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
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
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
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
Roots of rock
The Rolling Stones were actually formed after
Dylan has said he was into Chuck Berry before discovering
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
“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.”
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
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
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.
Berry would serve two more sentences behind bars, once for a violation of the seldom-enforced
“There’s a famous story that Chuck was in New York and he looked across the street and saw
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.
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
“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
“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
“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.”