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.
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.