Talk about Newsnight


In search of Chuck Berry

  • Stephen Smith
  • 11 Oct 06, 05:06 PM

chuck_duck203300.jpgTo many, he's the king of rock 'n' roll. He's also its first outlaw.

Chuck Berry, the original hip gunslinger of the guitar, turns 80 next week (18 October) and axe-fancying Newsnight supremo Peter Barron sent me to St Louis, Missouri, in search of the great man. But Chuck's reputation goes before him and we knew we wouldn't get him on a plate. He is possibly the least biddable man in showbusiness - no mean distinction. Allow me to direct you to the excellent Berry rockumentary, Hail, Hail Rock 'n' Roll, in which the guitarist has a full-scale stand-up row with Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones over how to set an amp. It's not often that Keef makes you feel protective towards him but he has your sympathy here, as he patiently explains to his hero that turning the thrashed Marshall stack up to 11 is all well and good for putting Chuck in the moment but won't be so pleasing on the ear of posterity.

Watch Steve Smith’s search for Chuck Berry here

The man responsible for influencing the Stones and the Beatles, as well as up-and-coming players such as Mercury Prize nominee Richard Hawley, also has some jail time on his resume. Chuck's been busted for exotic offences including 'transporting a minor across a state line' and turned against the Press when, in his view, they began mis-reporting him. He wrote his autobiography twenty odd years ago and prospective interviewers are invited to leaf through its pages for the answers they seek.

The soon-to-be octogenarian lives quietly at his estate, Berry Park, outside St Louis, where his chief recreation is mowing his many acres on a tractor. His family say the only devilry he gets up to behind a wheel these days involves sculpting crop circles into the greensward. Berry Park was conceived by Chuck as his riposte to the whites-only country clubs from which he was excluded when he was growing up in the days of segregation. Alas, the dream of a come-one, come-all resort has not endured. The stylish amenity of a guitar-shaped swimming pool has, we understand, been filled in. And on a marble plaque at the gates to Berry Park, the chiselled legend 'Welcome To…' is now concealed by a strip of gaffer tape.

In vain did I tarry on Chuck's driveway for a glimpse of the man who penned 'Johnny B Goode', 'No Particular Place to Go', 'Roll Over Beethoven' and other rock 'n' roll masterworks. Fruitlessly did I entreat Chuck's charming grown-up children, Chuck Berry Jr and Ingrid Berry, musicians themselves, to put in a good word for me with the old man. They understood that, at the very least, a postcript to Chuck's story was overdue, but they also knew better than me that Daddy was his own man.

chuck203203.jpgOnce a month, they join him on stage at the Blueberry Hill club in St Louis. The pop star who sold millions of records in his pomp plays to 300 or so fans in a subterranean dancehall called the Duck Room, named after Chuck's trademark 'duck walk' step. The Newsnight team finagled front-row seats for his most recent appearance.

Among the many showbusiness legends that surround Chuck Berry is a reputation for an almost supernatural punctuality - and bang on 10 o'clock, the stage was taken by a tall, slightly halting figure in a chemise of silver filigree, a well-worn, not to say, patched-up, electric guitar tucked under his ribs. I wouldn't have described myself as a diehard Berry fan, and that was before I'd dogged him down country roads like the sheriffs and marshalls to whom he once gave the slip. And it would be inaccurate to report that he was word-perfect. He wasn't even song-perfect, more than once embarking on a number that he and the band had decisively seen off, or so you'd thought, much earlier in the evening. But when he realised that he had erred, he made a joke of it, and everybody laughed. Better still, he would disguise the minor slip by uncorking one of his signature, string-bending solos. Not only was this great, in and of itself, but you were reminded that no one else had done this before Chuck Berry did it.

He played for a good hour. After he had formally taken his leave of the platform, leaving the band to their own devices, the air was rent from time to time by his noises off, unmistakeable Berry licks from backstage. Chuck Berry had simply gone into another room, so to speak, but his music was still with us.

He reappeared, slumped on a chair, to sign autographs. I wanted my picture taken with him but he was now baulking at the flare of flash bulbs. 'I'd very much like to talk to you, Chuck,' I said. 'For the BBC.' At the name of this venerable broadcaster, the eyes flickered briefly beneath the yacht-skipper's cap. But 'Talk to Ingrid' was all he would say.

