When Gary Clark Jr. opened for Eric Clapton in New York on Sunday night, the day after Chuck Berry died, he told the audience that his song “Travis County” wouldn’t exist without Berry. “It’s one of the first songs I guess you could say I ‘wrote,'” he tells Rolling Stone. “But it’s a direct influence of listening to Chuck Berry. I was just speaking the truth: It wouldn’t be possible without him. That’s true of a lot of music, but that’s a whole different thing.” Clark laughs.
When the guitarist, who guests on Berry’s upcoming new album, Chuck, spoke with Rolling Stone, he said he was “getting into my zone” before appearing on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. But he didn’t mind taking a few minutes to parse the importance of the late rock & roll innovator.
As long as I’ve been conscious of being a human being, Chuck Berry has been in my life – from having his music playing in my house to his movie soundtracks and, of course, Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future. I’ve always known who he was and understood that he’s an icon before I started studying music as a kid. When I started playing guitar, I was into Chuck Berry and Jimmy Reed. And from there, I figured out the changes. A I-IV-V [chord] progression is essentially Chuck Berry.
I think you can’t pick up a guitar and not play something Chuck Berry created. It’s impossible. I’ve listened to a million guitar solos, and you can always pick it out right away: that’s from the man right there. It’s in the way he bends strings, but also his rhythm playing is something that deserves a lot of shine as well. It’s an incredible thing. A good majority of kids, whether they realize it or not, are playing a barre chord and doing the signature rock-star thing. That’s Chuck Berry right there.
“You can’t pick up a guitar and not play something Chuck Berry created.”
Anybody that you consider to be a rock star or any well-known rock band in the Sixties and Seventies was directly influenced by Chuck Berry – the Rolling Stones, the Beatles. It started a whole new wave of music that keeps evolving and developing. I think he has changed the sound of music. Simply put: If Chuck Berry had not been Chuck Berry, music would be different.
I got the chance to open up a show for him when I was young – maybe 20, 21 – down in Austin. I guess he didn’t bring a band with him, so he would just hire bands on the road. He hired some guys that I know, this band called the Egg Men, which is a Beatles cover band – which is funny thinking about it now, thinking about the influence of Chuck [laughs] – so he hired these guys and said, “We’re just going to play Chuck Berry songs.” That’s all he told them. They went with it.
He pulled up in this nice, white Lincoln out back of the club. He just rolled up, got right up onstage, did the show, gave it his all and it was incredible to see. He was duck-walking and smiling at the crowd and he was a real showman. I learned a lot. I was like, “Wow, my act is really boring, compared to this icon.” So he did the show and he got his money and got back in the white Lincoln and took off. And that was it. He was just dust. It was pretty incredible to see that and to share the stage with him. It was a pivotal moment in my life. I never got to talk to him or meet him, though.
“[Any] well-known rock band in the Sixties and Seventies was directly influenced by Chuck Berry.”
Years later, I did an audition to play Chuck Berry for Cadillac Records. I did “Maybellene” for the audition and I just messed it up; I don’t know how. But from that moment on I kind of shied away from playing his songs live, just because I had this terrible experience that had nothing to do with him. But I might put his songs back in the set. If not, there’s definitely a Chuck Berry influence directly in what I do. His influence is everywhere.
When his manager called me up and asked me to play on the Chuck album, I was really honored. I couldn’t tell if Chuck liked me or knew what I did or if he heard me when we were playing. So I was very surprised. I don’t know the title of the song I played on, but from what I heard, he was playing incredible still and singing amazing. I’m looking forward to this record.
What I learned from Chuck Berry is, if I get to be 90 and I’m like, I’m too tired to do this … there you go.
As told to Kory Grow