Live audience Q&A with Chuck Berry, Berkeley, June ’69, transcribed by G.M. for Rolling Stone.
In its own way, Berkeley is very much a rock and roll city. The main artery leading from the university campus, Telegraph Avenue, is lined with record stores and when the release date for the new album by the Beatles arrives, one can hear the whole record just by walking down the street.
On Friday, May 9, Chuck Berry came to town for an evening concert and a noontime lecture in the Student Union lounge on campus. Ordinarily, the room’s big couches and chain are populated by a quiet, drowsy group of regulars who spend the entire day in this one spot. (I once studied there for a year and saw the same faces and fighting dogs every day.) The room is some architect’s idea of modem academic charm, but usually the only way to get comfortable there is to lie on the floor. There is a big fireplace that never had a fire, and a lot of clocks that don’t work.
On Chuck Berry Friday, the public-address system was playing “Roll Over Beethoven” and the lounge was inundated by several hundred strangers buzzing in with stories and memories on their lips, expropriating the tables and chairs and filling up the floor—grad students, black students, street musicians, coffee house managers, college reporters from other distant schools, hippies, straight kids. Standing room only. It was a knowledgeable crowd, not a bunch of curiosity seekers, but even so, when a couple of university administrators looked in, nobody was able to explain to them just exactly what was going on.
Off to one side, Chuck Berry was pushing against one of the big windows that looks like a door, a few fans came to his rescue and tried to find the fellow that was supposed to do the introducing. Chuck gazed at the crowd that hadn’t noticed him yet, and then all sorts of wide-eyed admirers rushed up to shake his hand, trying to tell Chuck Berry how much it meant to have him there. Chuck strode into the middle of the room, wearing brown slacks, a yellow turtleneck, and a green jacket, hair black and curly, every inch the Master. He added a lot more to that lounge than the architect ever did.
When it was announced that Chuck Berry was going to deliver a lecture, most people didn’t believe it; he is not a very talkative man and he does not give interviews. Like many other stars of the early years of rock and roll, it is difficult to imagine Chuck Berry anywhere but on stage. He was there in front us, though, ready to do something with the microphone.
With mock formality, he read from his lecture contract that his scheduled “speech” was to allow for a few questions at the end: “the speech—ecch; the questions—ahhh.” Chuck responded to his questioners with an “if you only knew” look; laughing at jokes, kept mostly to himself. He spoke slowly, choosing his words carefully, and occasionally breaking it all open, raising his voice, talking in sing-song, building up excitement like a showman.
Tell us about Wentsville and Berry Park in Missouri.
Wentsville is a city of 3,000 people. Mostly German. It’s a farm town. How I ever drove stakes there, I don’t really know. But I was introduced to some property, and I sunk some extra bread into it and began to build, until that’s how I landed there. And now, it’s about a half a million-dollar estate I have there. It’s a country club, pool, night club, motel. It’s a small admission to come in, so It’s very popular. Incidentally, it’s beginning to be what I might call a “swing city,” with groovy people, and I hope it grows.
Everybody knows you influenced the English people, the Beatles, really early—did you go over there or did they just realize how far out you went?
You mean did I go over there and start a fire, or did they see the fire from over here? Is that your question? I really don’t know… whether they saw the fire from over here or not, but as a rule, America sets the swinging pace for England, being it’s rather slow or moderate in its manner of living… I should think that our American way, the swinging way, reached there, since the music started here—I should think they sort of latched on.
Could you describe your recording sessions with Chess?
I can describe it beautifully, because I did it quite a few times. When I first walked into Chess Records in May of 1955, after a previous night of visiting one of Muddy Waters dates, which was around the corner, on the south side of Chicago… and I played a song with him, it was a great thrill, him having let me do so, and he said I should go to Leonard—whoever Leonard was, I didn’t know—and “get him to record you,” because he said I played some nice stuff. So he gave me the address… So, I went, and he said, “Bring some material and we’ll tape it.” And I had a $79 tape recorder, monaural, and I cut six songs on it with some jive musicians on it—I say jive musicians because I don’t even remember their names now—and took it into Chess Records. One of the songs was “Maybelline” and one was “Wee Wee Hours.” Two weeks later I came back and cut a session with some Chicago musician, and that started the ball rolling.
