Chuck Berry, photographed by Jim Simpson at Birmingham Hippodrome in 1964
Chuck Berry was a difficult man. Moody, erratic, arrogant, rude and utterly Trumpian when it came to greed.
He was also, along with Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard, one of the three men who invented Rock and Roll.
Back in the day, I used to tell anyone who would listen, that in my opinion Chuck was the greatest American poet of the 20th century. Now I’m the first to admit that my knowledge of poetry is somewhat less than miniscule, but I still believe that anyone who can write lyrics that are so instantly meaningful to ordinary folk must be up there with the best.
I encountered Chuck on several occasions. I don’t say “met” because that suggests some degree of interpersonal reaction. On one of the several occasions I photographed him I was on an assignment from Melody Maker and dear old Max Jones, meticulously as ever, had arranged for me to meet and photograph him backstage at The Birmingham Hippodrome.
Everything went smoothly. I was expected, ushered to Chuck’s dressing room where I stood, not invited to take a seat, for probably thirty minutes, studiously ignored. He was in deep conversation with a girl who Chuck gestured to and grunted ‘My Cousin’. After a while I started shooting, while they continued to chat, seemingly unaware of my presence. I had to explain to Max why all of my photographs were, at best, profile as Chuck not once deigned to look in my direction.
Away from photographic assignments I had another encounter with Chuck when I booked him into the still-missed Barbarellas in Birmingham. As always, Chuck went on tour with just his Gibson E-335 and suitcase, leaving the promoter to book the backing band who he invariably didn’t speak to, didn’t offer a set-list nor introduce any of the songs expecting the band to be totally familiar with his repertoire. It demonstrates how influential Chuck Berry’s music is, that invariably local musicians anywhere, would be completely familiar with all of the songs, the keys, tempos and arrangements.
His showtime came and passed, we got his backing band on to keep things moving, and they were about 15 minutes into their set when Chuck arrived. He insisted on getting £1500 in cash before hitting the stage unannounced, smoothly slipping into “Maybellene”, and for 45 minutes of the 75 minute set he gave us exactly what we came for. He then left the stage, exited through the back door and into his waiting limousine.
I was told to get him back onstage before the crowd began to riot and found myself on the pavement trying to reason with Chuck through the partly-open car window. He said, and clearly meant it, that he wasn’t going to play any more until he got another £500, muttering something about having “to play for chickenshit money”. The club manager raided the tills, paid Chuck, who resumed his performance without comment.
Of course it was extremely stressful, but afterwards I couldn’t help feeling somewhat tickled at experiencing all the proof that anyone could ask for, that Chuck Berry’s attitude was pure Rock and Roll.
Charles Edward Anderson Berry was born into a distinctly middle-class family, father was a Deacon, mother a school teacher, in St Louis Missouri on October 18th 1926.
He played his first gig when he was 15, and three years later was convicted for armed robbery – he was still at high school. It was a small matter of robbing three Kansas City stores and stealing a car at gunpoint. There was a perfectly reasonable explanation, his car had broken down and he needed to get home. Chuck got out of reformatory and in 1947, married his ever-loving Themetta Suggs, known as Toddy the next year. They stayed married until 2017.
He took a day job in an automobile assembly plant, went onto train as a beautician early in 1953 – and then he heard T-Bone Walker and nothing would ever be the same again for Chuck Berry.
He moved to Chicago two years later, met Muddy Waters who introduced him to Leonard Chess. Subsequently his recording of ‘Maybellene’ on Chess Records, hit at Number One of the Billboard R & B Chart.
The hits kept coming: ‘Thirty Days’, ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ , ‘Too Much Monkey Business,’ ‘Rock and Roll Music’, Sweet Little Sixteen’, Johnny B Goode, ‘Sweet Little Rock and Roller’, ‘Memphis Tennessee’ until in 1962 when he was sentence to a 3 year spell in prison for an offence under the Mann Act. He transported a 14 year old Apache waitress, with whom he was having an affair, across the State Line.
The hits kept coming, until, in 1979, after performing at The White House at the request of Jimmy Carter, the Inland Revenue Service accused him of evading paying income tax of nearly $110,000 which he admitted. It was back to prison for a four month sentence followed by 1000 hours of community service – spent performing benefit concerts. Nice touch.
It didn’t take Chuck long to get back into the business of producing great records – ‘Nadine’, ‘ No Particular Place To Go’. ‘ You Never Can Tell’, ‘Tulane’ – and the not-so-great ‘My Ding-a-Ling’, his only Number One On The Billboard Chart.
This is something that I know a little bit about. I was touring bluesmen Mickey Baker, Lightnin’ Slim and Eddie Guitar Burns in 1972, and they were set to appear at a festival at Lanchester Polytechnic in Coventry on the same bill as Chuck Berry, who was to record his set live that night.
Slim, Eddie and Mickey spent that afternoon in living room remembering and singing together songs from their childhood. The song that they all found most amusing was one of infants school level about weeing – ‘My Ding – a – Ling’.
Arriving at the gig they all disappeared into Chuck’s dressing room and from the sound of it had a whale of a time, laughing, drinking – and singing.
In Rolling Stone magazine’s List of Greatest Artist of All Time List Chuck Berry was placed 5th in both 2004 and 2011.
He was far better than that.
Among the hundreds of bands and musicians who were influenced by Chuck are The Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, The Beach Boys and so many more.
Chuck Berry was an early inductee into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, not just for his ineffable contribution to Rock and Roll but also for his Rock and Roll stance. Chuck died, aged 90, in Wentzville, Missouri on March 18, 2017.
We’ve turned one of Jim’s shots from a 1964 show at Birmingham Town Hall into an exclusive t-shirt design – click here to order yours, with free worldwide shipping.