Chuck Berry is turning 90 without fanfare

It’s a stretch of the imagination to say Desert Trip wouldn’t exist without Chuck Berry. But not a big one.

Berry, who turns 90 on Tuesday influenced all of the Desert Trip artists with '50s rock 'n' roll hits such as Maybelline, Johnny B. Goode and Brown-Eyed Handsome Man. While the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartneyBob DylanNeil Young, The Who and Roger Waters have been partying at the two-weekend festival in Indio, there is no plan to salute Berry, and few plans to celebrate his birthday anywhere in the country.

According to a Google search, the largest celebration scheduled in the United States is a three-night tribute at the Rafael Espinoza Music Academy in Mineola, Texas, featuring music by Rafael Espinoza and his Lone Star Trio. Berry, who lives in St. Louis, hasn’t slated any performances, according to his website. Desert Trip promoter Paul Tollett says he didn’t want to incorporate a birthday theme into his festival.

Yet, people who have worked with Berry say the Desert Trip artists will remember him.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if the stars are aware,” said Bobby Craig, a rock ’n’ roll pianist who played with Berry in the 1980's and Elvis Presley in the 1970's in Palm Springs. “They probably are doing some things just on their own. Those guys are clearly of the age that had their socks knocked off by Chuck Berry — because Chuck Berry broke all the rules. His records were great, his tunes were great, the ideas he sang about were great. I think they have to know that.”

Hackford also celebrated Berry’s 80th birthday by releasing a five-disk DVD set with a behind-the-scenes look at those concerts and complete interviews with rock 'n' roll pioneers who attested to Berry’s greatness and eccentricities.

He said Berry should be celebrated on his 90th birthday, too.

“I think Chuck Berry should be saluted every time there’s a concert,” said Hackford, who is now finishing a film with Robert De Nirocalled The Comedian. “He is totally unique and his influence just goes everywhere. But, the Rolling Stones are going to do what they’re going to do and they’re a great, great band. They cut their teeth on Chuck Berry and that was clear. They have many times talked about that influence.”

Roots of rock

The Rolling Stones were actually formed after Mick Jagger saw Richards holding a Chuck Berry record at the Dartford railway station in Kent, England. They had been elementary school classmates, Richards wrote in his book, Life, he thought he was the only Berry fan around until discovering Jagger had “every Chuck Berry ever made.” Jagger invited Richards to hang out with his cadre of R&B fans and they began playing music, with Richards playing electric guitar “Chuck-style.”

Dylan has said he was into Chuck Berry before discovering Woody Guthrie and turning to folk. His first rock hit, Subterranean Homesick Blues, is directly influenced by Berry’s Too Much Monkey Business.

The Beatles had hits with Berry compositions such as Roll Over Beethoven, Rock and Roll Music and Sweet Little Sixteen, and McCartney called Berry “one of greatest poets America has ever produced”  in an introduction to the 2014 release of Berry’s complete studio recordings.

Young played with Berry and Richards at Berry’s 1986 induction into the first class of the Rock ’N’ Roll Hall of Fame, in which Richards said in his induction speech for his hero, “I lifted every lick he ever played.”

Hackford attended that ceremony with producer Stephanie Bennett, who had already asked him to direct a documentary about Berry.

Berry wrote in his 1987 book, Autobiography, about his interest in doing interview "dwindled over the years as I would read back what I was supposed to have said to reporters.” Hackford interviewed Berry many times for his documentary and said Berry will “go down in history as a brilliant artist and an enigma.

“Chuck is a total contradiction," he said. “He’s a proud black man. On the other hand, he has a very critical view of different parts of society – racial and political and everything else. I would call him a genius. The definition of a genius is somebody apart (who) doesn’t feel the normal human weaknesses many of us do. Therefore they can be, let’s call it complicated, let’s call it difficult, sometimes irrational. When you see someone who is a genius, who has done things nobody else has, why should they be normal? They’re not normal.”

Hackford said the other pioneers he interviewed — including Little RichardJerry Lee Lewis, the Everly Brothers, Roy OrbisonBo Diddley and Presley’s producer, Sam Phillips — all called Berry an influence on them. Even Lewis, a pianist who spewed racist epithets at Berry when they toured together in the '50s, praised Berry.

“Jerry Lee said he had a big thing with Chuck and chose him off,” Hackford said, “and Chuck beat the (crap) out of him. He says this on film. But, when it came down to it, they all basically said this was the most brilliant artist of their generation.”

Troubled past

Berry was born to middle class parents in segregated St. Louis. He got in trouble with the law when he ran away from home with two high school dropouts at age 17. When their tires blew out and they had no money for food, Berry wrote, one of them robbed a bakery shop of $62. Berry found a fire-damaged gun in a used car lot and robbed a barbershop for $32. Then, they held up a clothing store for $52.

With that haul, they were able to buy a tire and a rim and some food to continue their journey west. A rod blew on Berry’s 1937 Oldsmobile at 3:30 a.m. After a couple hours of standing on the roadside, waiting for someone to give them a push, a man in a Chevy coupe stopped and offered to help. Berry flashed his defective gun and told him to move over "‘cuz he was driving." The guy bolted out of the passenger door, and Berry and a buddy lined up his car to start pushing Berry's Oldsmobile back to St. Louis with the other friend at the wheel.

A state trooper was waiting for them 10 minutes down the road, alerted by the Chevy owner who had scooted out of the passenger seat and ran to a phone booth. Berry was arrested and advised by an inexpensive lawyer to plead guilty and seek mercy from the court. The trial lasted 21 minutes. Berry said he was sentenced to the maximum 10 years in the Intermediate Reformatory for Young Men near Jefferson City, Mo.