Who were some of the earliest influences in your music? What turned you on, what kind of things did you follow; what turned you on to music in the first place?
Well, you asked me what turned me on to music… I suppose I could say music itself, because I was singing at the age of six, in church, it began. Then, the feeling to harmonize began to be a desire of mine; to get away from the normal melody and add my own melody and harmony was imperial, and I guess that grew into the appreciation for music. Rock ‘n’ roll. Actually, I don’t think it was… matter of fact, I know it wasn’t called that then.
Who were your influences on your singing and your guitar playing?
Guitar playing, a person named Charlie Christian, guitarist for Benny Goodman, T-Bone Walker, and Carl Hogan—I think those three would be on guitar. Much of my material begins with Carl Hogan’s familiar riffs, like “ba doo doo dah, ba doo doo dah.” And the singing, I haven’t yet covered, it’s such a variety, my ideals… for instance, one of my favorite singers—or rather I should say two—are Nat and Frank, in that respect, because I am moody and Nat sang moody music. So, it’s a lotta singers. Fats Domino, actually there are many I could go on and name.
When you wrote your songs, were you writing them because you felt like it, or were you writing them to make money? Would you have written those songs even if they hadn’t paid you any money?
No, I wouldn’t have had time. The commercial value in songs is a great instigator.
How much money are you making from the royalties from your tunes that the Beatles did?
Very hard to tell, it’s very hard to tell. Any of the royalties from any one song or any one artist doing the song, because the royalties come so scattered, there, no way to compute any one particular song. However, there was a little leap in my royalties’ statement when the Beatles did those two numbers.
Have you found it necessary to change your style in the last seven years?
I have not found it necessary to change my style in the last seven years. I’m glad you asked that question, because as of today I do not know, or recognize, my style. I feel like I play like a good many people, mainly my idols. I think other people recognize—it’s like I could never say who I look like—but I think that somebody else might think I looked like someone else. So I think it’s the same way with style. I don’t recognize it.
Did you ever know a girl named Maybelline?
No. The only Maybelline I knew was the name of a cow.
How about Nadine?
Well, Nadine, I hadn’t heard it, but it seemed like a girl’s name. I was associating that with Maybelline, because I wanted to identify it… there was a lull in the recordings, and coming back, I wanted to identify “Nadine” with “Maybelline.” And “No Particular Place to Go” with the melody of “School Days,” and they’re quite similar. As a matter of fact, I almost used the same track, but had different fellows playing.
How did you come to write “Johnny B. Goode?
You know, I was writing very commercially then, I done really know how it started, but “Johnny B. Goode” is just a story—I wanted it to be a story—as I got into it. Memphis is close, I only wrote about the places that I had been then, and it’s almost all improvisation. So, I guess I’ll add it up to “art.”
Did you ever get bad-rapped for playing some of your sexy songs in small towns?
Yes, I played at a university—I don’t know the name of it now—up North, and I was going through the usual program, and about midway I thought I’d put a little “pump” into it, and I started out with the melody, and one of the fraternity brothers came over and he said [stage whisper], “No, Chuck, no, no, no, no—the Sisters are lined up in the back.” He said it was a Men’s College of Ministry. So, I found out about it in the middle of the second chorus.Is there a story behind the Bo Diddley album you recorded with him, Two Great Guitars?
Yes, one that I love telling. As I walked into Chess Records’ recording studio to do a session at one o’clock, Bo Diddley was still getting up 20 minutes for his new album, which went over into two o’clock, and at one-thirty that was still not enough, he needed another five or ten minutes, so I was asked to sit down and play some stuff to give Bo some ideas… and I did this, and these “ideas” were drafted and published. Incidentally, you can’t always tell a recording company not to do this and not to do that, because they have a little authority over the product they put out, and if they feel that if it’s commercial, they can take your name and turn it inside out… like Buck Cherry.
