berry is co-producer (with Stephanie Bennett) of the film, but it doesn’t mean it is a glossy portrait of him. He gets in a heated exchange with Keith Richards during a rehearsal sequence, telling Richards that he is going to do it his way – not Richards’– because his way has worked for 60 years. He talks repeatedly about music in terms of the money, not art.
During the interview at the Blueberry Hill, Berry smiles when asked about art.
“(To me, art) was drawing,” he replies. “To sing was not art. In fact, I first heard the word artist (applied to music) when they said, ‘The artist go in here.’ To me, that meant the painters go in here. That was my sense of it. I grew up thinking art was pictures until I got into music and found I was an artist and didn’t paint.”
Facing the Prejudice
Big-band music wasn’t all that Berry liked in the ’40s and ’50s. He was also a big fan of blues singer Muddy Waters, and he listened a lot to country music. His own music would seem much closer to those styles than to big-band music. Still, the big-band singers hold a special place in his heart.
Here are excepts from the interview with Berry (some of the questions have been revised to better reflect the flow of the conversation):
Teenagers in the ’50s saw your music as a revolt against the Big Band Era, which seemed so formal, so less spontaneous and real.
“That’s because of the lyrics. The lyrics (of the big-band songs) were not today, not right now (like rock ‘n’ roll). Everybody went to school. I directed my music to the teenagers. I was 30 years old when I did ‘Maybellene.’ My school days had long been over when I did ‘School Day,’ but I was thinking of them. (Teenagers) were the ones I was singing to, so why not sing lyrics of their life?”
Most people thought rock was just a passing fad. Did you think your career might be over quickly?
Oh yes, I can give you an example. Tim Gayle at Gayle Agency told me (after “Maybellene”): ‘You can ride on this three years.’ You play the big cities, then the middle cities, then go overseas. … But I came up with another hit six months later, so (I figured) that this is three and a half years now. Then, I had another hit, so it was four years. I could see myself having a house by then.”
You were very frank in the book about some relationships with other women over the years. Did your wife feel uncomfortable about some of the things you wrote in the book?
“This wife of mine. I don’t even care to talk about it too much because it is not anybody’s affair, but this woman I married once and for all. My father married once. I married once. This is a conviction of ours. This is the way we grew up. Nobody can bring us apart. …
“We lived in the basement of our first home in order to rent out the upstairs. We came up together and sacrificed. I slept in the Hertz cars when I didn’t have but four hours before catching the morning plane, going from gig to gig rather than pay $18 to Holiday Inn. This was when I was making a $100, $150, $125 a night. I’d sleep in the car and the security at the airport would tap on the window when he came to work so I wouldn’t miss my plane.”
A lot of black performers were bitter about the discrimination they experienced, especially in the South, during the early tours. You don’t seem to share that anger.
“No, I saw why (there was prejudice). Before I even went (into) music, I knew black people made bread for white people with their black hands, but to go and touch a white woman … on the arm was forbidden, taboo. These were the things that intrigued me. Why do you eat out of my hands, but do not want me to pat you on the back? (I saw it was) a tradition … a belief that (the whites) had.”
Elvis and you were the most important of the early rock stars, but Elvis, being white, got much more media exposure. Did you feel cheated?
“Again, I knew why. Television stations were owned by whites. … Besides, I never saw we were rivals. …”
But didn’t it seem unfair?
“No, it is not unfair that six people have on gray suits and I have on a blue suit or it’s not unfair that seven people are eating turkey and I chose to have chili or whatever. That’s what it was. More people chose his music than chose mine … or my records.
“There were so many avenues that lead up to that . . . tradition, acceptance. It is more comfortable to be around your own than a foreign element. All this had to do with it (and I could see it). Now who is going to change all of that … tradition … just to sell a record. …”
How about the money? Did you feel cheated the way a lot of other ’50s artists do?
“I keep thinking about the positive side. … I’d say, ‘Look how much money I made from writing my songs and singing them, both of which I like to do.’ … I remember the Rolling Stones getting $50,000 in Miami on the ‘Ed Sullivan Show’ and I was making $500 a night and they were playing my song … but (I thought) about the $500 that was coming every night. In 100 nights, I’d have $50,000.”
What’s your view of the Mann Act conviction?
“A lot of extenuating circumstances go along with it. One, I had a nightclub in St. Louis that was predominately catered to by the white populace of St Louis … and shortly before that whites weren’t allowed into the Fox (movie theater), which was just two blocks away. Now here you’ve got what they called a mixed racial club that was catered to by whites … and here, down the street we just are trying to see what it is like to let blacks in the Fox.
“(You could picture people saying) ‘Now this is going too fast, let’s shut the club down … (and) in order to shut the club down, you have to (shut the owner down). That wasn’t the only thing that happened – getting me into jail from the Mann Act. Many things happened. They made us paint the walls, fix the pipes … made us do all kinds of fire protection. But I knew why. I wasn’t wanted on Grand Avenue. I was the instigator.”
(Berry writes in the book that he met a woman in Juarez and brought her back to St. Louis to be a hostess in his club, but the woman, who told him she was 21, turned out to be a teenager.)
Let’s talk about your honors again. Isn’t it gratifying to walk into a place like this and see your pictures on the wall and your guitar in the display case, and to think how much your music has meant to people over the years?