Chuck Berry, a man who famously punched Keith Richards in the face for touching his guitar, wasn’t exactly known as the most of enthusiastic of collaborators. Yet over the course of his lengthy career, the rock & roll legend, who died Saturday at the age of 90, managed to clock in plenty of noteworthy team-ups. They range from the legendary – such as his 1972 TV rock-out with John Lennon and an equally godlike 1995 appearance with Bruce Springsteen – to the lackluster, like his duet with Shabba Ranks on 1995’s “Go Shabba Go.” Here are 10 of Berry’s most historic, intriguing and/or outright outrageous collaborations.
Before becoming an icon in her own right, Etta James did sundry studio work in the Fifties as a session singer and band member. Finding herself on Chess Records as Berry’s star was ascending, she wound up adding background vocals on his 1959 hit “Back in the U.S.A.” The same year she contributed to a Chess session with her romantic partner at the time, Harvey Fuqua of Moonglows fame, issued under the name the Ecuadors. The resulting single, “Say You’ll Be Mine” with a B side of “Let Me Sleep Woman,” featured songwriting and guitar by Berry, and the tracks are as raucous and raw as anything Berry issued under his own name during his prime.
By the mid-Sixties, Chess Records was ruled by two astounding axmen: Berry and Bo Diddley. It was inevitable that they’d be thrown onto an album together. The product, 1964’s Two Great Guitars, isn’t as exciting as its premise would portend; the record comprises only four tracks, with two of them being so-so offerings from Berry and Diddley solo. The remaining two cuts, though, are something else entirely. “Chuck’s Beat” and “Bo’s Beat” are epic jam sessions between the two guitarists, clocking in at 10 and 14 minutes, respectively – at a time when such long songs were highly unusual on rock records. The duo made the extended format work, too, pushing each other to foot-stomping, string-bashing extremes.
The T.A.M.I. Show, filmed in 1964, showcased many rock, pop and R&B greats of the era – and that documentary also sported a symbolic exchange between a rock & roll pioneer and a British Invasion upstart. In the film, Chuck Berry erupts with a searing, twangy take on his 1955 hit “Maybellene.” But halfway through his rendition, a curious thing happens: A band starts setting up next to him onstage. They’re introduced, without a break in the backbeat, as Gerry and the Pacemakers; after a smooth modulation to a different key, the up-and-coming Merseybeat combo seamlessly picks up the song, finishing out “Maybellene” with a decidedly smoother, more pop-friendly polish. Not only is the segue a sterling display of showmanship, it perfectly encapsulates just how much Chuck Berry’s rock innovations were borrowed by others in the Sixties and beyond.
In 1967, the Steve Miller Band had yet to transform into the hit-making machine of their Seventies prime. Instead, the Bay Area outfit was more rooted in R&B and the emerging swirl of psychedelia – which made them a brave choice to back Berry for a 1967 concert at the famed Fillmore in San Francisco. But the band acquitted themselves beautifully, propelling their ad hoc leader through a catalog of standards from the blues canon – such as Willie Dixon’s “(I’m Your) Hoochie Coochie Man” and Memphis Slim’s “Every Day I Have the Blues” – as well as a handful of Berry’s own anthems, up to and including “Johnny B. Goode.” Throughout the inspired set, Berry stretches out in a way not seen on record since his showdown with Bo Diddley three years prior.
It was routine in the early days of rock for American stars to use local pickup bands while on tour rather than foot the expense of bringing their own backing group with them overseas. Such was the case when Berry toured the U.K. in 1972, when he picked a small band that featured two Scottish musicians, drummer Robbie McIntosh and guitarist Owen “Onnie” McIntyre, who had just formed their own outfit called Average White Band. Some of the performances from that tour were captured on the part-studio, part-live LP The London Chuck Berry Sessions. The recording of Berry’s 1957 song “Reelin’ and Rockin'” is particularly spirited, showcasing the rhythmic chops that McIntosh and McIntyre were about to bring to AWB hits like 1974’s “Pick Up the Pieces.”
Following Sha Na Na’s proto-glam spectacle at Woodstock, the throwback group went from being a subversive slap against hippie-era earthiness to a leading light of the Fifties revival of the Seventies. Their eponymous television program sealed the deal: Sha Na Na was all about hamming it up, greaser-style, at a time when freak flags and Afros were standard issue. In walked Chuck Berry himself. For a 1977 episode of the show, the rock maestro made a momentous appearance, first taking a ribbing by being mistaken for Johnny Mathis and Fats Domino, then leading Sha Na Na through an upbeat, decades-spanning version of his 1956 classic “Roll Over Beethoven.”
The Roxy on Hollywood’s fabled Sunset Strip played host to a meeting of giants in 1982. Near the end of a rollicking set, Berry invited a guest onstage, introducing her as “the fabulous – you hear me? – the fabulous Tina Turner!” The Queen of Rock & Roll herself then appeared, joining her fellow veteran rocker on a blazing sprint through his 1957 anthem “Rock and Roll Music.” The event was captured on a commercially released video called Chuck Berry Featuring Tina Turner, a bit of a misleading title due to the fact that Turner only appears on that song. Funnily enough, at the time, Turner was not much more of a draw than Berry, who was less than bankable circa 1982, before Back to the Future‘s airing of “Johnny B. Goode” helped revive his profile. Turner was still a couple years away from her own massive comeback. Which makes their small-club run through “Rock and Roll Music” feel even more like a heartfelt, down-to-earth congregation of two R&B survivors.
Despite that infamous punch, Keith Richards has never wavered in his reverence for Berry; after all, the Rolling Stones’ debut single in 1963 was a cover of Berry’s “Come On.” So it only made sense that Richards spearheaded his hero’s 60th-birthday celebration. Filmed in 1986, the concert documentary Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll featured an all-star band assembled and led by Richards, but also including the guitar frontline of Eric Clapton and Robert Cray – not to mention the birthday boy himself, who took the stage with them for a rendition of Berry’s own 1955 song “Wee Wee Hours.” An uncharacteristically slow song from the typically wild Berry, “Wee Wee Hours” proved a worthy platform for some bluesy, smoldering jamming among the guitar luminaries.
Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll trotted out a number of Berry’s big-ticket admirers, but there’s something special about Linda Ronstadt’s pairing with Berry on “Back in the U.S.A.” Ronstadt had long ago proven her prowess on soul and R&B oldies covers such as Betty Everett’s “You’re No Good” and Martha and the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave,” and she brought her gutsy-belting A game to “U.S.A.” Not to be relegated to the background on his 60th birthday, Berry pipes up with call-and-response rejoinders between Ronstadt’s lines, urging her on with enthusiastic hollers of “I’ll bet you did!” and “Sing a song!” That she did.
Etta James launched her career at Chess Records alongside Berry, so naturally his old comrade from the days of the Ecuadors and “Back in the U.S.A.” was on hand to help him celebrate his 60th. The high point of Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll, her and Berry’s fiery rendition of “Rock and Roll Music” is a revelation, a heated conversation between Berry’s immortal guitar licks and James’ equally indomitable voice. Not only is it a tour de force performance that proves just how enduring his songwriting has remained, it shows that, given the right environment, even the prickly Berry was capable of putting down his dukes long enough to craft a truly reciprocal and mutually game-upping collaboration.
Chuck Berry, rock & roll Innovator, dead at 90. Watch here.