How did you come to play with Steve Miller?
I was billed—you mean in San Francisco? When I go out, for the last eight years, I have been performing as what is known as a “single”—I go there, and there is a house band or local band, that performs with me. I never know who it is, or seldom know who it is, and we have usually an hour or half an hour or no hour, to rehearse. On the last eight years of trips, I have tried to keep my music quite simple, so that I could preach it in two or three minutes. A lot of the songs are alike. A lot of the songs are on the familiar blues track, in order that I can go to a show, a rehearsal, and in a short time, can take the thing and do the performance. Now I’ve forgotten your question, what was it? Oh yes, how did we come to meet… well, whoever the promoter is, for instance, if this was a gig, Joe Garrod would have gotten Steve Miller, also under contract, and myself, and together we would have produced some sort of noise.
When did you first start the duck walk?
Paramount Theatre, in 1956. Alan Freed had a house full—6,000 some odd, and at that time clothes were just about like they are now—you could wear yellow suits, pink trousers, blue shoes—everybody was a plainclothesman—and my trio that I brought from St. Louis—incidentally, this was one of my first gigs, and I had to outfit my trio, the three of us, and I always remember the suits cost me $66, $22 apiece. We had to buy shoes and everything, so anyway, when we got to New York, the suits, they were rayon, but looked like seersucker by the time we got there… so we had one suit, we didn’t know we were supposed to change. So, we wanted to do something different, so I actually did that duck walk to hide the wrinkles in the suit—I got an ovation, so I figured I pleased the audience, so I did it again, and again, and I’ll probably do it again tonight.
Have you ever thought about what you would have done if none of your records had been hits?
Yeah, I would have probably been still doing hair. At the time I had just finished cosmetology and I was into practice about six months when “Maybelline” broke. I didn’t even cancel my booth until I got a contract for $400, and it pleased me and I sold the booth, and went on into music.
What ever happened to the piano player who played on most of your records?
Yes, Johnnie Johnson… Johnnie Johnson is still in East St. Louis. He’s more or less a family man now, he found a mate and the mate sort of captivated his liberty.
Did you ever play with him?
Once in a while, when we’re in and around locally, in St. Louis.
Who was the story behind “Back in the USA”?
That was strictly my experience in Australia, which was a drag, I mean really a drag. I never found even a hot dog… I mean the food is like—well, there were some hot dogs. I mean, the food is way out, and at that time. “down under” was still down under, and it was really just a drag trip. I was down there two weeks, and I didn’t enjoy myself, so I was just glad to get back into the USA.
Did you ever gig in Chicago with any blues bands?
Many, many times. I set in, stepped in, laid in—Chicago’s about 37 minutes from my home, so I was quite frequently there.
What do you think of the Rolling Stones?
When I’m asked about another group, I say, “They’re wonderful.” And they are.
Can you tell us a little about your background, your upbringing? How did it influence you?
Okay, musically—about myself musically, because we don’t have… I started in church music, in the choir—it seems to be the ritual. Then after, I left church, or didn’t frequent it too much. It was not until high school and the glee club. And I think it was my first, shall we say “professional” challenge to the public. I sang “Confessin’ the Blues,” one of Jimmie Chan’s numbers, at an all-men’s review and got a terrific ovation because at that time it was like singing “My Ding-A-Ling” or something—I see you know something—it was sort of rebellious applause, I suppose, that someone had the gumption to sing a way-out song in school. So, I did, and I think that vanished my stage fright, if I had any.
What day and month were you born?
Why don’t you have your own band?
Three weeks ago, I’ve taken two men, I began a band again. I’m taking them to Frisco—I am in Frisco—I brought them here to Frisco. It’s a problem sometimes to realize where you’re at. As a matter of fact, I’m not in Frisco, I’m in Berkeley. And I brought them to the Fillmore West for a date, and I’ve had them in Detroit and Chicago so far. So, we’ll be seeing you more and more.
