This is the latest entry in the Between the Seats weekly feature, a collaboration between Elwood’s BluesMobile, the nation’s longest-running syndicated Blues music radio show, hosted by Dan Aykroyd as Elwood Blues, and American Blues Scene Magazine, the recognized leader in blues music news.
Every week, Elwood Blues digs deep down between the seats and pulls another interesting, exciting, revealing interview with a blues personality from the archives.
This week’s “Between The Seats” features an interesting snapshot of a man who is rock & roll: Chuck Berry from way back in October, 2001.
Elwood Blues: Let me welcome you to the The Bluesmobile.
Chuck Berry: Okay great.
First of all, on a personal note I have to say I’ve done a lot of interviews in my life and this a real privilege and a pleasure to be on the telephone with you sir.
You’re one of my heroes. If I seem a little nervous it’s because I am.
Oh, you’re my John Lennon, how’s that?
We’re the House of Blues Radio Show and we talk a lot about the blues. Your start in the recording industry really started with Muddy Waters, didn’t it?
My introduction to record companies was with Muddy Waters.
How did you end up meeting Muddy and how did that whole thing happen?
Okay now this, you might find this to help you along with it in my autobiography. I wrote an autobiography in ’86. Anyway, it’s in there and I met Muddy playing at the Palladium on Wabash Avenue in Chicago one evening. And I asked him how do you go about recording music, getting a song recorded? He said go by and see Leonard Chess on 4720 Cottage Grove, and I did that. And of course he said bring some of your material up — this is Leonard talking to me, and we’ll see what we can do. I went back up with the material which was “Maybellene”. Wally had named — I had named it “Ida Red” because I was singing country and I had “Wee Wee Hours”.
I was singing some blues from Muddy Waters and he said, bring the band up and I’ll record you. Well, I didn’t waste any time. I was up that Friday with the band in my little station wagon. And he recorded us and that was our first recording. Those three songs turned out to be “Maybellene” because he said there a song already named “Ida Red”. I couldn’t name it “Ida Red”. And we did “Wee Wee Hours”, “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Too Much Monkey Business”. Yeah, right. I’m sorry, it was “30 Days,” I think.
What was it like for you going into a recording studio for the first time?
Amazing. Never even talked about any money man until — in fact, I was too glad to be recorded. I knew that there was some pay to it but it didn’t matter. You know, to have all that professional equipment around and recording was just a thrill.
What was it like at Chess back then? I mean, you got to play on many of your early sessions. There was Fred Belou and Willie Dixon and a lot of Chess all-stars. What was Chess Records — what was it like to be part of that Chess family?
Well, I didn’t know about the family, all I knew is Willie Dixon was told to play bass for us to fill out the music, to fill out the sound. And of course when we got through with the four songs, you know he told us to sign these papers, you know. And you know, he didn’t have no trouble just having us just sign papers, you know.
He said the songs are pretty good, we’ll publish them and see what we can do you know. Well, that was good enough, because when they played them back it sounded like good old music, you know. And pretty soon I began to hear them from WEN, WEN, something in New York, I forget what it was. Allen Freed was on WGW — it’s something in New York. And just to hear it on the radio, that’s good. Then he come and told me he had — in about a month he said he’s going to send me a check, a royalty check you know. And geese come on man, you know. and the check was something like $600 or $700. Oh man, where have I been all my life, you know?! So that’s how it got started.
That’s wonderful. Did you ever get a chance to thank Muddy or anything?
Oh yes, many times, many times. I have a picture of my arms around this man in Nice, France. We both were working the same concert, and not only that, I also was with him I think it was in ’58 when Jack Teagarden and Anita O’Day was in a jazz festival. Imagine Muddy and I being at a jazz festival! Newport… that was a thrill. So many times I’ve seen him. I’ve also met him in Montreaux, Italy — um, Montreaux?
Oh wow, that’s great.
And met his buddy too, Little Walter. Oh geez, come on these are my idols.
Now Little Walter, people tell stories about Little Walter that he was one dangerous dude.
Man, he might have been dangerous but he was sure darling. Oh man, that man could sing and blow.
The way he played that harmonica, it was like a saxophone, it was incredible.
I’m tellin’ ya. I’m tellin’ you.
