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Chuck Berry Sets The Record Straight

October 04, 1987|ROBERT HILBURN

ST. LOUIS — Chuck Berry has been prized by rock musicians and fans for four decades as a symbol of the revolution that chased away Big Band music and other dull adult sounds.

In hits like "Roll Over Beethoven" and "Sweet Little Sixteen," Berry reflected the frisky independence and innocence of '50s teens with such unwavering accuracy that they remain anthems of the era.

You know my temp'rature's risin'

and the juke box blowin' a fuse.

My heart's beatin' rhythm

and my soul keeps a-singin' the blues.

Roll over, Beethoven

and tell Tchaikovsky the news.

So, here is Chuck Berry sitting in a restaurant reminiscing about Tommy Dorsey's "Boogie Woogie" and Glenn Miller's "In the Mood" and telling how much he adored singers like Nat Cole and Frank Sinatra.

"The Big Band Era is my era," he says, recalling his own heroes. "People say, where did you get your style from. I did the Big Band Era on guitar. That's the best way I could explain it.

"Let's put it down frank. Rock had more passion to (kids in the '50s) because (they) were in school. I was in school when the big bands (were popular), so it had passion to me."

The reporter wanted to make sure he was hearing Berry right. Was this rock 'n' roll legend saying he would have been just as happy spending his life singing ballads like Nat Cole?

"Oh, I'd have been (ecstatic)," Berry beams. "I never would have touched rock 'n' roll. I'm sorry. . . ."

Seeing the surprise on the reporter's face, Berry smiled sheepishly. He felt bad about breaking illusions.

"Rock 'n' roll accepted me and paid me, even though I loved the big bands . . . I went that way because I wanted a home of my own. I had a family. I had to raise them. Let's don't leave out the economics. No way. . . ."

Chuck Berry and Big Bands?

Chuck Berry smiling?

Act of Friendship

Joe Edwards doesn't understand why many rock observers in recent years have used the word bitter to describe his friend, Chuck Berry.

"See that guitar." Edwards points to the gold guitar in a display case near the entrance to funky Blueberry Hill restaurant. "That's the guitar Chuck played on 'Maybellene' and all the early hits.

"The fact that that guitar is here tells you more about him than I ever could. It was an act of friendship that blew me away."

The Blueberry Hill, in the rejuvenated University City district of town, has a great selection on the juke box: Patsy Cline and Lou Reed to U2 and Talking Heads. The walls of the sprawling restaurant also showcase hundreds of photos and records by '50s rockers--even a complete Elvis Presley room.

Edwards told Berry a couple of years ago that he was going to add some display cases and Berry casually mentioned that he might give Edwards a guitar.

"That just the way he phrased it, 'a guitar,' " the restaurant owner continues. "So, I assumed it would just be some old guitar--the kind every guitar player has laying around. But when he brought out the case, I knew right away that it was the guitar. . . . When he opened it, I was so (touched) that I couldn't even speak. Think about it: A lot of rock 'n' roll began in that guitar.

"Now, tell me, would a bitter man give that away?"

Bitter Man?

To most critics, Chuck Berry, 60, is rivaled only by Elvis Presley as the most influential figure of the first decade of rock 'n' roll--a man whose memorable guitar-oriented rhythm and perfectly sculptured lyrics established him in the '50s as the music's first great songwriter-performer.

He brought his classic songs to life on stage with such an energetic show--highlighted by a zany, low-strutting duck walk--that no one in the audience seemed to notice that Berry was in his 30s, ancient by rock standards at the time, and almost a full decade older than Elvis and Buddy Holly.

If Berry's music is widely known, his own story is not.

One reason is that Berry, for most of his career, has avoided interviews. He was angered years ago by what he feels were attempts to "sensationalize" his remarks. The only thing most fans know about him is what they have seen on stage the past two decades--and that hasn't always worked in Berry's favor.

Many observers have been disillusioned by Berry's refusal to do encores, which they see as a sign that the singer no longer enjoys performing. They grumble, too, about his practice of using "pick-up" bands hired by the promoter in each city and introduced to Berry only minutes before going on stage.

Though hiring "pick-up" bands is cheaper than employing your own full-time band, it sometimes results in sloppy shows that leave fans thinking of Berry as simply a cold-hearted businessman with no respect for his music or his history.

In the absence of interviews over the last dozen years, it is easy to look at Berry's history and build the scenario of a bitter man.

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