Berkeley Flashback: Chuck Berry—What a Jerk

By Joe Garrett

Chuck Berry is dead at age 90. He is considered one of the founders of rock ‘n’ roll, but Beatle John Lennon thought he was unrivaled, once saying, “If you had to give rock ‘n’ roll another name, you’d call it Chuck Berry.” Unlike Elvis, Chuck Berry actually wrote all of his own songs. Elvis was a good performer, but Berry wrote songs that captured the teenage experience which was the foundation of rock ‘n’ roll. “School Days” says everything there is to be said about the sexual tension of high school, and “Roll Over Beethoven” announced the arrival of rock: “Roll over Beethoven, tell Tchaikovsky the news.”

What’s ironic is that 15-year-old white suburban high schoolers felt that Chuck Berry knew exactly how they felt, which is fine, but he was in his 30s, had been in prison for armed robbery, was not from the suburbs, and was not white. Regardless, here’s the story of my one encounter with him, in 1969, when I was an undergraduate at Cal.

One of my jobs back then was putting on concerts on campus, and the administration pretty much let me do whatever I wanted, as long as it didn’t lose money. The only time I was turned down was when I wanted to bring Howdy Doody and Buffalo Bob to campus. I don’t think the dean, Will Shotwell, even knew who Howdy Doody was. He just didn’t think my budget was realistic.

He wanted his speaking fee before he’d speak, and that was that. People were sort of gathering around us, and I suggested we go over to a quiet corner where we could talk about it.

Anyway, I wanted to put on Chuck Berry, and someone told me he didn’t have an agent, and you needed to call him at home. I somehow got his number and called him.  We settled on the terms pretty quickly, and on the spur of the moment I asked him if he wanted to give a speech on campus. “I think a lot of students would be really interested.” His fee was $1,500 for the performance, and we settled on $700 for his speech.

He didn’t want me to pick him up at the airport, didn’t want me to get him a hotel room, and he just told me what kind of amp to rent. When I asked him about a back-up band, he was indifferent. “Whoever you want. I don’t care.” But he needed to be paid before he went on.

At a few minutes before noon he showed up in the Student Union, where I told him he’d be speaking. All 500 seats were taken, and you could feel the electricity.  When I started to take him in there, he asked for his check. I told him I’d give him his check just before his evening performance in Zellerbach Hall. He wanted his speaking fee before he’d speak, and that was that. People were sort of gathering around us, and I suggested we go over to a quiet corner where we could talk about it.

“Look Chuck, this is the University of California, and it doesn’t go around stiffing people. You’ll get paid tonight, before you go on.”  He didn’t care. Nothing I said mattered. In this photo, I was doing my best to convince him to give his speech, but he just sat there. He hardly said a word.  He just wasn’t going to move a muscle until he got his check. Although it delayed his speech by 15 to 20 minutes, I somehow got someone to run over to Eshelman Hall and get the damned check for him.

Berry was a total jerk. Monosyllabic. Unsmiling. Uncivil. Maybe even contemptuous of a 20-year-old he thought was trying to stiff him. When the check arrived and I ushered him in to give his talk, he totally changed. He had a huge smile, he was shaking hands with people and waving to everyone as we made our way through the crowd, and he seemed like the world’s most wonderful human being.  

I introduced him and walked right out. I was so ticked off that I didn’t want to hear a word he had to say. A few years later, I took the photo of the two of us to one of his shows at the Fillmore, and he signed it. You can see it above, “Cheers, Chuck Berry.”  He was a real jerk, but he was still Chuck Berry, the guy who kind of invented rock n’ roll, and I’ve had the photo on one of my walls ever since then, almost 40 years.

I couldn’t remember if this was 1969 or 1970, and when I looked it up on the internet, I found a photo of him giving his speech that day. The photographer is selling the 11x14 print, numbered and signed (signed by the photographer, not by Chuck Berry) for $800. He writes, “It’s a bit strange that the only time I photographed Chuck Berry was not onstage but as he was giving a lecture at UC Berkeley.”

