Chuck Berry: Neil Strauss Interviews Rock & Roll Legend - Rolling Stone
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Chuck Berry: American Visionary

Fifty-five years ago, he invented rock & roll. A rare interview with the legend – who says he’s just getting started

Neil Strauss Chuck BerryNeil Strauss Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry may have invented rock & roll, but he'd rather discuss math, poetry and mowing the lawn.

Peter Pakvis/Getty

This story originally appeared in Rolling Stone. 9/2/2010, Issue 1112

OVER THE COURSE OF A CAREER SPANNING SIX DECADES, Chuck Berry, arguably the most important figure in the development of rock & roll, has established a few firm rules he lives by. Among them: There will be no performance unless payment has been received in full, in cash. No limousines and no drivers: Mr. Berry prefers to drive himself while on tour. The opening band may not mention the name Chuck Berry during its set. And finally, never trust a journalist. Because of Rule Four, not only does Berry turn down most interview offers, but he has been known to chase journalists off the grounds of Berry Park, his estate near St. Louis. Thus, at age 83, he has become one of the most misunderstood pioneers of rock & roll, often described as bitter, stubborn and cantankerous. As Keith Richards notoriously put it, “I love his work, but I couldn’t warm to him even if I was cremated next to him.”

So it was with slim hope of success that I visited Blueberry Hill, a restaurant and club in St. Louis where Berry plays a monthly concert. “If he doesn’t like you or is uncomfortable, the interview will probably only be five minutes,” Blueberry Hill owner Joe Edwards, a longtime friend of Berry’s, says when I arrive. “And talk slowly. He gets frustrated when he can’t hear and might walk out.”

Berry stands waiting in the restaurant, just out of sight of the customers, near a framed poster advertising his first concerts as a bandleader in the early Fifties. The first thing one notices when meeting Berry is his hands: They are big, with long nails and thick fingers. They seem built not for subtle picking but for the loud, overdriven, spilling-over-the-edges riffs that made Berry’s music seem so much younger, wilder and more dangerous than the rhythm & blues of his predecessors.

Then there is his outfit. It is that of a man who wants to stand out: a light-pink button-down shirt with a large sparkling brooch over the top button, sunglasses and a white ship-captain’s hat. And, finally, there is the attitude: humble and friendly yet steadfast and unforgiving. “Oh, he made it,” Berry says by way of a greeting, ribbing me for being late, although I’m actually two minutes early.

Edwards leads Berry through the restaurant, which is festooned with more memorabilia, including the Gibson guitar Berry used to record his 1958 hit “Johnny B. Goode.”

As he enters a private dining room, Berry begins to take a seat at the head of the table but then reconsiders and modestly sits on the side of the table. It is the first sign that either Berry is much more humble than the reputation that precedes him or that he’s mellowed with age. A little. The first words out of his mouth are “Can I see the questions?”

“He prefers conversational interviews,” Edwards says, stepping in to persuade Berry to let go of that prerequisite. Berry starts to leave again when a tape recorder is brought out, but hesitates.

“I used to work at Kroger’s,” Berry says finally, settling back in his seat and launching into a lecture on punctuality. “When the store opened, you were there. When I worked in an automobile plant, you punched in. So it showed if you were a minute late. If you have a paid job, you show up.”

It seemed like this was going to be the dreaded five-minute interview Edwards warned about. Soon, Berry has found something new to pick on: diction, and how he’s not hearing the t’s and g’s in the questions. He launches into the story of how he learned to enunciate by listening to Nat “King” Cole and how he has made an effort throughout his life to pronounce words properly instead of using their slang versions.

The minutes pass by tensely, but slowly Berry begins to relax. The moment where everything changes comes during a discussion about one of his favorite pastimes: gambling. “I play a slot machine, and the day before yesterday, I had four jackpots,” he says. “I was sitting there waiting to see if I could get five. Now if that’s greedy, I’m greedy. Like, I wonder if there’s anything beyond raising the roof on a show. Is there more? And if so, I want to try! If that’s greed, yeah, I have a bit of greed.”