What about guitarists? Who were you looking up to when you were coming up as people you wanted to sound like?
Well, Louis Jordan was one of my inspirations because he had such great lyrics. That’s what started me to writing, writing you know. And Nat Cole songs started me to singing because with Nat, I could hear every word. Nat had such great diction and a velvet voice. I wanted to sound like Nat so bad, you know? And I wanted to sing like Louis Jordan. Naturally I did the best I could [laughs]. But it was good enough to get me started.
It’s amazing. I’ve interviewed James Brown and B.B. King and they both and a number of others, Mose Allison, a bunch of people point to Louis Jordan as the person that they wanted to sound like and wanted to be like. What was it about Louis that was so special?
The lyrics. He produced the lyrics. The delivery of his voice and his inspiration with the lyrics that he used is what broke the ice in the white population. And man, they played his music too. In fact, he performed mostly in the white community.
Actually when you started out didn’t they think you were a white performer?
Well, you — ho, ho, ho, ho, listen to this. Knoxville, Tennessee, I used to perform by myself sometimes when it was far away when I first started out, because the band was not ready to go with me. They said “just come on. We’ll get a band to back you”. In other words, I went to this place, a little country and western place in Knoxville and I got there about 4 o’clock in the evening. I wanted to lay my instruments down and then go out and get something to eat you know. when I knocked on the — there was no front door.
It was 4 o’clock in the evening, the nightclub hadn’t opened. And the guy opened the door and I said I’m Chuck Berry, can I leave my instruments here, I’m playing here tonight. He said, you’re Chuck Berry? He say, hey George, come here. And he called some guy from inside and he said this is a black guy or something like that he said. But anyway, here’s the whole instance, he said no, we, we, you’re not playing here tonight. So it meant a lot you know that it meant it was good that my voice was — I guess it was my voice that carried it through that they accepted as a Caucasian voice or diction whatever. But I didn’t get to play on that gig you know.
They don’t know what they missed.
Well, they admit they didn’t have blacks playing there.
But what I mean is, oh to have been back there then and to have been able to say we saw Chuck Berry. We were the first ones to hire Chuck Berry. Now, you know…
Oh, you mean, oh now, yes I don’t know. You know, things have changed considerably. But that’s just one of the things.
I remember that story and I just wanted you to tell our listeners.
So how does it feel, you’re going to be 75? How does it feel?
I guess, turn it around and look at it from the other side. It feels like I’m 47.
Even when you were 47, you were writing like a 16 year old.
Yeah man, that was “Sweet 16” days. “Sweet as little 16” and “Memphis, Tennessee” and stuff. See, I had a family and I was in business and making good money and supporting my family and my dad’s family, too. So I was happy and I was applying myself to the business. Then after so many successes you start getting lazy and that’s no good.
When you go about writing a song, how do you do it? Where does it come from? Does it just jump out?
Yeah, sometimes. You know, I don’t say jump. I know what you mean by “jump out”. It happens — with me, it happens anyway, I won’t say everybody because, you know, I don’t know. But anyway, like I would sit down sometimes to write a song and wind up writing another song because I got into the song that it got some lyrics that reminded me of something else and that something else song flowed like — I’ll just say it flows like water and I just finished it and I’d go back to this song that I’m having a problem now because what I originally thought for this song, I changed. And it would wind up being a song like “Sweet Little 16” and I would have started off writing “Too Much Monkey Business”. So you can get all mixed up.
One of the things that other songwriters say about your songs is that they sound natural. They sound like they’re just spoken, that they don’t sound contrived. They just sound like things flow naturally.
They must be talking about — they say that I rhyme pretty good. I like poetry and if a song doesn’t rhyme [laughs] I might pass by it, you know. But I do like to pronounce my diction very good, because I grew up with Nat Cole. Man, Nat Cole had a velvet voice with perfect diction. I wanted to get the story over, and playing the guitar I always stopped when I wanted to get a point over. Stopped the guitar, break from it and spit the lyrics out and then go back to playing the riff or whatever it was. Instead of playing right over where you can hardly tell the riff from the lyrics.
Do you think you’re a good guitarist?
Listen, I’ll play guitar until the guitarist comes.
[laughs] I’m sorry. Yeah, I’ll bar no man, you know, I’ll play with him, you know. If he leaves an opening I’m in there.