After he finished his speech, I went back in and told him we’d have a sound check at 3 p.m., and his back-up band would be there. He told me he wouldn’t be there. “But don’t you want to rehearse with them?” I remember exactly what he said, shaking his head. “Everyone knows Chuck Berry songs.” He was right.

That night, he showed up at the right time, and the first thing I did was give him his check.

Zellerbach Hall has these tiers that go from the front row of the orchestra up to the mezzanine, maybe six seats in each row. Halfway up is a fire exit behind a curtain that probably shouldn’t be there.  I asked him if he wouldn’t mind appearing from behind the curtain. I was pleasantly surprised that this disagreeable man actually agreed.

We got him a long cord for his guitar, and I told him the plan. “I’ll go on stage, do my usual introduction (‘Let’s give a big Berkeley welcome to Mr. Chuck Berry’ really drawing out his first name), and the band will start playing. Everyone will be clapping and cheering, but they’ll be expecting you to come out from the wings on the side of the stage. But I want you to wait. After maybe ten seconds when you don’t appear, the cheering will start to quiet down, and just at that point, I want you to step out from behind the curtain. If things go like they’re supposed to, the lighting guy will hit you with a spotlight, and the moment he does, you’re on.”

It worked out perfectly. When people saw that he was ten rows up on the tiers, bathed in light and hitting one of those familiar Chuck Berry chords, the place erupted. It seemed that everyone was on their feet, screaming at the top of their lungs, totally blown away by this iconic figure playing his guitar and gyrating, twisting, spinning, and duck-walking down the steps and onto the stage.

What a showman.

After his performance, I asked him if he’d like to get something to eat, I suppose thinking that he’d finally be in a good mood. We went to Larry Blake’s, a hamburger joint a block from Zellerbach Hall. I don’t remember what I was thinking, but he brought a newspaper and read it the whole time. I don’t think he said a word.

What can you say about him?  He wasn’t a pleasant guy to be around, but he wrote some amazing songs, and he put on a great show. Rest in peace, Chuck Berry. You were one of a kind.

