Too Much Monkey Business was one of Chuck Berry’s greatest records – not as big a hit as Sweet Little Sixteen, or Rock and Roll Music, or Johnny B. Goode, or Memphis, Tennessee, or Little Queenie, or My Ding-A-Ling – but a superior example of his brilliant skill as a lyricist. Some scholars believe it was a precursor to hip hop. To me, Monkey Business is a fitting description of my experience making Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll, a documentary on Chuck’s 60th birthday concert at the Fox Theatre in St. Louis, Mo.
Chuck Berry, who died Saturday at the age of 90, was the greatest creative force in the birth of rock ‘n’ roll. That’s why we all went to St. Louis in 1986 – to pay homage to an artist who had changed our lives: Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Robert Cray, Linda Ronstadt, Julian Lennon and Etta James. (Later, musicians including Bruce Springsteen, Robbie Robertson, Little Richard, Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison, Willie Dixon, Ahmet Ertegun and Sam Phillips all contributed to the film).
Knowing his thorny reputation, most of us knew that this would not be a smooth ride. At 60, Chuck was still determined to prove that he was the original Bad Boy of rock ‘n‘ roll music. It’s not an exaggeration to describe Chuck as diabolical – even though he was being paid $500,000 by Universal and was the executive producer of the film, he would not show up each day unless he was given $2,500 in cash in a brown paper bag.
I had only five days to shoot, but Chuck kept me waiting for eight hours the first day, until producer Stephanie Bennett had delivered the cash. Without question, Chuck was the most difficult star I’ve even worked with. It was like trying to ride a Brahma bull – you can try to ride him, but he’s ultimately going to buck you off. I soon learned that we would have to wing it if we wanted to get anything on screen.
But in spite of all the chaos he created, I loved Chuck because he was indelible, the real deal: the creator of a true American art form. Not only did he invent the most famous guitar licks in rock ‘n‘ roll history and still play them brilliantly, he could also deliver his vocals – whether in the style of rock ‘n‘ roll, blues, country or jazz with perfect pitch in his totally unique style. (A former editor of Rolling Stone told me that the first time he heard Memphis, Tennessee on the radio, he would have sworn that Chuck Berry was a white country singer.)
But what made Chuck the greatest was his talent as a songwriter. His compositions were miles above any rock ‘n‘ roll songs being written in the ‘50s. Of course, I’m not the first to say that – John Lennon, Jagger & Richards, Bob Dylan all said that they wouldn’t have here without CB. A few years ago Prince told me the same thing.
What I’m most happy about is that we were able to capture Chuck when he still firing on all pistons – an automobile allusion that’s perfect, because no one could write a song about America’s love of fast cars better than Chuck – or a song about the sexiness of a 16-year-old girl, or a love song about a Havana Moon.
Taylor Hackford is the director of the 1987 concert documentary Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll, and such Academy Award-winning films as Ray and An Officer and a Gentleman.Report Typo/Error
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