Steve Miller Remembers Chuck Berry: 'He Was Like a Gazelle'

"He never really did get the respect as an artist that he had earned," says Miller. "He was as good as the Beatles"

Credit: Steve Miller Archives

Just 10 days after playing the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967, Steve Miller got the chance to back up his childhood hero Chuck Berry at the Fillmore West. The show came out on Mercury Records later that year as Berry's first live album, kicking off a two-year partnership where the Steve Miller Band backed up Berry at shows all over America. Days after Berry's death, Miller got on the phone with Rolling Stone to share his memories of the incredible experience.

Growing up in Dallas, my first influences on the guitar were T-Bone Walker and Les Paul. T-Bone taught me how to play lead guitar behind my head and do the splits in 1951 when I was nine. I came into all this very early. When Chuck Berry came along, what he did was more rock & roll than it was blues. It was more exciting. He was like the next step. I thought his first single, "Maybellene," was the greatest song in the world.

From the time I was 12 until I was 21, Chuck Berry was my favorite artist. I loved the Johnnie Johnson tracks, the lyrics, the guitar licks, the duck walk. I saw him play at the Sportatorium in Dallas when I was 14. He was just electric. Those rock & roll shows had people like Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers and Al Hibbler and Chuck Berry! Chuck would come out and do his three or four songs and duck walk across the stage. He was just so cool.

In 1956, I began playing in a band with Boz Scaggs. We worked every Friday and Saturday night  and we were listening to everything that came out: Fats Domino, the Coasters and Chuck Berry. He was the guitarist in that group, so he was the most interesting one to me. There was one great song after another. He was such a clever writer. He was as clever as John Lennon and as good as the Beatles and as good as T-Bone Walker at the guitar, but he made it his own.

"He was as clever as John Lennon and as good as the Beatles."

Later, when I met him in 1967, we were like the band in the San Francisco scene that was able to back up the blues guys. Chuck had recently been in jail and he was a fairly unhappy guy. Bill Graham came to me and said, "Hey, we're bringing Chuck Berry out and I want you and your band to back him up." I said, "Okay, I'll do it, but only if he'll come out here and rehearse for two days." Graham did his magic and Chuck showed up and we just had this great time. We went to the barbecue joint around the corner from the Fillmore and ate barbecue. He was like, "Nobody is going to shave or take a bath until we're done." We rehearsed for two days, all day long. It drove Bill Graham nuts since he was trying to do business at the Fillmore and we were playing all day long.

We were doing some of his most esoteric tunes. We did everything. All of a sudden, Mercury Records says, "This is great. We want to make a live album." And a deal was struck that afternoon the day we were going to do the show. They brought in this funky little board to record it on. All of a sudden, this guy Abe Kesh shows up, who was the producer for Mercury. We're rehearsing and all ready to go when he takes Chuck Berry outside for 10 minutes before the show. Chuck comes back in and he's almost unconscious, like he's in slow motion. They went out and had a shot or something. We did four sets and we recorded the album. It came out pretty good.

There were moments where he was in the spotlight and it was just pure magic. I remember clear as a bell standing on the stage and looking at him. He was so handsome. He looked like a gazelle, like he could have sprung off the stage and leapt 22 feet into the air into the audience. He had that kind of coiled-up energy. He was absolutely beautiful. We were just doing this great set and at the end of the set, unbeknownst to us, unrehearsed or anything, he did "My Ding A-Ling." I just had this feeling like, "Gosh, Chuck Berry doesn't know who he is. He doesn't know what he did. This is just show business." It was a 45-minute set. When the set was over, if you wanted one more song, Bill Graham would have to get another $1,000 in cash.

Chuck had the hardest time because I don't think he trusted anybody and he had such a hard life. But our shows at the Fillmore started the return of his career. We started backing Chuck and played all up and down the West Coast and East Coast at Paramount theaters. We'd be playing in Los Angeles or Portland or whatever the city was, and he'd fly in from St. Louis and arrive around 7 pm. We'd open for him and play until he actually got there. He'd arrive at the theater at 8 or 8:30. You never knew when he was going to be there. He would show up with his guitar, but he wouldn't have a strap and he wouldn't have a cord to plug it in. We would have to provide that. Then he'd come out and do 45 minutes and then leave.

He was such a great entertainer. He really, really knocked everybody out. As disappointed as I was that he did "My Ding A-Ling," that was maybe the highlight of the show for the audience. He drove people crazy with it. It was dirty and suggestive and it made everybody sing. He was just phenomenal. We played a lot of gigs, but we finally had a fight. He got crankier as we went on doing these shows, and one night he started bad-mouthing the band onstage. I think we were at the Carousel Ballroom. We had two shows to do that night. We came offstage and I said, "Chuck, if you ever fucking do that again you can get your own band, your own amp, your own stuff. You can't talk that way to my musicians on the stage, ever!" He stopped it and from that time on we were great friends.

We spent two years backing him, 1967 to 1969. It finally just got to be annoying. We were headlining our own shows and then doing shows with him, but it got to be rough when you're not sure when he's coming and so we moved on. But if you called him on his bullshit, he was great. I did so many shows with him where he was magic and such a great guitar player. In his way, he was as good as T-Bone, but more contemporary and more rock & roll. It was an honor and a privilege to play with him. He had a long, long life. A peculiar life. A lot of problems.

"He had that kind of coiled-up energy. He was absolutely beautiful."

It was sad that he never really got paid right. He never really did get the respect as an artist that he had really earned. When he sold a million records, the Chess Brothers would give him something like $3,000 and a Cadillac. He got in trouble a lot. When I was growing up in Texas it was totally segregated. There were "colored" drinking fountains. He started in that world and he was one of the first black artists to really cross into the white world. It was really, really dicey and he suffered for that a lot. This business is war. If you don't audit everybody every minute of the time and have a lawyer named Lip Pliers … and of course, he didn't.

He didn't have management. He ran everything himself. He had been screwed a million times. It was better for him to just get a bag full of cash. As an artist, he was great. As a human being in his life, it was very tough and very hard. A lot of times you meet artists you just love and when you meet them personally, you realize it was very hard for them to do it. That sums up Chuck's life.

As told to Andy Greene