It’s suggested that it could also be seen as ambition. “Well,” Berry responds, gleefully slapping his meaty hands on the table, “I have lots of ambition! Hm-mmm, yes!”

When everyone erupts in laughter, Berry suddenly removes his sunglasses, puts in a hearing aid and breaks into a broad smile. “I can already feel that you’re a very good interviewer, and these kind of interviews last a little while,” he finally says. “We’ll get into some things that I’ve been wanting to say for years!”

And so a five-minute interview turned into two sessions totaling more than four hours, during which Berry spent far more time laughing and discussing the future than acting cantankerous and complaining about the past. Berry is not focused on trying to bare his soul or look good in print or dutifully fulfill a work obligation. Instead, he engages in the conversation as if it were a theatrical event, questing either for illumination or laughter at each twist and turn of a topic. Every laugh he gets for one of his jokes, puns or gestures excites him on further, until he is proclaiming that the conversation should be staged as a Las Vegas show.

“I’m also a comedian,” Berry says at one point. “I wanted to be a comedian. And I did that so much in high school, I couldn’t get a girlfriend.”

This is an unusual revelation, but it may explain why Berry still considers “My Ding-A-Ling” — his 1972 novelty hit about masturbation — to be as good as any song in his oeuvre, to the embarrassment of his devoted fans. It’s also why when you discuss his appearances on the Johnny Carson show decades ago, he’ll tell you the jokes and comebacks he should have said (even though, to anyone else watching, he came across as a perfectly fine yet eccentric guest). And why interviews with him are filled with random quips and one-liners.

Does he still want to be a comedian? “Every time I get a chance,” he replies. “I’m still trying!”

 “I can already feel that you’re a very good interviewer, and these kind of interviews last a little while,” he finally says. “We’ll get into some things that I’ve been wanting to say for years!”

‘MY FATHER IS STILL, IN his roots, a humble man raised by God-fearing parents, churchgoing folks, farmer folks,” says his daughter Ingrid, 59, whom Berry calls in the middle of the interview and puts on the phone. “The country and the humbleness have never left him. And neither has his dedication to hard work.” In fact, as engaged as he may be in the present moment, Berry is either unaware of or in denial of his place in history — despite John Lennon’s famous quote that the words “rock & roll” are synonymous with the name “Chuck Berry.” When asked whether he feels he was one of the inventors of rock, he responds, “No. There’s Louis Jordan. There’s Count Basie. Nat Cole for sure. This guy Joe Turner. There’s Muddy Waters, Blue Eyes [Frank Sinatra], Tommy Dorsey.”

While those artists may have inspired Berry, they were playing in predominantly blues, jazz or vocal-pop idioms. Berry was among the first to fuse blues and country over a rhythm & blues backbeat into something that the youth culture could claim as its own. “I just feel I got my inspiration, education and all from others that came before me,” he says. “And I added my … I don’t even know if I added anything. I played what they played, and it sounded different, I guess.

“It means something to a lot of people,” he concludes, “but I don’t know what it means to them.”

If Berry isn’t clear about what his music means to his fans, he’s always known exactly what his fans want to hear. Unlike most of the pioneering blues and country singers who preceded him, he wasn’t writing about his own reality: He was a high school dropout who was in his early 30s at the time, singing about teenage drag races, young crushes and school woes. Back in the early 1950s, when he exploded onto the regional music scene, it wasn’t because he was an inventor and innovator like Bo Diddley, but simply because he discovered a fusion of styles that audiences responded to. At the Cosmopolitan Club in East St. Louis, where he played in a trio originally led by his pianist Johnnie Johnson, he began modifying the hits of the day and adding the country music of Hank Williams and Bob Wills to the mix in order to keep the primarily African-American crowd on its feet, attentive and entertained. As his popularity grew, he had the additional challenge of playing to racially mixed crowds. He was often booked in segregated theaters where there were white kids on one side and black kids on the other. As Berry recalls, the whites responded to black music (the blues) while the blacks responded to white music (“hillbilly” country). So it was, in part, through trying to please both audiences simultaneously that Berry’s contribution to rock & roll came to be. As Jim Marsala, who has played bass with Berry for the past 37 years, puts it, “His entertaining abilities have kept him where he is. Even when things don’t go right, he can always keep the show going.”

