Just before noon on October
27th, Chuck Berry made a rare move: he gave an interview. Visiting Cleveland to accept the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s American Music Masters Award, the 86-year-old met with journalists at the museum’s offices before touring an exhibit celebrating his life. He sat at a conference-room table, wearing a sea captain’s hat, a gold bolo tie and a giant Hall of Fame varsity jacket with his name embroidered on it. “You can’t get any higher, in my profession, than this building,” he said, smiling. Then he paused. “I’m wondering about my future,” Berry said, raising his index finger. “That’s news!”
Asked to expand, the guitarist leaned forward, his voice hushed: “Well, I’ll give you a little piece of poetry. ‘Give you a song? I can’t do that. My singing days have passed. My voice is gone. My throat is worn and my lungs are going fast.’ I think that explains it.”
But at 86, Berry is still full of surprises. Just hours later, he played a raw set at Cleveland’s State Theatre – grinning, duckwalking and stabbing away at his Gibson 335 through “Johnny B. Goode” and a sizzling 12-minute “Reelin’ and Rockin’.” It was the grand finale of a moving tribute to his work, featuring Merle Haggard, Motörhead’s Lemmy Kilmister, Run-DMC’s Darryl “DMC” McDaniels and others. At the end of the night, Berry accepted the Hall of Fame’s American Masters of Music Award, standing beside his wife of 64 years, Themetta. “I’m 86,” Berry said. “I’m glad to be anywhere!”
The show highlighted just how far Berry’s influence reaches. Haggard put a twangy spin on “Memphis,” Kilmister played a whiskey-soaked version of “Bye Bye Johnny” and DMC retooled “School Days” as a hip-hop anthem. “He was the first rapper’s rapper,” DMC said backstage. “He was flowin’!”
“He was one of my first heroes,” said Kilmister, sipping a Jack Daniels and Coke in his dressing room before the show. “I liked his attitude. He had that smile and that pencil mustache -sort of a Lothario, you know. He was always a horn dog, and so was I.”
Berry first played Cleveland in a weeklong gig in 1955. “[They offered] $800 a week,” Berry said. “And I said, ‘I’m going to do the best I can with it. I wanted to make it!'” Now, 57 years later, he spent an afternoon checking out the Hall of Fame’s exhibit on his life, accompanied by Charles Jr., daughter Ingrid and his wife.
Berry reflected on how far the country has come since the days when he was forced to play segregated venues throughout the South. “I never thought that a man with the qualities, features and all that he has [could] be our president,” he said of Barack Obama. “My dad said, ‘You may not live to see that day,’ and I believed him. I thank God that I have.” He paused as his eyes welled up.
In another humble moment, Berry admitted that he’s not satisfied with the quality of his own performances, despite sellout crowds at his monthly show at St. Louis’ Blueberry Hill. “They’re having a great time from memory,” Berry said. “And I hope that I can continue to enhance their memory, because it looks very dim, like I said.”
But that doesn’t mean he’s retiring: “That shall never be, as long as I am able to see a little, hear a little and do but a little. I’ll want to perform. I think it’s in my own genes.” In fact, Berry says he still has plans to release his first album since 1979. “I have six songs that have been ready for, I guess, 16 years now,” he said. “I want to push them out.” He smiled, his brown eyes lighting up. “I’m going to come back and push them out, if you know what I mean.”
“I’m 86,” Berry said at the Hall of Fame tribute, alongside his wife. “I’m glad to be anywhere!”