A part of The Lavish Rebellion Journal’s Look Back at 1987 in 2017 series
Chuck Berry died at the “life-well-lived” age of 90 years old on Saturday, March 18, 2017. His name evokes idolatry to most people. Arguably, most people know of him because of his legend and not his illustrious rock ‘n roll catalog. A genre in which he was regarded as a father and pioneer of by the 1980s.
The tracks at the top of his greatest hits include “Maybellene”, “Roll Over Beethoven”, and of course “Johnny B. Goode”, later given the classics treatment in 1985’s Back to the Future. Michael J. Fox’s character Marty McFly performed the song with as much zest as someone mimicking the soda fountain rock grandeur of yesteryear could at a prom musical act.
To audiences worldwide, Berry was an effortless guitar hero, but his life, from the baseline of his youth, was rife with controversies. He was arrested multiple times and experienced long-term jail sentences thrice. Born Charles Edward Anderson Berry on October 18, 1926, (he was born and died on the 18th day of October and March, respectively) traditionally happy moments managed to be part of his young adulthood. In 1948, he married Themetta Suggs and the birth of his first child, Darlin, was in October 1950. After a number of bar and house gigs, he signed to Chicago’s R&B label Chess Records and it was then he gradually joined the class of not just burgeoning American rock music, but the legion of African-American talent leading and influencing this electrifying beat such as Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, and Little Richard. Underrated music deity T-Bone Walker had laid the foundation years before.
Berry’s “duck walk” guitar playing, meticulous skill on the instrument, and just high-strung enough vocals were a no-brainer, for a hit, when matched with a great song. He was geared for continued success into the 1960s, but increased erratic behavior onstage and off impacted his career and personal life. While regarded as an icon (he was also quite the poetic rocker who had fun with words. Check out this great breakdown by CityPages), his musical givings were spotty. He nonetheless delivered some great performances in the 1970s, such as his appearance once Soul Train in 1973, and greatly influenced 20th-century touchstones of music like The Rolling Stones and The Beatles. In 1963, The Beach Boys ripped off his “Sweet Little Sixteen” in their song “Surfin’ USA” and were eventually made to pay royalties to Berry and include him in the songwriting credits.
“Diabolical” was the highlighted word of choice for filmmaker Taylor Hackford, who penned a tribute to Berry, his one-time star subject for the documentary and concert film Chuck Berry Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n Roll released in 1987. That year and 1986 were professionally good to Berry. In ’86, he was one of the first inductees of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and filmed Hail! Hail as a part of the commemoration of his 60th birthday. In ’87, he released his memoir The Autobiography, was present for the unveiling of Hollywood Walk of Fame star in September, and that October Hail! Hail! debuted.
When Hackford used the word “diabolical” in his letter, caveats of “You had to be there to get it” were present in tone. The later Academy Award-nominee, for the biopic Ray, confirmed that sometimes working with Berry was (in hindsight) laughably abysmal.
Chuck was more difficult than any movie star I’ve ever worked with. More complicated, more difficult, more diabolical. Diabolical is a fitting term. At the same time, I totally loved him.
I had six days to make the entire movie work, including the concert. The first day, I wanted to interview Chuck in the Cosmo Club in East St. Louis, Ill. — the first club he played in. I said, “I’ll send a car for you. He said, “Nobody drives Chuck Berry except Chuck Berry.” I said I wanted to start at 7 in the morning, and he said, “No problem, I’ll be there.”
We get the crew there, we’re all set. This is a documentary and I don’t have much money and I need every precious second. At 7 o’clock, no Chuck Berry. At 7:30, 8 o’clock, no Chuck Berry. I got worried because he was very prompt. I called his assistant. She said, “Chuck left at 5:30 this morning.” So we wait.
Why is that all greats of art seem to carry the juxtaposed gene of brilliant yet suffocating? Creative but infuriating? Coming across comments like Hackford, and more from fellow admirers like Bruce Springsteen, reminded me of recollections of Prince, following his death last year at age of 57, a fact still hard to accept. Bandmates from The Revolution to the New Power Generation and music journalists praised the artist and acclaimed guitarist for his determined desire to be a one-man show of music production, unabashed expression of sexuality and style, and songwriting. But there was also an acknowledgment that The Purple One was verbally cutting or didn’t bother to participate at all in interviews, and issued perfectionist demands regularly to his bandmates.
In watching clips of Hail! Hail! available on YouTube (I desperately tried to find a full movie version that would play), I witnessed a man that recognized he had reaped many the fruits of his labor but wasn’t done. He still wanted to rock, even if he duck-walked a bit slower at 61 than at 30. His voice was calm like a stream and ripened with stories, a lot of which he shared while going through pictures in a photo album in the film. He didn’t sound like the type of guy that would make questionable decisions and display foolish behavior, episodic scourges in his life at that point. He appeared humble that his work was chosen as emblematic of what is rock ‘n roll music was to a generation and beyond.
I bet that Chuck Berry was a difficult man. But what he gave in return was unmitigated greatness. A kind of greatness that can certainly be practiced at, but birthed from a kind of unique passion from within. Still performing years after 1987, including inauguration celebrations for both of Bill Clinton‘s presidencies, to quote ’80s and ’90s R&B champion and current CEO of Epic Records, L.A. Reid: “What a great life in music.” Rock on. (Be sure to read Night Flight‘s piece on Berry here).