What do you think rock ‘n roll has done to the kids in America?
Lots of things. Like any music, it brings you together, because if two people like the same music, they can be standing beside each other shaking and they wind up dancing, and that’s a manner of communication. Without words they’ll join hands, and sometimes some of the dancers, they don’t even look, you don’t even touch your partner, you just dance… so I say it’s a means of communication, more so than other music, to the kids.
Which records does your sister play on and where did you first burn your guitar?
I have never burnt my guitar. I have never set it on fire. No, I’m not that… My sister sang on—this requires thought—sang on three songs, it was “Trick or Treat,” “Go, Go, Little Carol”; I think that’s all there is, just those two or three. She was at the studio at the time.
What kind of discrimination did you face when you first got into the musical field?
Yeah, a beautiful question. Could be a long answer, too. How bad was discrimination in my early career? When I first started out and became famous? Well, most of my music was from the South—when I say the South, I mean below Dixie and as far as Texas, but not too much, well, Mississippi’s not too commercial, but Georgia, Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia, and so forth, and it was… I could really carry on.
Bobby Charles and I had a tour once of 11 days and we had a swing thing goin’—he would go in the front door and I would go in the back door; he would come and bring me the warm meal, and incidentally, he likes sandwiches. We’d switch out front because I ate meals and he ate sandwiches. We even got stopped for riding together, two males… it was outrageous. And since, in the last three years, I haven’t even been into the South, other than Miami. And I’m dying to go and see what it’s like after the marching and songs and things have been withdrawn and so forth—but I better stop here, because I could go on and on and tell you experiences…
Were your audiences predominantly white?
On one side of the hall, the Fats Domino Show, I think they call it the Biggest Show of Stars, which came through even Berkeley here, ’57 and ’58, well, it was breaking then. We’d go in and see the salt and pepper all mixed together, and we’d say, “Well, look what’s happening.” Every once in a while, we’d go into a place where it would break—it was broken, I should say—which was a thrill.
I remember the first time I checked in at the Stonewall Jackson, down in Jackson, Mississippi. I went up to ask where the… man, I didn’t even know where the neighborhood was then… the neighborhood is, the neighborhood, I’m sure you’ve lived in it… so I went up to the hotel and asked, and the fellow came up and hit the bell, and said “May I help you?” And he gave me a room on the 5th floor, right by the elevator and everything, but it was a room, and I appreciated that very much, because I took my attaché and marched in there and had a nice sleep. I didn’t use the cafeteria or anything, but it was nice.
Could you talk a little bit about going to Hollywood to make Rock, Rock, Rock?
Inexperienced—I’m from St. Louis, I was born there—I had a hit record about a year and a half old, I was told that I had a picture to make in—it wasn’t Hollywood—Culver City. They gave me a ticket, sent me to Culver City with my guitar, they threw a script in front of me and we started shooting the next day. The next day I came and I think I had read the script, but after I’d read it, you know it’s like a book, it doesn’t say anything. You’re not interested in it and I didn’t remember any of it.
They bring this big camera right up before me and say, “Speak louder, Mr. Berry.” And I’d say my line, you know a picture’s made in parts, about three minutes at a time, which was beautiful. Or I’d never have made it. And there was about 20 minutes in between each three minutes, so that’s how I got my script together, but this camera coming up right about two feet from my head and telling me to speak louder, and I, speaking about as loud as I am now, but in the movies you even speak louder, because somehow the camera doesn’t hear as well as people do.
Could you elaborate a little bit on your relationship with recording company executives, Chess Records, and what effect do you feel that recording companies have on musicians and their work, in relation to artistic freedom?
Okay, first may I ask you if you’re associated with, or affiliated with, Mercury Records?
Okay then, Leonard Chess owns Chess Records; he started out some 18 years before I entered with the company; we have a thing together, we have had a thing together since the first time I walked into the studio. He said he saw beauty in my entrance. When I left to go to Mercury for—I might as well, because it’s spent now—for $150,000, he said, “Go, and I’ll see you in three years,” which was my term at Mercury. Since I have been with Mercury, things haven’t been going too well. I have kept in constant contact with Chess Records, I like little companies because there’s a warmer relationship between the artist and the executive. I shall be going back soon, to Chess Records; as of now, I’m on Mercury yet.