When they write the history of 20th century music, what are they going to say about Chuck Berry?
Now, see I like these questions because they’re so easy to answer. I can’t answer it, that’s what I say to these kinds of questions because you’re asking me what will somebody else think or what will somebody else say. I hope that it’s good whatever it is.
What would you like them to say?
And what would the truth be?
Well, see, I don’t know, because anything that I create I should not — oh what do you call it? I should not judge. It’s for others to judge, because that’s what makes — I write a song, it’s just words and music. People report back — enough of them report back and it’s a hit. If none report back, it’s just words and music. That’s the way I look at it man. I don’t make — I don’t write, I’ve never written a hit. I’ve written a song, words and music and others cause it to become a hit by appreciating it and responding to it. You know, I just can’t say that I wrote a hit ever.
Do you have any particular, do you like any particular versions of your songs? Other people’s versions?
Yes, you know, that would be pretty much because I look at it as my song, however he plays it. For instance, Johnny Rivers played “Memphis” and he switched verses, that’s okay you know. I mean, it wasn’t any better nor any worse than mine which ever it might have been.
If you could play with any musician, if you could play with anybody whoever lived, who would you want to play with?
Now this is going to floor you. Nat Cole, Louis Jordan and Benny Goodman because he’s the one that brought me up. I’m sorry Tommy Dorsey not Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey. Tommy Dorsey’s Boogie Woogie is the greatest Boogie Woogie in the world and every time I hear it. Anyway, who would I want to play with? I guess those would be enough and Ray Charles, come on. Oh yeah.
And I’ve got news for you, once again, Little Walter. Now, I’m getting into it because I could go ahead on now. Anytime I could play with Muddy Waters, Little Walter, these guys man, they didn’t live long enough man.
Do you remember the first blues music that you heard?
Big Maceo’s “I’ve Got Make Me Those Worried Life Blues”.
You got it.
You remember that?
I sure do. I wasn’t alive when it came out but I do know the song. Big Maceo Merriweather.
Yes, originally. I’m talking about the original. Big Maceo was one of the few. There was Lonnie Johnson, You’re too young to know these guys, man. This was long when “I’ll Never Smile Again”. Those songs were Tommy Dorsey. Ella Fitzgerald, “A Tisket, A Tasket”. See, I’m a grandfather, you know, I’ll teach you a few things. Listen to your elders.
Where did you hear this music? When you were growing up, where did you hear the music?
Well see, we had the radios, WOAI, San Antonio. I mean, WOAI is in Memphis I’m sorry. Am I saying this right? Anyway, San Antonio, Memphis and there was — I forget the call letters in Chicago. I think it’s WG — see, what’s his name? Allen Freed was in Cleveland when I first listened to him, then he went to New York. Then we listened to those two stations. I forget both station’s call letters.
But when you were listening, when you were growing up you heard this music on the radio mainly?
Oh yes, oh yes.
Do you remember the first musician you ever saw live in person?
Yes, Nat Cole in the Keil Auditorium in St. Louis and I was 11.
How did you get in?
My sister and brother took me in. They’re the ones that listed to the music but I remember who it was. I also saw Duke too once, another time.
Boy, and I didn’t see him. I saw the spot, I saw the piano he was playing and I saw the man playing the piano. I know it was Nat Cole because he was on the marquee you know. We was listening to him, boy, hum, hum, hum. He was signing “Straighten Up and Fly Right” then, by the way.
One of the greatest.
Oh. Do you remember “Straighten Up and Fly Right”?
Oh yeah. And what was that song on the other side of it? Doggone it, I know you’re going to like this one [sings] and [sings].
Oh yeah, I know it. I know that.
“Baby, Baby That Ain’t Right”. That’s the name of the song. That ain’t right, [sings] I bought you pink champagne. You rode home in a taxi and I bought the subway train. Baby that ain’t right at all. [sings more of the song]. You know I used to sing those songs when I was — just before “Maybellene” and I made a hit singing them.
Sure, of course.
My voice wasn’t as good as Nat Cole’s but in the dump that I was playing, it sounded just as velvet.
One song that I always loved is “Havana Moon”.
Oh man, you know what, I’m repeating that. that’s one song I’m covering and I’m covering me you know and I’m covering the Atco version of it. Are you listening to the one on that Rocket album?