When he was paroled on his 21st birthday, Berry returned to St. Louis and eventually began singing and playing guitar at parties, then nightclubs. He discovered that whenever he’d sing country songs he’d get a big reaction, even from African-American audiences. Eventually, he and his band — including pianist Johnny Johnson — gained enough of a reputation to get asked to record for Chess Records in Chicago. Their 1955 recording of Maybelline became the first song to fuse country and the blues into what became known as rock ’n’ roll.

Fats Domino, Little Richard and Bo Diddley all wrote and recorded songs that could be considered rock ’n’ roll before Berry. But no one wrote and recorded hit songs as prolifically as Berry. With Elvis bringing a mix of R&B and country to a white audience, they created a pop cultural revolution 60 years ago this year.

Berry would serve two more sentences behind bars, once for a violation of the seldom-enforced Mann Act and another for a tax evasion. It may come as no surprise that, despite his esteemed position in pop culture, he showed signs of low self-esteem.

“There’s a famous story that Chuck was in New York and he looked across the street and saw Nat King Cole,” he said. “Nat King Cole was an idol for every black performer. And Chuck Berry had three hits in the top 10 and he was so shy to think that he couldn’t walk across the street. He did not walk over because he did not think he belonged in that world.”

Berry wrote that he actually called across the street to Cole and caught his eye. He said he was "too excited to utter another following word.”

Craig, who performed with Berry and a Los Angeles backup band at the Palm Springs Convention Center in the late 1980s, said he found Berry very aware of his place in rock ’n’ roll and was actually pretty brash.

“So I’m surprised about that story except the awe that he was probably feeling from Nat Cole,” Craig said. “He was revered in America by white people and Chuck was still a rock ’n’ roll upstart. He probably didn’t think Nat King Cole would even know about him because rock ’n’ roll was so new and it was pooh-poohed so frequently that a lot of (pop stars) actually didn’t know who they were.”

Berry was a victim of the payola and corruption that was prevalent in rock 'n' roll in the 1950's. Alan Freed, a DJ who accepted payments for playing songs on his pioneering rock ’n’ roll radio show, got credited as a co-writer of Maybelline. Berry's manager, Teddy Reig, had a deal that Berry would get $1,500 a night and 60 percent of the gate after reaching a certain attendance. Berry said they never quite hit that attendance mark. So, by the 1960's, Berry always took his payment in advance in cash and wouldn’t perform if conditions weren’t up to his specifications. The promoter was even required to find a backup band for Berry and they rarely rehearsed.

Craig said he not only didn’t get any sheet music for his show with Berry, he didn’t recognize any of the songs Berry chose to play.

“He didn’t do Roll Over Beethoven – any the stuff I remember as his hit records,” he said. “He may have slipped in a few bars, but most of the time, he was riffing it. The band had done shows with him before, so they knew the ropes. But, he fired the guitar player on the second song. When he was going into this song, he heard it wrong and played a half note above what he was supposed to be playing. Chuck just found that intolerable and he very quietly and tastefully walked over to the guy and had a word with him. Then you saw the guy pack up and, tail between his legs, walk off stage. What I felt was, I might be next! With somebody like him, you have no assurance. We have little signals to say, if it’s E flat to bring it down to E, or whatever, and he didn’t do that. He just let it ride and figured if a guy can’t figure out a key, I can’t use him.”

Richards said he was motivated to assemble his own band for Berry’s 60th birthday because he was tired of hearing him play with bands that were always out of tune. Berry infuriated Richards and vocalist Linda Ronstadt by changing the keys without warning. Hackford captured Richards and Berry arguing on film. Craig said Berry just liked to "wing it."

“I think he was making them up as he was going along," he said of Berry's Palm Springs show. "But I have to tell you, he was wonderful. I remember he made the comment when I took over a solo, ‘This boy knows what he’s doing.’ I was getting it done. I knew where I was and he knew I knew where I was going, which is why he stopped and looked at me. There’s a reason why he is an icon and that is, by the seat of his pants, he’s got it. He’s got the musicality, he’s got the voice and he’s got the charisma. He had it all.”

There’s no question that Berry was a victim of racism and bad management, Hackford say. He stayed in St. Louis, when other St. Louis musicians of his generation, like Miles Davis and Ike Turner left, and he overcame his obstacles.

“I clearly had that in my film,” Hackford said. “We’re doing this (concert) at the Fox Theatre, this big, incredibly beautiful movie palace, and Chuck talked about going there when he was a little boy and they wouldn’t even sell him a ticket. They didn’t allow blacks. The fact that he’s headlining the Fox Theatre, it was very meaningful to him. (But) to me, the more meaningful thing was the nuance of it. What movie was he going to see? He was going to see A Tale of Two Cities with Ronald Colman! Chuck Berry is a very literary guy. I mean, Chuck Berry is a brilliant poet and a brilliant artist.

“Chuck Berry got ripped off on his first big hit,Maybelline. But, you know what? He learned. It’s like, ‘Fool me once, it’s your fault, fool me twice, it’s my fault.’ He never got fooled again. He made a ton of money in his life.

“He’s a dark, dark presence, and I’m not talking about the color of his skin. He was a dark guy in terms of his personality. He could be funny and unbelievably entertaining and make everybody feel like they want to party all night. Chuck was not a big drinker and he didn’t take drugs. He focused all of his energy on making money and having sex and performing. And he’s also a very sexual human being. He’s dangerous. That’s why he’s the definition of rock ’n’ roll.”


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