How did you like doing the Super Session album—I think it was with Bo Diddley, and Muddy Waters?
How did I like doing it? I was unaware that it was being cut for publicity. I thought I was just giving ideas, I was just running through a lot of riffs and so forth, you know. I would have called it Sausage if it would’ve been my song [sic].
How do you think your audience has changed in the last few years?
When we first started playing music, it was just a song, now it’s who wrote it, the progression, people are more educated about music now, and especially the music business, because they know about your royalties, you can’t fool them. If you have a hit record, they want to borrow money… and people are just more hip than they were then. So down through the years, these changes have taken place.
Is it boring to play the same songs year after year?
No, because it isn’t the song, in the first place, that moves me, that is, I can speak for myself. It’s the people, the audience. I have a thing about people. Like right now, I’m gassing myself, because I don’t think I’ve seen any of these people before, maybe a few, yeah, but grossly… and like the building, even the building, is saying something to me. And I really appreciate this more, much more than either of you could. So, it’s actually the people that gas me. The song, although I forget the song sometimes, it isn’t even important about the song, they’re just lyrics.
How do you feel about drugs and grass?
Well, let’s see… drugs I haven’t felt yet, grass I have. How do I feel—you said about them, not with them… like a religion, I feel this way, and I think the law will finally wind up this way not only with the persons or personalities, or personal things, but “to each his own.” If two people communicate or correlate or in any manner relate, and it does not harm them, and it does not harm anyone else, it’s got to be right. This also goes for one person, whatever they do with themselves.
Have you ever been in conversation with Mick Jagger or any of the Rolling Stones?
Not to my knowledge have I talked with this person of whom you spoke—Dick Jagger? The Rolling Stones… the Rolling Stones have a reflection to my music, I wouldn’t deny it. I think that’s honest.
Were you influenced by Little Richard?
Oh yes sir, I dig several numbers of Richard. As a matter of fact, I still play “Lucille” to get a little pump.
Who do you consider your best imitator?
A fellow that I ran upon after a gig—I forget the hall now—in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I went to a little nightclub act, after my job, where Chuck Berry was advertised, and there was a fellow, when I walked in, there was a fellow goin’ across the stage with his guitar, his left foot up—this is the bit that I put together—and I had to meet him. I went to his dressing room. I didn’t expose my identity, but I asked him, “How do you do that?” That’s what many people have asked me, and I said, “How do you do it on one leg?” And he said, “Aw, it’s easy.”
Tell us about your book.
I have a script, it’s on regular typewriting paper; I have 220 one-sided pages, and it involves music, my personality, my beliefs… and the world as I’ve found it… finding it.
Who will publish it?
I haven’t gotten to that point—I want to strive for at least 500 pages.
Are you afraid of crowds? I understand you got mobbed in Europe.
No, actually, I’ve never been really mobbed… once at a certain dance my coats were pulled on, and I looked down and it happened to be a female, and I looked down and made big eyes and said “You shouldn’t do that,” and they shied away. There’s ways to actually handle that. Of course, you can go and let yourself be torn apart, I think, as I have seen, but I have never been really taken.
What about that stir in London, where they had to stop it before the end—you remember, where everybody came on stage?
Yes, I remember that, very clearly, and I shook about—I got to shake about seven hands and then I had to begin shaking arms, and that’s when I really moved out. It can get a little heavy.
Can you relate the circumstances under which you wrote “Jo Jo Gunne”—what kind of amplifier were you using, when you were recording?
Yes, “Jo Jo Gunne” is a multiple recording… the insets behind each verse identify what’s going on in each verse, for instance, when the lion and the elephant were beginning to fight, I think I did that Gillette thing, and so forth; after he got whipped, we did “Gone Are the Days”… but the idea came from the “Signifying Monkey”—it’s a toast. Is that what you wished to hear? Mainly it was “The Signifying Monkey” cleaned up.
