Chuck Berry: Rock Lives!

…especially it seems, at the Saville. Chuck Berry talks to RM's Norman Jopling for this in-depth interview

CHUCK BERRY has become a musical institution in the eleven years that he has been making hit records. Since his first American hit single 'Maybellene' in 1955 (before Elvis Presley scored HIS first American hit), Chuck has endeared himself to the hearts of all types of pop music admirers – from never-say-die side-burned drape-jacketed rockers, to trendy mini-skirted young ladies.

Just how much has Chuck himself changed in that considerable amount of time, musically? (to go back to Presley, think how much HE has changed!)

"Then was then, and now is now," Chuck replied; "I re-cut my old tunes for this new Mercury album, but they're different from on the old albums. I doubt if I could play them the same now. When I listen to my old tunes I'm never completely satisfied with them. I won't say I'm unsatisfied – just not completely satisfied. New songs? Well, I've written seven, no, eight songs in six months. Five of them I've recorded and sent to Mercury – the others are lying there in my brief-case. One was released – 'Club Nitty Gritty'. The other album I have here is just a re-issue from Chess." The Chess LP was a double-album, set, containing most of Chuck's biggest hits, ranging from 'Maybellene' and the early hits, to 'No Particular Place To Go' and 'You Never Can Tell', his later hits for Chess. Why did Chuck leave Chess after ten years recording with them? Was there any ill-feeling.

"Oh no, there were no bad feelings. We just shook hands and they wished me good luck. The change-over was just a business deal. The first Mercury album will be released in Britain in March or April."

One thing which fascinates most people about Chuck Berry are the lyrics of his songs. All about life – cars, school, real romance. What has Chuck to say about the words of his songs?

"The car songs – I had a phase of about four or five years of writing songs about cars. Because this was a yearning which I had since I was aged seven to drive about in a car. I first started driving at 17 – one year earlier than I should have. It was my fascination for the roads, for driving, motoring, which prompted me to write those songs.

"I have written about my cars, and about my school. I can't write about something which I haven't experienced. I wrote 'Sweet Little Sixteen' at a concert when I saw a little girl running around backstage collecting autographs. She couldn't have seen one act on the show – unless it was mine! When I wrote 'Memphis', I had known couples who had divorced and the tragedies of the children.

"You can associate these songs with life – for instance when I wrote 'Maybellene' just about every farmer must have been driving about in Fords, station wagons etc. But then Chevrolet got wise and started a big advertising campaign with the farmers!"

I wondered how much notice Chuck took of the charts. How much does he follow them, and consequently how much is his music influenced by current trends and other artistes?

"I don't study the charts – I observe them," he replied. "Of course I've been influenced, by everyone from Bing Crosby to the Beatles. I don't let my music be consciously affected by anything. What do I think of the Beatles versions of two of my songs? Very nice. But they recorded them two, three years ago now. In fact it's only now that I'm beginning to feel the benefits of them – those songs 'Roll Over Beethoven' and 'Rock And Roll Music' are now on an upward trend.

"Talking about the Beatles, three or four of their songs are amongst the best ever written in pop music. Especially 'I Wanna Hold Your Hand'. I put that one with songs like my 'Sweet Little Sixteen' – and I'm not saying that just because I wrote it. I'll never write another song like that.

"And of course there's the Everly Brothers 'Wake Up Little Susie'. That's really one of my favourite songs. Those three songs I've named – they have virtue and freshness. It doesn't matter who sings them."

On the personal side there are a couple of popular misconceptions about Chuck. He stated, "When I meet people they say, 'Wow, we thought you were a short man'." (Chuck is well over six feet tall). "I guess it's because of the name. Chuck, it's small, you know! And another thing, I have this popular image of being quiet, and people wonder why, because of my stage act I suppose in which I go pretty wild. Well, you can't expect me to be leaping around when I come off stage, and talking extra-fast!"

Apart from the musical side, Chuck Berry has developed into a very successful businessman. He has his own music corporation, music publishers, amusement park, and several other highly-successful money-making projects. Why, I wondered, had Chuck chosen of all things an amusement park (called Berry Park) to make money from?

"It goes a long way back. When I was a child I lived opposite a park but my father forbade me to go there. We moved somewhere else, and the same thing happened. You see, it's a psychological thing. When I bought the land to develop it was just wheat land. It was winter at the time, and of course there was no wheat growing. The first thing I built there was a swimming pool, and I charged 25c admission. Now there are many more things to do and I charge more. I have groups there, Western and Rock. That's the music people want to listen to – they don't want jazz. After all who wants to learn and study music when they go to an amusement park – people just want something to entertain them.

"Myself, when I feel like dancing then I play rock music. If I'm in a sentimental mood, then Western music. And of course I do play jazz because that's the only music you can learn something from."

I ventured to suggest that it was strange that Chuck, hero of the rock and roll set, should like Country and Western music. Especially as his own brand of sound was so different.

"Oh no! You're wrong there. 'Maybellene' was very much a country song, with country lyrics. Maybe a little faster but basically it was country. You ask me if I would have made money if I hadn't been an entertainer. Yes!"

Finally, just how much work does Chuck do now. and will he be appearing in any more rock films?

"I take about 60 per cent of the work that's offered to me. That means I work about three days a week. I'm offered work for about four or five days of the week. But I won't do the kind of tours that I used to They were eighty day tours… really something. I like to do different kind of venues – colleges, concert halls, different avenues of work. The reason I haven't made any films for a long while is because I haven't been offered any. I wouldn't be averse to making films at all."

And a final point of interest – Chuck reads a lot. He reads works on psychology and science. Nothing else. No fiction. And he says, "I write fiction, I don't read it…"

© Norman Jopling, 1967

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