Berry grew up in a working-class black neighborhood in St. Louis, son of a carpenter. He sang in church and began playing guitar and piano in his teens. He had eclectic musical interests and influences--from the blues of Muddy Waters and the swing of Count Basie to country and mainstream pop. He was in his late 20s by the time he joined the Johnnie Johnson trio at the Cosmopolitan Club in East St. Louis. Until then, he had worked a variety of odd jobs and had studied cosmetology. Music was more of a recreation than a career obsession--until he learned that he could make money at it.
After becoming known on the local scene, Berry signed with Chess Records in Chicago and released his first single in 1956. "Maybellene," an upbeat novelty that appealed to the teen-age rock audience, was a smash--the first of Berry's nine Top 40 singles over the next three years.
Berry's songs--others include "Johnny B. Goode," "Back in the U.S.A.," "School Day" and "Too Much Monkey Business"--are such simple, yet enduring statements that virtually every aspiring rock band since the Beatles and Rolling Stones has included at least one in its repertoire.
In trying to reflect the attitudes and aspirations of his teen audience, Berry moved beyond the novelties to touch on some of the frustrations and aspirations of young people.
"The Promised Land" is a richly appealing look at a young man's travel across the country from Norfolk, Va., to Hollywood in search of the big time. (Berry wrote the song in prison, consulting an atlas to make sure the route outlined in the song was accurate).
Berry made more money than most '50s performers because he had so many hits and he was in constant demand as a live act. Besides, he gained a reputation as a hard-nosed businessman.
With his profits, he opened a club in St. Louis briefly in the early '60s and a more ambitious recreation park on his farm in Wentzville, 35 miles west of here. But he eventually concentrated on real estate. Among his properties: homes in St. Louis, Hollywood and several in the Wentzville area.
Now that the book and movie are coming out, Berry is not about to take it easy. He is working on a new studio album and will tour next year with his own band for the first time in years.
Berry said he stopped using a regular band years ago for two reasons: His booking agency told him it was easier to book him as a solo artist and it meant more money for him. It also meant he didn't have to be responsible for watching over the musicians, whose drinking habits, he said, bothered him.
He dislikes encores, saying he prefers to put his "all" into the show itself. Through it all, Berry felt no need to explain himself--though he admits the back-up bands were sometimes ragged. His only obligation, he felt, was to live up to the contract. To him, it was never bitterness or indifference, only business.
Berry is co-producer (with Stephanie Bennett) of the film, but it doesn't mean it is a glossy portrait of him. He gets in a heated exchange with Keith Richards during a rehearsal sequence, telling Richards that he is going to do it his way--not Richards'--because his way has worked for 60 years. He talks repeatedly about music in terms of the money, not art.
During the interview at the Blueberry Hill, Berry smiles when asked about art.
"(To me, art) was drawing," he replies. "To sing was not art. In fact, I first heard the word artist (applied to music) when they said, 'The artist go in here.' To me, that meant the painters go in here. That was my sense of it. I grew up thinking art was pictures until I got into music and found I was an artist and didn't paint."
Facing the Prejudice
Big-band music wasn't all that Berry liked in the '40s and '50s. He was also a big fan of blues singer Muddy Waters, and he listened a lot to country music. His own music would seem much closer to those styles than to big-band music. Still, the big-band singers hold a special place in his heart.
Here are excepts from the interview with Berry (some of the questions have been revised to better reflect the flow of the conversation):
Teen - agers in the '50s saw your music as a revolt against the Big Band Era, which seemed so formal, so less spontaneous and real.
"That's because of the lyrics. The lyrics (of the big-band songs) were not today, not right now (like rock 'n' roll). Everybody went to school. I directed my music to the teen-agers. I was 30 years old when I did 'Maybellene.' My school days had long been over when I did 'School Day,' but I was thinking of them. (Teen-agers) were the ones I was singing to, so why not sing lyrics of their life?"
Most people thought rock was just a passing fad. Did you think your career might be over quickly?