Do you think that music moves the country or does the country move the music?
I think I understand the root of your question. The dollar dictates what music is written. For instance, if a certain pattern, like soul or jazz or mambo, from which I have seen these three passages come, and it starts selling… everybody knows about charts, at least the producers know about charts, and they wish for these things to be recorded in order that they can get sales, and everybody jumps on the bandwagon to record such.
For instance, when the first psychedelic music came out, there was a couple of big sales on a couple of numbers, and later, it began to jump on the bandwagon, with a few more big sales, and first thing you know, we had psychedelic music now, it’s going over. I understand that there’s a rock revival coming back… well, these phases are done not by somebody inserting something into the music pot, but I think the disk jockeys have a great percentage in which type of music is going to be popular, because they actually—when they put it to your ear, and you hear it over and over, it’s human nature that you’ll catch on to it, and you’ll like it.
Do you admire any English guitarists?
Yeah, as a matter of fact, I recorded with an English group that I admire greatly, because before I went into the studio, I just knew there were some soul brothers in there blowin’ because they were blowin’ some blues… a fellow was blowin’ a harp, by the name of the Fifth Dimensions—I understand there’s another group out now—but this was the Fifth Dimensions in Europe, and they were not soul brothers, or rather, they were soul brothers, but they were blue-eyed, but I thought they were brown-eyed. But yes, I am moved by, I was moved by this guitar player. And also, the ones I mentioned, that I heard in my early career.
What’s behind “Beautiful Delilah” and why isn’t it on an album?
You mean like “Vagabond’s Horse”? Oh well you can’t… they won’t publish it, they feel that it won’t… it would be a brand new thing to wax so many songs for a try, companies won’t do it. Well, a small company would, because they tried “Maybelline” on, which I guess was a little out of the ordinary, because it sort of caught on. “Vagabond’s Horse” is a poem, and I like to do it on performances, but I don’t think… as a matter of fact, it’s 45 minutes long, done at the right speed. Vocally.
Did you ever do anything with Elvis Presley or Little Richard or the Beatles?
Yeah, I tried to get near him, but it was hard as heck. I’ve never performed with Elvis Presley, nor have I met Elvis Presley—I can’t say this about the Beatles—but Elvis was a little too warm or a little too distant for us to come about together.
Do you know what you’re gonna play tonight? Like do you plan your sets?
No, I never recall planning a set. I work entirely ad lib, meaning that spontaneous action.
You mentioned Charlie Christian. Are there any other jazz influences?
Uh, yes, jazz musicians… well, would you call Les Paul—I suppose he’s a jazz musician. His “How High the Moon” is just beautiful. I wish I could run upon some musicians who knew it; we’d surely do it on one set. And a number of small-time jazz musicians that have been around New York… I wish I could get them away, to come along with me now—at that time I wasn’t carrying a band. But, yes, there are many.
What proportion of the year do you travel, and what do you do when you’re not traveling?
Okay, Berry Park, again, captivates quite a bit of my time. I’m heavy into property, in property management. And the other portion of the time, which is about 30% of the week, I go out to play music.
Would you give us an example of where you get your ideas for your songs?
A song, to me, could come from hearing a group in a riff… the riff might say words to me like “put her down” or it would be like going over and over, and to me it would be like “put it back” or “let it go…” A riff might say something. Well, I might incorporate that riff into a pattern and go from there musically. Again, someone might say something like “It’s too dark in here,” which is the title of my latest single… it’s the story of a girl who hardly could go anywhere, ’cause at the movie it was too dark, at the party that they went to it was one dim light burning, and when he went to pick her up she had all the lights on in the house, and he drove her out the freeway for a cool ride, and she said “I hope you don’t park around here nowhere, ’cause it’s too dark,” and when they went back home there was no one there and the lights were out and the fuse was blown and it was dark in there. And that’s the way it ends.
Rolling Stone, June 14, 1969