“Give people what they want — that’s true,” Berry says, speaking about his thought process when onstage. “I’m searching for who is attentive out there in the audience. I can look around and be singing ‘My Ding-A-Ling’ and stop and sing ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ because some people will be sitting out there looking like they’re from church. There’s certain songs and thoughts, for that matter, that almost make tears come to their eyes. I’d give it to them if that’s what they wanted.”

Berry is interrupted by the ringing of his iPhone. Dick Alen, his booking agent for more than five decades, is calling about a possible concert with Jerry Lee Lewis. “You called in the middle of an interview,” Berry tells him. “You know, the thing that Chuck Berry doesn’t do.”

“He was the first one to send me to Russia,” Berry says after handing the phone around the room to let everyone talk to Alen. “He hasn’t sent me to Africa yet. I’m not too interested in accepting until it gets a little more lovable. You know, because you lose your passport, and I’m done. Woo!”

But, Berry is reminded, he could always go to the U.S. Embassy and get a new passport. They’d probably recognize him there. “That’s what I’m afraid of,” he says, laughing.

BERRY DOESN’T LIKE TO DWELL on the past, but there are a few things he keeps coming back to — most having to do with the family. “Mom was a schoolteacher,” he begins. “She was religious and did everything to get my dad to be a pastor. But he was never pastor, just a deacon in the church. He wound up being the best bass singer in the choir…. They stayed together 66 years, and then Mom fell off, and shortly after, Dad fell off. But anyway, they were a match, and they raised six kids. Only two of us left.”

By day, his father was a carpenter, and Berry was originally groomed to work as his apprentice. But when Berry was a teenager, he fell in with a bad crowd and served three years in reform school for a three-day spree that included robbing shirts from a clothing store and carjacking.

When asked what advice he would give his younger self today, Berry thinks for a while, then giggles. “Not to take that man’s car — and to leave the shirt that I took off of a counter of a dry-goods store. Anything to do with crime, I wouldn’t do. And I would finish high school, because it took me three times as long to finish as it would have if I’d have stayed. I left in 11th grade.”

After his release from reform school at 21, Berry married his girlfriend, Themetta (to whom he has been married for 61 years), and began working at a Chevrolet plant. Later, he followed his sisters into cosmetology school while also working for his father. He supplemented his income by performing locally in pianist Johnnie Johnson’s band — which soon, due to Berry‘s onstage charisma, became his band. The group’s break came when Berry saw Muddy Waters play in Chicago, and Waters suggested he visit Leonard Chess of Chess Records.

Chess asked Berry to return with some tapes of his music and said he’d prefer hearing original songs to covers. So Berry returned to St. Louis. “There wasn’t nobody giving me their songs, so I knew I had to write,” Berry recalls. “I wrote two from poems.”

He breaks into a deep, dramatic voice and begins reciting Alfred Lord Tennyson: “Break, break, break on thy cold gray stones, oh, Sea! And I would that my tongue could utter the thoughts that arise in me.”

His eyes grow misty as he finishes his recitation: “My dad’s voice just willowed like that. I’m sure glad I’m his son.”

As for the music, Berry says that because he didn’t know how to read music — and affixing letters to notes didn’t make sense to him — he developed his own system for notating music. Instead of using a letter like A or C, he assigned a number to each note, which enabled him to notate anything he wanted. “That’s the way I learned to do music,” he says, “through mathematics.”