I do have the Rocket album. I remember that.
Okay, well that’s the one that I’m covering because there’s a dual voice on it.
I love that song. Where did it come from? Where did you get the inspiration for Havana Moon?
From Nat Cole, From Nat Cole’s [sings] why oh, why oh, why oh, why oh, why oh why. Do you remember that?
[sings] “Calypso Girl, she goldlielocks, is what she see is what she got, why oh, why oh, why oh.
Yes sir, boy that was — but see that was in minor so “Havana Moon” is in major. But you know what? Don’t look for “Havana Moon”, look for “Jamaica Moon”. I don’t want no political, excuse me, shit involved in it. That’s what held the song back. Cuba was in such turmoil you know so instead of Havana it’s going to be Jamaica. I’m also going to use the dialect because [does dialect] me walking alone, me bring jug of rum, me wait down on the seashore because the boat she come. Can you hear the Jamaica?
When can we expect this new Chuck Berry record?
I thought I’d have it March when I started working deliriously on it. I thought I’d have it ready by this birthday party but, man, you know, I’m wondering now will I get it ready by Christmas now… But I’m working sincerely on it now.
Whenever it does come out it’s going to be — the mechanics of it is going to be perfect like Ray Charles’ music you see.
The last thing is, can you tell us what the Chicago blues scene was like when you first started? Back when “Maybellene” first came out and you met the Chess guys and you went to Chess Studios?
Um, stop talking. Listen to this. Unbelievable. In the first place, that was my music. You know, I could shed tears. In the first place, I didn’t have a girlfriend. I’m already married. I’m already married by this time when I’m going up to Chicago. I never had a girlfriend in high school because I was a funny guy. You know like my name was C-H-A-W-B-E-R, Chawberry. And Chawberry is funny you know and being funny, you don’t have a girlfriend because when you ask her to dance she’ll laugh right in your face. Not because she wants to, because she knows you’re going to be funny and you’re serious. You know, you want a girl, come on. What I’m saying is — I forgot what I was getting at now.
You were talking about Chicago in the early days.
I know but what was the question you asked?
Well, what was Chicago like back then? What was Chicago like, the Chess whole scene?
What was the blues like?
Yes, what was the scene like?
Well here, I loved the blues. I say the blues was fantastic because when I sing the blues, I wouldn’t get over in school. You know, I loved the blues and I wanted to sing the blues but when I’d sing something funny like “Too Much Monkey Business” or “You Can’t Catch Me”, I’d go over and I’d get smiles from the girls and so forth. So you asked me what was it like, it was confusing to me because what I loved I couldn’t produce. When I got what I wanted, I was producing something I didn’t care about and that was the comical stuff. That’s what it was like for me, confusing. But I enjoyed it, I enjoyed the music immensely but it didn’t bring the product that I wanted.
Or I should say didn’t bring the relationships.
The last thing is when you started they said that you were playing hillbilly music. Why is it hillbilly music?
Well, you say hillbilly, hillbilly is country western put in a better perspective. I mean a more modern perspective. Hillbilly music was all I heard on KMOX and WIL. WIL is still playing solid straight uncontaminated country now, today. You know, so all I heard in St. Louis was locally here was country music. When you pass by somewhere and hear something all day long, you go home you won’t have to do records of your best so if you didn’t do WOAI in San Antonio, Memphis or Chicago, you didn’t hear blues, not here in St. Louis. Until Spider Burke. Are you from St. Louis?
Okay, anyway St. Louisians, we got our first black disk jockey in — when? It was 1944. Here I’m 12 years old now, it’s time I’m meeting a girl or something you know. You know music, come on, the only reason why you remember it is you remember who you was with when you first heard the music. [laughs]. That’s known now you know, people don’t talk about it but that’s what makes the music is how you were treated when the music was playing. Yes, sir.
Yes, of course.
So anyway I got along, I did what I could.
You did unbelievably, sir and we are so indebted to you for everything that you have done. We will do all that we can to promote this new record and promote everything that you decide — you know, that you do. Just from the bottom of my heart for our whole team up here we just want to wish you the happiest and healthiest and most prosperous birthday you’ve ever had.
Well Elwood, what can I say? You know, let’s do it again sometime.