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Chuck Berry's Son Remembers Rock Pioneer: 'He Was Inspirational'

Shortly before Berry's death, his son remembers his "cool dad" and what it was like to join his band

Shortly before Chuck Berry's death, his son tells us about his "cool dad" and what it was like to join his band. Credit: Todd Owyoung

Charles Berry Jr., Chuck Berry's only son, joined his father's band in the early 2000s and played guitar with him throughout his hard-touring Eighties. Rolling Stone spoke with Charles Jr. last week regarding an upcoming project, and he shared some remarkable memories about his father, who died Saturday at 90. Here, in excerpts from that interview, Berry Jr. shares memories of his father.

My only perspective is Chuck Berry being my father. I have no other frame of reference. My other friends have had doctors, lawyers, judges. When I was growing up as a kid, we lived on a street, Windermere Place, here in St. Louis. He’d be out of town for weeks on end at times. And all the kids knew when he would come home, because there would be bags and bags and bags of White Castle hamburgers. He would go to a White Castle and buy hundreds of these hamburgers and bring [them] back to the street, and of course we'd all just devour them. Everyone would say, "Your dad's so cool!"

I joined my dad’s band about 15 years ago. I'm an I.T. guy. As a kid, I never played guitar with him other than a show at Six Flags in 1979. I'm out there with a couple of my friends and my dad sees me down out front in the press box and motions for me to come onstage. He takes his guitar off and puts it over my neck! I’d never played professionally. I’d never even been in a band. It was the ultimate version of Take Your Kid To Work Day.

Fast forward 20-some years. We come back from Kennedy Center Honors in 2000 and a couple weeks later, my sister Ingrid’s husband, who played in the band, passed away. We were devastated. He left a huge hole in the band. My dad said, “Hey man, anytime you want to get onstage!” I'm like, “That ain’t gonna happen.” Then about a month goes by and he says, “Junior, I need you as a guitarist.” So I agreed. I made so many mistakes.

But he kept me on. And he used us a lot. He used pickup bands at spot shows where there was an issue of the local promoters not bringing the right kind of bread – to use my dads term – but his habit of using local guys pretty much stopped. 

He was not a tough bandleader with us. Those shows were straight up, right on the spot, no rehearsals, nothing. James Brown ran a very tight ship. We didn't know what my dad was going to do next. When we saw the guitar neck drop, everyone stop. When he slams his foot on the ground, stop. We never had any problems. He was an 80-year-old man, although my dad acted more like a 50-year-old. The one that I always go back to as the most grueling was January 2007. We did 17 shows in, like, 18 days. We started in Moscow, Russia. Getting to the show in Moscow, we were four hours late and the crowd was still there. We're pulling up and I'm not kidding, there were 3,000 people outside. I was like, they’re gonna kill us. But those were the people that couldn't get in. It was sold out at capacity. 

We do the show, we’re worn out. We go from Moscow and do all these shows end up on the Canary Islands – below zero to 80 degrees in two weeks. It would wear on him, but when it was time to do that show, he was rolling. He always gave 110 percent when he was onstage. To see a true professional – at that point, 80-something years old, and to have the energy of a 10 year old child – it was inspirational. I loved every minute of it, man, I really did.

My dad didn't like to fly on small planes – that’s anything smaller than 737 – so there’s no private jet, no charter plane. It’s driving. A Mercedes in Europe; in the U.S., a Lincoln or a Cadillac. He wanted to put his guitar, luggage everything out of site in the car. Sometimes promoters would give us a full size van, so [sometimes] I was like “Hey dad, I'm tired man why don't you let us ride in the van? “Ok, this time it's OK.” 

Most of the time, though, it was him driving – I don’t care where we were. My dad didn’t like people driving him. He thought he was an expert driver. Theres a very short list of people who could drive him – myself, my sister, that’s about it. No tour bus. He has written countless songs about cars – “No Particular Place To Go,” “No Money Down.” The man loves cars. He is a true aficionado of the automobile. 

He was always recording at home. He would come upstairs and to my mom, “Listen to this.” And she would give a thumbs up thumbs down. Thumbs up, he was done. Thumbs down – “I got more work to do.” He was always looking for feedback. When he wasn’t working, he’d watch TV, with two six-foot projectors in front of him. News on one screen, and the Cardinals baseball on the other screen. Recently, he downsized to one big six-foot screen and a 50-some inch HD TV. He was disappointed the Cardinals didn’t get the pennant this year, but my mom grew up in Chicago, so they're a pretty good second choice.

Last year, we were going to have a big shindig for his 90th birthday – we were going to invite the world. Then we realized we’d done that. So let's just have family. We had it at the house, and it was a lot of fun. 

He hung it up in 2014. He’d been in the game for about 64 years. [Eventually] he said, “I’m ready to hang up my shoes.” He stopped recording that year too. After that, some of the family went into the studio to complete our parts for my dad’s final album. My son and I went to Nashville. It was the first time I’d recorded in a studio – same with my son, who had just played some high school get-togethers. It was very special. My son blew his solo out of the water. The grin on my face was obvious. The people in the control room just freaked out. It was excellent. And I think I understand how my dad may have felt when I started playing with him.

As told to Patrick Doyle