Chess ended up liking Berry’s songs and scheduled a session for Berry and his band in May 1955. Later, when he received his first royalty statement, Berry discovered that one of the four songs he’d recorded — “Maybellene,” a reworked version of the folk tune “Ida Red” powered by a driving beat and a story about a car race and a cheating girl — had two random, additional writing credits. One was to disc jockey Alan Freed as a form of payola and the other to Russ Fratto, Chess’ landlord.

Today, Berry has mixed feelings about the songwriting credits, which have since been reverted to him. “With payola, I made more money because the song made more money,” he says. “But who would have thought that ‘Maybellene’ would be a smash? It went straight to Number One. It shows there is some good to the song.”

And thanks to that — and Freed’s support — the single was all over the radio and climbing the rhythm & blues charts, where it soon hit Number One (and Number Five on the Billboard pop charts). The song changed Berry’s life and, ultimately, all of popular music.

“He influenced everything,” says country legend Merle Haggard, who modeled some early songs on Chuck Berry’s music. “I liked the way he acted. I liked the way he played. I liked the way he sang. I liked the way he wrote songs. He wrote songs that made sense and were not halfway written like other songs of that time.”

His literate and clearly enunciated story-songs of automobiles and high school and rocking-and-rolling began to shape the music that was to follow, with practically every important rock band of the next two decades building off i his foundation. Hits like “Rock & Roll Music,” “Johnny B. Goode” and “Roll Over Beethoven” melded a powerful backbeat, boogie-woogie piano, country rhythm guitar and a unique combination of short, catchy riffs and sped-up blues-picking.

“When I first heard that guitar, from that time on, every guitarist I auditioned would have to play ‘Johnny B. Goode,'” recalls Ronnie Hawkins, the rockabilly pioneer.

But like many superstars, Berry’s highs were followed by major lows. Thrifty and entrepreneurial after years of having to fend for his wife and children, he invested the money he made in everything from real estate to a movie theater to a nightclub, which proved to be his undoing.

In 1959, he met a 14-year-old Apache prostitute in Texas and brought her back to St. Louis to work as a hat-check girl at his club. After he fired her, she went to the police, and Berry served four years in prison for violating the Mann Act, which prohibited the transportation of women across state lines for immoral purposes (though it was often used to prosecute black men sleeping with women of other races). While Berry was locked up, his renown grew: British Invasion acts like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones covered his songs, refashioned them into their own hits, and praised his name in interviews, while stateside, the Beach Boys turned “Sweet Little Sixteen” into their own Top 10 single, “Surfin’ U.S.A.” So when Berry was released in 1963, he was a bigger star than before he entered prison. Though he recorded a few more classic songs, Berry never quite found his creative stride again. He left Chess for a while in the Sixties to record mostly unremarkable albums for Mercury Records, and then returned to Chess in the Seventies and resurrected his career with the fluke Number One novelty, “My Ding-A-Ling.”

“I’ll get e-mails from, like, an 18-year-old kid who says, ‘Thank you for turning me on to Chuck Berry because the only thing I ever heard by him was ‘My Ding-A-Ling,'” Tom Petty says, discussing his Sirius satellite-radio show, on which he plays the Chuck Berry music that influenced him. “And that makes me feel good to, you know, complete the circle and give something back.”

Berry doesn’t see “My Ding-A-Ling” as a career aberration at all, but rather as a highlight. He says the song was originally going to be about a ring, and sliding a finger into it as a metaphor for intercourse. But he decided it was too extreme. Then he recorded it as “my tambourine,” but he decided it didn’t fit well. “‘Ding-A-Ling’ was clean,” he concludes. “Made a lot of money: a $200,000 check. I’ll never forget that check. And it’s all dirt. Nice, cleeean dirt!”

Then, for the third time, Berry’s life took a sudden plunge. Shortly after performing at the White House in 1979, he was sent back to prison for three months for income-tax evasion.

