ST. LOUIS — Chuck Berry looked thankful for the break during rehearsal at the old, ornate Fox Theatre. It was four nights before his 60th birthday and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member was tired.
He had been going through grueling 12-hour-a-day practice sessions all week in preparation for two concerts at the Fox--concerts that were being filmed by director Taylor Hackford for a documentary due in theaters next summer. Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards was heading an all-star backing band.
As the rehearsal dragged out this night, the breaks became increasingly frequent. Berry's voice was so hoarse that he was reduced to whispering some of the songs.
But Johnny Johnson, Berry's original piano player, remained on stage through it all. Johnson, who played on such classic Berry hits as "Roll Over Beethoven," is two years older than Berry, but he was too excited to be back amid the glamour of big-time rock 'n' roll to feel the fatigue.
Waiting for Berry's return, Johnson began fiddling with the opening notes of "Wee Wee Hours," a blues tune that was one side of Berry's first record. Eric Clapton, one of the musicians on hand to salute Berry in the film, picked up the cue and began singing it in a soulful blues style.
"You know . . . I always thought that was going to be the hit song for Chuck because it was a blues thing, which was real popular with black people at the time, but it was the other side of the record that caught on," Johnson said later.
The "other" side of the 1955 record was "Maybellene," a novelty that was geared to the white teen-age rock audience. It was a reworking of an old country tune, "Ida Red," that Berry frequently played around St. Louis in the mid-'50s while a member of the Johnny Johnson Trio.
If Johnson guessed wrong on which song would be the hit, he was definitely on the mark in predicting that his pal would become a star. In fact, Berry was such a draw with the trio that the group's name was eventually changed to the Chuck Berry Trio.
Johnson added: "Chuck came to me one day and said, 'Johnny, what do you think about changing the name to the Chuck Berry Trio?' I said, 'Hey, you got it because you are a go-getter and I think we will go much further with you out front.' Yes sir, Chuck was a real go-getter."
Berry may rival Elvis Presley as the most influential of the '50s rock pioneers, but he's also a thrifty businessman whose eye for the buck has caused his shows in recent years to be woefully uneven--occasional moments of inspiration offset by some nights when he seems to simply be going through the motions. Instead of carrying a well-rehearsed band with him, Berry has tended to use whatever musicians the local concert promoters hire for him.
But these Fox shows were to be different. He hadn't worked this hard in years. One reason Richards agreed to be involved was to "repay some dues," but he also said he wanted "Berry to have a good band."
Because Richards' vision of how he wanted Berry to sound clashed at times with Berry's thinking, there were tense moments during rehearsals.
The two men tried their best to be cordial. They would frequently embrace or clasp hands during the Fox rehearsal, but they also kept their distance. Richards' expression at times said unmistakably: I wouldn't go through this for anybody else.
Charles Edward Anderson Berry ranks with Bob Dylan as arguably one of the two most influential songwriters in rock history--and he has been even more private offstage than Dylan.
Berry has been described as moody and evasive in his brief encounters with the press, usually insisting that he will tell all in an autobiography which he has been working on for years.
The outline of his career is clear: He was born in San Jose, but his father, a carpenter, moved the family to a middle-class black neighborhood in St. Louis when his son was 6. Berry sang in the church choir and began playing guitar and piano in his teens. But his career was slow in progressing. Berry was 27 by the time he joined Johnny Johnson on stage at the Cosmopolitan Club in East St. Louis. Things began moving quickly after that.
"Maybellene" was a smash in 1956--the first of Berry's nine Top 40 singles over the next three years. Berry's special gift, aside from his inviting guitar style, was that he was a marvelous songwriter who virtually defined the youthful themes of rock 'n' roll.
Though he's had only had one Top 10 record ("My Ding-A-Ling") in the last 20 years, he has constantly toured, appearing on both oldies packages and in clubs.
But there are also several dark moments in his past: reform school, a prison term in 1961 for violating the Mann Act (transporting a woman across state lines for immoral purposes) and further time in jail in 1979 after pleading guilty to evading payment of nearly $110,000 in federal income taxes.