Chuck Berry once gave me a black eye, which I later called his greatest hit. We saw him play in New York somewhere, and afterward I was backstage in his dressing room, where his guitar was lying in its case. I wanted to look, out of professional interest, and as I’m just plucking the strings, Chuck walked in and gave me this wallop to the frickin’ left eye. But I realized I was in the wrong. If I walked into my dressing room and saw somebody fiddling with my ax, it would be perfectly all right to sock ’em, you know? I just got caught.
He would do things like throw me offstage, too. I always took that as a reverse compliment, sort of as a sign of respect – because otherwise he wouldn’t bother with me.
He was a little prickly, but at the same time there was a very warm guy underneath that he wasn’t that willing to display. There were other times between us when we’re sitting around and rehearsing, and going, ‘Man, you know, between us we got that shit down” – and there would be a beautiful, different feeling.
Chuck is the granddaddy of us all. Even if you’re a rock guitarist who wouldn’t name him as your main influence, your main influence is probably still influenced by Chuck Berry. He is rock & roll in its pure essence. The way he moved, especially in those early film clips; the exuberant ease when he laid down that rhythm was mystifying and something to behold. He used his whole arm to play. He used the shoulder and elbows. Most of us just use our wrists; I’m still working on the shoulder bit. Chuck was not one of those guitar players grimacing at every note he played, which is so common among us all. Chuck’s smiling as he’s playing that shit.
But his songwriting, man. I mean, who can come up with “Too Much Monkey Business”? “Jo Jo Gunne,” “School Days,” “Back in the U.S.A.”? And “Memphis, Tennessee” is untouchable. It’s got a beauty all its own, an intriguing tenderness. There’s a sort of reality in the plea of it – a great, poignant story – and such a beautiful chord sequence, beautifully played. The drums are a wonder. It’s one of those moments you only catch now and again on record, and he caught it. It’s all there in two-and-a-half minutes.
As a budding rock & roll guitar player, his music blasted you into another stratosphere. There is sort of a golden period for Chuck’s music. When he was at Chess, he was playing in the best studio, with the right players, with Willie Dixon behind him. I always come back to the word “exuberant” when I listen to those records. It was stunning all around – the production, the sound, the sheer energy of them. After that, he always seemed to me to be sort of searching. And doing time didn’t help. He came out a different man.
He was incredibly versatile in his music. He would play everything. He was picking up guitar from the jazz guys – Charlie Christian, and definitely T-Bone Walker with that double-string work – and he was very much aware of songwriters of the standards. He was a real fan of the Nat King Cole Trio. I think he listened to everything, because he was just as adept at country music, too. His music is an incredible mixture of America. There’s Spanish in there, bayou stuff, and swamp.
When the Stones were playing clubs, it was basically Chuck and the blues – which, to me, is not that different! We loved to play “Around and Around.” Chuck’s music is interesting to play because it’s not as simple as it looks – and it’s also a matter of how interesting you can make it. The swing beat he used gave a different flavor. That’s the meaning of the roll in rock & roll: It bounced.
In 1986, when we made Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll, I moved into his house in Berry Park for weeks. It was a childhood dream come true – I’m living at Chuck Berry’s house, putting a band together with him! Steve Jordan, Chuck Leavell and [NRBQ’s] Joey Spampinato were there too, and every day was an adventure. One night I woke up and found him outside the door with this enormous machine, shampooing the rug at three in the morning: “It’s gotta get done!”
The scene with “Carol” in the movie was a little bit of game-playing on his part. He was fucking with me. He was correcting me, but it can be slightly different every time. I thought, “Well, I’ll just show how stoic I can be under these sorts of occasions and do it.”
I got the call that he was gone, it wasn’t a total, unexpected shock, but I kind
of got the strange feeling that I remembered when Buddy Holly died. I was in
school, and this whisper started to go around the classroom. The whole class
gave this collective gasp of horror. This was that same blow to the gut. It hit
me harder than I expected. But Chuck certainly hung in there. There’s another
thing I hope to emulate.
As told to Patrick Doyle
Luke Bryan, Dierks Bentley and Joe Walsh salute Chuck Berry at the 2017 ACM Awards with a performance of “Johnny B. Goode.”