I walked out to the car-lot, in time to catch the old boy driving away in a new sedan at excruciatingly low speed. He wasn't 'motorvatin' over the hill' so much as tortoiseing home to Berry Park. He was indulging his lifelong love of automobiles, while remaining ever vigilant for the wiles of 'the man'.

Comments  Post your comment

  • 1.
  • At 11:28 PM on 11 Oct 2006,
  • Spencer wrote:

Chuck Berry - what a legend, and a timely reminder of what a nonsense these so called MOBO awards are. Music Of Black Origin? Pah! As you have pointed out, Rock music is music of black origin. But is it represented? Of course not. And neither is House, Electro or Techno, all very influencial music genres - the originators of which were all Afro-Americans.

I am white man who loves and enjoys music of all forms, both "black" and "white" and I find the term MOBO quite paradoxical. Especially when you consider that the only true, pure form of "Black" music, Jazz, was excluded from this years awards!

Music is music. Enjoy it.

  • 2.
  • At 11:41 PM on 11 Oct 2006,
  • Neil wrote:

Thanks for doing such a great item about the grand-daddy king of rock and roll. I really enjoyed it.

I didn't know I was a Chuck Berry fan until tonight. Now I must go out and buy his album or download it, at least.

  • 3.
  • At 05:48 PM on 12 Oct 2006,
  • Peter Hughes wrote:

I found the piece about Chuck Berry an utter waste of time. Had I realised that there would be no interview I would not have watched, waiting for an interview. Please don't tease - you may find it amusing, but I did not.

  • 4.
  • At 12:34 PM on 13 Oct 2006,
  • Sonny wrote:

Can I stream the Chuck Berry story online?

  • 5.
  • At 06:16 PM on 13 Oct 2006,
  • irsha wrote:

Thank for doing the piece about the legendary Chuck Berry. It was fantastic. He is quite simply the single most influential figure in the history of rock music

  • 6.
  • At 06:38 PM on 13 Oct 2006,
  • chris wrote:

Thats a good pic of Chuck Berry - no silly cropping

Sonny #4 - yes you can watch Steve Smith's report. The link is now in the above text.

  • 8.
  • At 06:02 AM on 18 Oct 2006,
  • Deepinder Cheema wrote:

Wot no film of Chuck??!

Perhaps he has a belly full of moving images, video cameras and recording tape.

  • 10.
  • At 07:09 PM on 19 Oct 2006,
  • June Gibson wrote:

Seeing the piece on Chuck Berry fair took me back. His single "Sweet Little Sixteen" coincided with me being 16, so it became "my song". I had the pleasure of seeing him live at Wembley footie stadium (from the grass, not far from the stage)in 1979 where there was a reunion of some of the rock n roll stars. He was the closing act. He got the many thousands present to each light up matches. As there were the predictable near accidents, everyone was asked soon after to extuingish the naked lights - which people did for He who Must be Obeyed. It is difficult to think of another artist who could control such a large crowd.

  • 11.
  • At 09:21 AM on 25 Oct 2006,
  • stephen keogh wrote:

For a man who alot of people think is some sort of rock legend I would like to ask them to think about what type of person he was outside his job. Is he then such a legend?

Hello to the fans in the UK and all over the world! My father is now 80 and still Rocking the house everywhere he goes!

From myself, my mother and sisters thanks for all the love shown for my dad's music over the past 54 years. We have loved to share him with the world via his musical contributions.

Not to worry, the BlueBerry Hill shows are a monthly event. Check the website for the BEST place on the planet to see him.

Cheers to Steve Smith for bringing you all this interview of my sister, Joe Edwards, the others and myself.

Watch out, before you know it my father will be in your own to rock the house out!

  • 13.
  • At 11:09 PM on 01 Nov 2006,
  • Rufus wrote:

How much did the BBC spend on sending that bloke to the States to NOT get an interview with the great Chuck Berry? Anybody with any knowledge of the man would have told you he doesn't give interviews - full stop. So why waste MY money? Can I have a refund on my licence please?

