When Chuck Berry died on March 18 at the age of 90, he left behind many things, including a legacy of inventive guitar riffs, genre-pioneering songs and a flair for narrative songwriting that explored and entertained the fledgling North American teen culture of the 1950s. He also left behind Chuck, his swan song and first studio album in 38 years. The recording features his only son, Charles Berry Jr., on guitar. The Globe and Mail spoke with him about his father’s views on race, reputation and Keith Richards.
Did your father consider songs recorded for this album as a final statement? Specifically, the songs Darlin and Eyes of Man are quite thoughtful.
This stuff was recorded over a very long period. My dad was in late 60s and early 70s when he started it, after Rock It was released in 1979. With those two songs, as opposed to something like Little Queenie, you’re getting the reflections of a man who had actually lived a long life. With age, he became more philosophical and more reflective. I think it was just the next logical step for him.
For many people, your father will be remembered as the man they saw in Taylor Hackford’s 1987 documentary, Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll. Was he portrayed fairly in the film? He came off as a bit cranky.
At the end of the film, my dad said something to the effect, “Whatever they write about me, I want it to be real. I want it to be true.” So, cranky? I don’t know about that. He wanted things done his way, because it was a movie about him. His perspective was, if you’re going to make a movie about him, then you’re going to have to listen to how he wanted himself to be portrayed.
The scene with Keith Richards and your father arguing over his amplifier is fascinating.
Keith said, “Wait a minute, that’s how it’s going to sound on the record.” My father says, “Well, that’s how Chuck Berry plays it. It’s how I want it to sound. It’s my sound.” It was nothing against Keith. He had nothing but praise for Keith. He would say, “That guy and the Rolling Stones made us a whole bunch of money, keeping my music alive. I’m not mad at him.”
In the film, with Little Richard, Bo Diddley and your father, the matter of race came up. Did he speak with you about it?
We did talk about race relations, about when he was a child and when he was starting out. And living in segregated St. Louis. He told me how black artists couldn’t go through the front door of the very venues they were playing. He also told me that he took it as a challenge. He thought, “I bet you I could do this. I bet you I’m going to play in the Fox Theatre one day. I’m going to challenge you to prevent me from doing this.” The vast majority of my dad’s songs were about having fun and challenging people to have fun with him. That’s how he got around a lot of the challenges of being a black man in a very segregated country. And it worked.
In the 1950s, he was playing more to the white teenage culture than the black teenage culture, wasn’t he? The civil-rights movement was just getting started.
No. I beg to differ on that one. Every teenager had fun, one way or another. Blacks suffered the consequences of a segregated America, but the song School Day was universally appealing to any teenager. Everybody could relate to School Day or Carol or anything like those songs. My dad’s poetry was relevant to everybody.
Speaking of poetry, Bob Dylan called your father the Shakespeare of rock ‘n’ roll. Was there any one particular accolade or accomplishment your father was most proud of?
That’s a tricky one. His favourite song to play, or the one he made a point of playing, was Johnny B. Goode. But he never bragged about himself. As boisterous as he seemed, he was a humble cat. He rarely talked about himself in terms of his achievements. But he was very proud when he received his Kennedy Center Honors. And you could tell that his heart was just going to jump out of his chest when he found out that NASA was going to put Johnny B. Goode on the Voyager spacecraft. He thought, “I’ve got stuff going into outer space. I guess I’ve made it.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.