Though these scandals, setbacks and jail sentences have, over time, only added to Berry’s legend, they still haunt him. “I want to try to patch some of the negative opinions that lie awaiting my assistance,” he says. “I say assistance because if there was a comeback, there would be things I could hand out… charity. And it would appear that the negative things have faded.”

THE CHUCK BERRY SITTING HERE is unlike the recalcitrant Chuck Berry of legend. He is almost too open, too trusting. Asked what he wants to talk about that he hasn’t ever spoken about before, Berry drums his large thumbs on the table and thinks for a second. “Let me see,” he begins. “I think I don’t have as long as I perhaps feel I have to be here. And I want to do something that I know will last after I leave.”

Almost anyone would say that Berry has already made a mark that will long outlive him. But Berry is a gambler, the type to go for the fifth jackpot. “In other words,” he elaborates, “I want to do another ‘Johnny B. Goode’ in action or deed, something as powerful as ‘Ding-A-Ling.'” Berry also says he has been racing to write down as many of his ideas and thoughts about his favorite subjects — life, mathematics, philosophy and sexuality — as he can. “Nobody’s going to know what I think after I’m gone,” he says. “It’s over with. So if I put my thoughts in the computer, somebody will take care of it.”

Berry says he wants to play some of the new songs he’s been working on. First, though, he suggests taking a break and ordering food, which Edwards typically supplies him with for free. “I’ll have two orders of wings,” he tells Edwards.

“One for here and one to go?” Edwards asks.

“Yes, business is business,” Berry says with a smile.

Berry’s uncompromising and unusual way of doing business has long been a part of his legacy. On tour, he’s known to be demanding, generally has the promoter hire random local musicians to back him, shows up minutes before showtime, plays without a set list and often leaves like a factory worker, punching the clock the moment the concert is scheduled to end.

Berry’s touring habits were most likely shaped by experience. In the Fifties, when his band members started drinking and showing up late to shows or missing them entirely, he dropped them, because he had a family to support and needed the money. When promoters didn’t pay him for concerts, he demanded cash before going onstage. When he got robbed after a show in Texas, he asked for the money to be sent to him before even traveling. When limo drivers left him stranded, he insisted on driving himself from the airport to concerts. When he turned his Berry Park estate into a festival venue and campground, and concertgoers trashed it, he shut it down and stopped allowing the public there.

So in his 80s, he has now amassed a list of strict rules, which gives others the impression of Berry being difficult. “Some of the stuff that promoters pulled on him before he knew any better got him to a point where he doesn’t trust anybody,” says Billy Peek, who played guitar with Berry in the late Sixties and early Seventies. “So when he does his contracts, everything he wants is there. For example, he likes a certain kind of amplifier — a Fender Dual Showman Reverb. So he’d put a rider in his contract that if the promoters didn’t provide it, they had to give him this much more money per show. Well, the promoters would just assume that Chuck would be OK with another amp. And he’d come in and say, ‘If you don’t have that, give me that extra money.’ So they’d get all huffy and pissed off and go around and tell everybody how difficult Chuck Berry was, and it’s because they didn’t do what they were supposed to do.”

‘You hear a lot about Chuck being mean, and you hear about him doing this and that, but the Chuck Berry that I know is one of the kindest people you’ve ever met in your whole life,” says Bob Lohr, the pianist in Berry’s house band now. “People misunderstand his hesitance to get involved with other people: It’s because he’s scared. He’s been burned so many times that he’s developed sort of a thick skin. But anybody who has spent a lot of time with him will tell you he’s really a good guy and a fun guy to be around.”

WHEN THE FOOD ARRIVES, Berry sifts through his iPhone and offers to play some “dining music” — the new songs he’s been working on. Some are clear knockoffs of his older songs, such as “Lady B. Goode” (a sequel to “Johnny B. Goode”) and “Jamaica Moon” (a new stab at the Calypso-tinged “Havana Moon”).