  • 14.
  • At 02:04 AM on 04 Nov 2006,
  • john wrote:

hey the link to the video is broken!!! No Fair!!!

  • 15.
  • At 01:25 PM on 06 Nov 2006,
  • Judy Feldworth wrote:

We should honor our rock of ages, Chuck Berry
By Bill McClellan


Bill McClellan

We got a new statue last month. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark have now set up shop down by the Eads Bridge. It's a very nice statue, but when I look at it, I can't help but mutter, "Roll over Meriwether and tell William Clark the news."

Chuck Berry turns 80 next week. Where's his statue?

He is probably the most famous St. Louisan of all time. Oh sure, lots of people know Stan Musial, but his fame is pretty much limited to countries in which people play baseball. A friend of mine was in Croatia recently. People were drinking and dancing, and she did the duck walk. "Chuck Berry!" somebody said. Everybody nodded. Most of these people did not speak English. They probably knew nothing about baseball. I say this not to denigrate Stan Musial - I'm happy he has a statue and I wish it were a better likeness - but to point out that Berry's fame is international. Actually, it's intergalactic. In 1977, a recording of Berry's "Johnny B. Goode" was placed aboard the Voyager space probe and fired out into the cosmos. Johnny B. Goode forever.

There is something else about Berry that merits a mention. He lives here. He raised his kids here, and they still live here.

"I could not imagine my parents or my sisters living anywhere else in the country," said Charles Berry Jr. "My father went to Sumner High School and knows the city like the back of his hand. He has roots here so well in the ground I don't think he could leave. He's seen most of North America, South America, Asia and Europe. They all have a great deal to offer, but there's nothing like St. Louis when you've grown up here."

Think of all the famous people who grew up here and then left, lured away by brighter lights or better weather. From Tennessee Williams to Yogi Berra to Dick Gephardt. Then there are the people who've made a mark here but have never wanted to live here. Tony LaRussa and Mark McGwire come to mind. But Chuck Berry, who could live anywhere, chose to stay here.

It isn't as if St. Louis has always embraced him, either. Quite the contrary. He was born in California in 1926 and came here as a young child. This was very much a southern city back then, especially in its racial attitudes. Berry sang in the Sunday school choir at Antioch Baptist Church, but he was not always a compliant young man. He was rebellious. He got in trouble. He went to prison.

His early musical career was also an upstream effort, very much against the current of the times. He was a crossover when crossing over was not allowed. In those days, he was never far from trouble, and if some of the trouble was rooted in the times, some of it was surely his own doing.

But he persevered. He hit it big when he was 30 with "Maybellene."

Eventually, he became an icon. For his 60th birthday, rock and roll stars such as Keith Richards and Eric Clapton came to St. Louis for a concert-movie called "Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll."

But the most amazing thing about Berry is that he still plays a monthly gig at Blueberry Hill in the Delmar Loop. It has to be one of the coolest things in the country. Imagine going over to a friend's basement to hear the founding father of rock 'n' roll. It's a family affair, too. Berry's son and one of his daughters, Ingrid, are part of the band. While Ingrid is a full-time musician, Charles Berry Jr. is a computer guy who owns an IT consulting firm.

These shows at Blueberry Hill attract a wide audience. There were two BBC crews at last month's show. Also, Paul Muldoon, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Irish poet and professor at Princeton. Mostly, though, it's just regular St. Louisans who come out because it's a good thing to do. Which is probably why hundreds of St. Louisans showed up at the riverfront when Lewis and Clark returned. It's always appropriate to salute people who have accomplished much.

Which is why when I look at the new statue, I think, "Roll over Meriwether, and tell William Clark the news."

And a great poet.
Let's not forget that.
You can read his verse like you would Ferlinghetti or Corso.

  • 17.
  • At 02:27 AM on 24 Mar 2007,
  • Al Brady wrote:


I wonder if it would be possible to get Chuck Berry to join us / lead us in a final trip along Route 66? Such a Pilgrimage is long overdue and it behoves us to do it with / for Chuck as a mark of respect for him and for Rock and Roll. If Chuck will go along with the idea, ALL of the other icons will do it - Paul McCartney, Bob Geldof, Stones, Dillon - you name them!

Kindest Regards,

Al Brady.

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