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I’m wondering who in this story was a jerk — the man who clearly asked to be paid in advance, or the (admittedly a) kid who ignored the agreement — and carries a grudge this many years later, to the point of gratuitously dragging Berry’s criminal record into the story. And all these years, I’ve missed the “sexual tension” in “School Day.” Maybe it’s from the cook in the lunchroom?
he was the greatest and i can see his concern. by the way you did good to solve the problem
I’ve always liked Joe; never cared much for Chuck.
I’m sorry you didn’t like the article. But carry a grudge all these years? Just the opposite. Producing a show with him was totally fun. I didn’t choose the title, but I approved it, and it’s pretty accurate. Also, I remember that he gave very specific instructions on being paid “before the show” — and he didn’t cover when he was to get paid for his speech. Did that ever occur to you, Mr. Angry Critic? This guy’s comment is why I like to read articles in physical print, so I don’t have to see what every frustrated, wannabe critic thinks about the subject. About this critic, I’m guessing people who know him would have three words to describe him: What a jerk!
You’ve got me, there! Looking back, all that rancor is clearly loving. Not only am I frustrated, I have no ear for irony.
I was reading a biography of Chuck Berry the other day in which a friend of his mentioned that after his second stint in jail (which ended in 63) he was never the same. The new personality he described matches what you described yourself.
I think that the negative critique of Joe Garrett’s article could be, largely, the result of the article’s succinct, but rather harsh title — for which the author was not entirely responsible. The title struck me as a rather negative and hostile introduction to the author’s story about his experience with Chuck Berry at UCB in 1969. The title sets up the article in a way which seems intended, more or less, to slant the reader’s opinion (really, any reader’s opinion - including mine, initially) in the direction of feeling or concluding that the main purpose of the article was to make sure that “everyone knows” that Chuck Berry was (or definitely could be, as anyone, at times, can be) a jerk, Yes, Chuck Berry did act like a jerk, in some ways, in his dealings with Mr. Garrett and UC Berkeley. I think it is fine for the author to say that, as he is speaking about his own first hand experience. But the title seems to be making an unduly harsh and sweeping conclusion about Chuck Berry’s overall character. It seems disrespectful — and perhaps a bit unfair — to “tell everyone”, at the outset, that the recently deceased icon of Rock’n’Roll was simply “a jerk”. The rather unfortunate and rude way that Mr. Berry acted toward Joe Garrett — i.e., petulantly insisting that he be “paid up-front” before he would give his speech, refusing to engage in conversation with Mr. Garrett while enjoying the hospitality of a free meal with him, etc. — may well have been a function of the rock icon’s own unfortunate previous experiences (as Ms. Stride indicates in her comment); and/or it may have been the result of a wide “cultural” and experiential gap between Mr. Berry and the young Mr. Garrett. I am not trying to excuse Chuck Berry’s rude and “jerk-ish” behavior. Just saying that the title of the article makes both the article — and the writer’s experience — seem less balanced than Mr. Garrett says it was, in fact. I was happy to hear that Chuck Berry came through with an exciting and enjoyable performance for the audience at Zellerbach Hall at that 1969 concert. I enjoyed Mr. Garrett’s article and thought it was quite interesting. But, it might have been better — and seemed less harsh — if the article had been entitled, “Berkeley Flashback: When Chuck Berry came to UCB”. Nevertheless, Mr. Garrett’s article made me wish I had started at UCB in 1969, instead of 1970, so that I might have had the opportunity to see and hear the legendary Chuck Berry live!
Maria, I agree with you 100%. The title I originally had when I wrote it was, simply, “Chuck Berry Comes to Cal.” In hindsight, I should have insisted they stick with it and not call him a jerk. When I look back on it, 49 years later, his issue about getting paid was only a minor distraction from what was a fun, very cool event.
When it comes to Chuck Berry and Lou Reed, the word “jerk” is going to come up but keep in mind Chuck punched Keith Richards for looking at him the wrong way. 1969 was also a time Laura Nyro was making the rounds on campuses, got anything on her?
Nope. The only female singer at all like Laura Nyro whom I produced was Joni Mitchell, also at Zellerbach. I had tried to get Judy Collins, but she was too expensive. Amazing as it sounds, Joni Mitchell (and Chuck Berry) were $1,500 plus travel. But that was in 1968 dollars.
Just some information additionally re. Mr. Berry. A friend of mind knew him through a very talented musician named Darryl Davis. My friend worked and still does work booking Mr. Davis for performances, interviews,etc. Darryl worked for years along with his band backing Chuck Berry. Mr. Berry as I understand , had many bad experiences years prior with several issues. Among them were problems with payment, musicians stealing his music and much more. He, therefore, OBVIOUSLY developed a trust issue. So to remedy it and the severe inconvenience it created he set up a policy of payment ALWAYS BEFORE he went on stage. If he didn’t receive it per that agreement, he would simply exit. I don’t recall hearing after this was in place the number of times he would arrive and soon after exit, but my impression was that it would not be often because this policy began to be known by all involved. Mr. Berry was a PHENOMENAL performer, an icon but my friend who knew him said he was a quiet man basically off stage, appeared polite and mild mannered from what she heard and saw of him but he had become extremely careful when it came to trust for the reasons mentioned here and others. In my opinion at this point he best be remembered as being a legend, including voted at one time as one of the top guitar players in the world , and for the great entertainment he brought to the world.
I agree with you, and the trust also had to do with how he was treated by the law and his ensuing imprisonment. By the way I didn’t pick the title calling him a jerk.
It was actually cause he came up on him from behind in a crowded room..
Ha. Could be. Bottom line was this: He put on a great show and did what he had contracted to do. Shortly after that I put on a show with Tim Hardin. He didn’t show up backstage on time and I had to go on stage and announce that the show was cancelled. His wife found me backstage and angrily told me that he was in that building” over there.” We went over to the Student Union, and there he was, in the mens room, strung out on heroin, his shirt off and scratching his body wildly, incoherent. Now HE was a jerk. Chuck Berry by comparison, was a gentleman.

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