When I saw Chuck Berry in "Jazz on a Summer's Day" as a teenager, what struck me was how he was playing against the grain with a bunch of jazz guys. They were brilliant – guys like Jo Jones on drums and Jack Teagarden on trombone – but they had that jazz attitude cats put on sometimes: "Ooh... this rock & roll..." With "Sweet Little Sixteen," Chuck took them all by storm and played against their animosity. To me, that's blues. That's the attitude and the guts it takes. That's what I wanted to be, except I was white.
I listened to every lick he played and picked it up. Chuck got it from T-Bone Walker, and I got it from Chuck, Muddy Waters, Elmore James and B.B. King. We're all part of this family that goes back thousands of years. Really, we're all passing it on.
Chuck was playing a slightly heated-up version of Chicago blues, that guitar boogie – which all the cats were playing – but he took it up to another level. He was slightly younger than the older blues guys, and his songs were more commercial without just being pop, which is a hard thing to do. Chuck had the swing. There's rock, but it's the roll that counts. And Chuck had an incredible band on those early records: Willie Dixon on bass, Johnnie Johnson on piano, Ebby Hardy or Freddy Below on drums. They understood what he was about and just swung with it. It don't get any better than that.
He's not the easiest guy in the world to get along with, which was always a bit of a disappointment for me – because that cat wrote songs that had so much sense of humor and so much intelligence. The old son of a bitch just turned 85. I wish him a happy birthday, and I wish I could just pop around and say, "Hey, Chuck, let's have a drink together or something." But he ain't that kind of cat.
Key Tracks: "Johnny B. Goode," "Maybellene," "Roll Over Beethoven"