“I didn’t do my homework then,” Berry says. “What’s his name? Castro. He was in a world of trouble in America, and here I come with ‘Havana Moon,’ a sweet little song. Get outta here!”

Mixed in among these retro nuggets, however, are songs in an entirely new style — not blistering rockers but highly poetic spoken stories like “The Dutchman” and “Eyes of Man,” set to gentle, atmospheric music more suited for a movie score.

“You know, as much popularity as I have had since my last album was out, I don’t think it would be blasting like Michael Jackson or anybody,” Berry says. “But, boy, it would sure buy six or seven yachts, at least, for people. Because everywhere I go, I get that look — you know, ‘Is that him?'”

Meditating on a possible late-career windfall, Berry says he would invest in real estate, give some to Haiti and prison reform, and possibly devote some to rebuilding a perpetual-motion machine that his father invented. It debuted in front of the mayor’s office, where it ran for eight days before petering out. “I can still draw it and see every one of those little balls rolling on a slot as it went around,” Berry says.

Perhaps because he dropped out of high school, Berry has an insatiable drive to display his intelligence and learn new things. When speaking, he searches persistently for the right word and asks for the definition of any word he doesn’t understand, and then doesn’t let up with questions until he fully grasps its meaning and usage. It is this quality that made Berry’s songs so different from those of the country and blues singers who preceded him. More than the music, Berry agonizes over the way his lyrics fit together, their ability to stand on their own, as literature separate from the music, and their precise and clear delivery.

After discussing the hours he spends working on getting each syllable, word and phrase of a song right, Berry says he has to leave to meet with a lawyer about a lawsuit filed against him over a missed concert. But rather than ending the interview, Berry says he’d like to continue talking. He suggests meeting back at the club at 9 p.m. before his concert.

AT 7:30 THAT NIGHT, AN HOUR and a half before our scheduled interview time, Edwards calls and says that Berry is already back at the club waiting to talk. I meet Berry and his band backstage. One thing that has always befuddled the band is that, despite being a stickler for the money he’s due, Berry has never sold T-shirts, CDs or other merchandise at concerts. “I’ve brought it up many, many times,” says Jim Marsala, his bassist. “I’ve told him there’s a fortune in merchandising; bands have made their living off of that. But I don’t know why he doesn’t do that. I think he just doesn’t want to get involved and take all that merchandise along and deal with it.”

Berry suggests returning to the room where we were talking earlier. As we enter, he cuts ahead and takes a seat on the opposite side of the table from where he sat last time, then breaks into a mischievous smile and says, “To change things up.”

The following hour-long discussion is so candid that, at times, it appears that Berry isn’t even conscious he’s doing an interview.

“He’s for real,” Berry says when discussing Little Richard’s sexuality. “I know because he came on to me once, you know. And it just doesn’t make sense. I couldn’t believe it! And he believes it. By that, I mean, he doesn’t deny it.”

Most of the remainder of the discussion revolves around his favorite subject, and perhaps another element of his personality that made him a rock pioneer: his obsession with women and sex, especially cleavage and legs. (In the Nineties, Berry was sued by a group of women who claimed he’d installed cameras in the restrooms of a restaurant he owned in order to peep, though Berry denied it; the case was settled out of court.) It is a fascination that most likely came from his father forbidding him from looking at women as a child.

You were saying earlier you were broken in at 15?
Do you know what BYPU is?

It’s the Baptist Young People’s Union [hits table and laughs]. That’s when I first knew — not knew, had contact with, because it didn’t fulfill itself. Now let me be truthful. I couldn’t…

You were too nervous?
That’s what I’m saying. And it was a year before I did. I got a terrible beating, you know. There were sisters: One was 17, the other was 15, and I was 15. I met the 17-year-old, and she drove me to the back porch. And the people next door were looking right at us. I never thought about that because I was so excited! [Laughsi] See, that’s the kind of stuff I can put in [a book or a song] without one dirty word. There’s enough English where you could say “s-h-i-t” by putting different words together.

