At the time, Berry was well into his pickup-band years, touring the country and playing with local groups to save money. But he also on the edge of a resurgence, thanks to a salacious autobiography and Hail Hail Rock & Roll!, the concert film about his 60th birthday concert that was released that year, which exposed Berry’s fascinatingly difficult personality.
But Berry had clear respect for Johnny Carson, the King of Late Night, who felt the same way about Berry, devoting the entire episode of his network TV hit show to Berry: three interview segments plus musical performances. Carson begins by telling a story about how Berry, in typical fashion, was late for his performance due to travel issues and had just soundchecked right in front of the studio audience. “Is it worth sticking around for?” Carson asks, to huge applause. Berry proceeds to play a raw “Memphis” alone on stage, with Carson’s studio band out of the frame. It’s a little out of tune, but Berry is loose and playful, his voice as strong as it was in 1955. He unleashes on his Gibson and taps the strings to the rhythm during the verse.
Berry’s multi-segment interview is even more fascinating. Though awkward at times, Berry opens up on subjects he had normally shut down in the past. He shares why he stopped touring with a band (“in the ’60s, things got a little juicy, and then they got a little smokey in the late Sixties. I didn’t want any part of it,” Berry said. Carson responded: “I understand.”) Berry shares the recipe for his musical inspiration: “I wanted to sing like Nat Cole with lyrics like Louis Jordan, with the swing of Benny Goodman … playing Carl Hogan’s riffs, and with the soul of Muddy Waters. I had it all mixed in.” And at one point, Berry gets up to showcase a new version of his famous duckwalk he’d been working on. That’s just the first segment: Berry strolls over to the stage to play “Roll Over Beethoven,” then heads back to the couch for another interview, and then does another song. Berry loosens up with each segment, at one point getting sentimental about why he still loves his job: “I really do. When I’m near that mic and there’s people looking at me, it just goes all through me.”
The appearance was clearly important to Berry. Decades later, Berry told Rolling Stone‘s Neil Strauss that when he was younger, he wanted to be a comedian. “It’s… 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),” Strauss wrote. “And why interviews with him are filled with random quips and one-liners.”
“Does he still want to be a comedian?” Strauss asked Berry.
“Every time I get a chance,” Berry replied. “I’m still trying!”