Four years ago, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame brought together Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis for a historic group interview. It wasn’t easy to get the rock pioneers in the same room. “Fats doesn’t travel well, so we took the others to his hometown of New Orleans,” says Hall of Fame president Joel Peresman. “The group interview was great, even if Richard hijacked things a little bit. The next day we separated them and conducted really deep interviews on their whole lives.”
It was the beginning of the Hall of Fame’s oral-history project, an unprecedented collection of videotaped conversations with key figures in rock history. So far, the Hall of Fame has interviewed everyone from Grace Slick, Art Garfunkel and Dion DiMucci to Iggy Pop, Debbie Harry, Chuck D and Darryl “DMC” McDaniels. The interviews, by veteran rock writers like David Ritz, Anthony DeCurtis, Alan Light, Holly George-Warren and Parke Puterbaugh, have run as long as six hours. Many offer in-depth portraits unavailable elsewhere. “In Chuck Berry’s, he starts to cry when he talks about this song his father used to sing to him as a boy,” says Peresman. “His son said he’d never seen him tell that story or even react to one like that.”
In the coming months, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Library and Archives — a Cleveland building separate from the Hall of Fame — will make the oral histories available to visitors. Don’t expect to see them on YouTube or anywhere on the Web. “That wasn’t the deal we made with artists,” says Peresman. “We said this wasn’t going to be for commercial purposes.” Supplementing the histories will be interviews taped for the 1995 Time Life documentary series The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll, including conversations with Carl Perkins, Joey Ramone, Johnny Ramone and Joe Strummer.
The wish list for future oral histories includes Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, Aretha Franklin and the surviving members of the Grateful Dead. “You have to get these people’s stories while they’re still alive,” says Peresman. “That is the key mission, to have these kinds of documents and these kinds of stories told in the voices of the artists.”