I like that about your writing: Everything is suggested without being explicit.
I want to get into it because I want to know — does anybody think like I think about sex?

Most people probably do but don’t talk about it, because sex is still such a big taboo. It must have been even worse when you were younger.
My dad used to do carpentry work all around south St. Louis. And in south St. Louis, a lot of men work away from home, and the women keep the home. And here’s the funny part: When I was young, I was pretty nice.

Not like now.
I’m talking about nice-looking! Anyway, I would be helping Dad to fix a lock, and the women would bring some oranges or something. Not all women, but some women were forward. Firstly, Daddy would ignore them. I would wonder why Dad wouldn’t laugh if she would laugh. They would flirt with my dad and make comments about me, and they would try to encourage him to say something for me. And he taught us not to say anything and not to smile. If you did, you’d get your neck broke. He wanted to keep us alive.

Imagine what it was like when your dad was born.
Oh, when he came up, well, they didn’t get a chance to answer. They’d hang you in a minute. You know, I didn’t know that you were educated. I mean, sophisticated. Your sophistication is coming to realization, so to speak.

Thank you.
Rolling Stone, that’s a sophisticated magazine. It’s not as into sex as Playboy is, but it’s way more into sex than Discovery.

You know, what’s that yellow dictionary?

National Geographic?
Yeah! But you can see a little of something in there. I used to look at that! [Pounds table and laughs.”] They show a little, because I remember looking at a lot of them. And of course Playboy. All youngsters did look at Playboy. It was so graphic! It shows right what you want to see. Whoever heard of a nipple covering a whole page? But that was very interesting. I’ve never been that close [laughs]. Oh, man, we could write a book about it.

IN FACT, BERRY SAYS, HE’S BEEN collecting stories of his sexual escapades for a possible book. “I have a computerful,” he admits. “I’ve been talking to my son about it so he won’t be shocked.”

Berry has also amassed several thousand pictures. Most of them, he says, he wouldn’t put in a book because they are, as he puts it, “very personal.”

As showtime nears, Berry invites me to visit his Berry Park estate in nearby Wentzville, Missouri, where he lives part of each week when he isn’t staying in town with his wife. On the 150 acres of Berry Park, there is a cluster of houses being demolished, in addition to the charred remains of Berry’sclubhouse, which burned down in 2003 along with tapes of some of Berry’s last studio recordings with Johnnie Johnson, who died in 2005. Nearby, there’s an old blue Ford pickup that has the words WH BERRY. 4410 HOLLY on the door — his father’s old carpentry truck. Beyond it, there are three Kubota grass cutters, which Berry uses to keep the acres of grass trimmed on the property.

“I’m a millionaire, but I cut the grass,” Berry says. “And each time I cut it, it’s my grass. And that is satisfying. Hm-mm-mm.” He laughs and stamps his feet, jovial and excited.

Every blade of grass, he continues, tells a story. “It’s like a person,” he says. “A blade is a blade: When it’s cut in half, it dies, for sure. But the half that isn’t cut springs back to life.”

And this is the story of Berry’s life. At 83, he isn’t looking back on the scandals that many say scarred him psychologically, but he is working hard to do something new that matters.

Where most people expect to see their whole lives or a vivid memory flash through their minds when they die, Berry says that won’t be the case with him. “I wouldn’t be having a memory,” he says, breaking into a wide smile. “I would want to know what’s next.”

“Give the people what they want — that’s true,” says Berry who still tours regularly “There are certain songs I do that almost make tears come to people’s eyes.”

“I want to do something I know will last after I leave. I want to do another ‘Johnny B. Goode,’ or something as powerful as ‘My Ding-A-Ling.'”

“I’m a millionaire, but I cut the grass. It’s satisfying. Every blade that’s cut in half dies, for sure. But the other half springs back to life.”

In This Article: Chuck Berry


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