Robbie Robertson Remembers ‘Original Guitar God’ Chuck Berry
One of the most indelible moments in Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll, Taylor Hackford’s 1986 documentary on Chuck Berry, finds Robbie Robertson leafing through a scrapbook of various photos, ticket stubs and other Berry memorabilia and discussing the rock & roll pioneer’s process and legacy. “I tried to tell a story. It came from poetry,” Berry tells Robertson about his early lyrics. “Poetry portrays a scene or a story and that’s where my lyrics would originate from.”
Following Berry’s death Saturday, Robertson shared a poignant tribute to the singer-guitarist detailing the movie, corralling Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino and Berry for a reunion show and a memorable visit to St. Louis to see his idol.
Through the years, I’ve had several classic rendezvous with the father of rock & roll. I was the original musical director and creative consultant for the Chuck Berry movie Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll. After a couple of meetings with Chuck, I realized that he didn’t like being structured or musically directed so I wisely asked Keith Richards to take on that responsibility.
I loved Chuck and had a deep appreciation for him being one of the originators of rock & roll guitar and a brilliant poet. We ended up doing a thing for the movie where he recited poetry and I accompanied him on guitar. It was beautiful and his memory for poems totally impressed me. We laughed about how in school you could get your butt kicked for liking poetry. He said what turned that around for him was the beat generation.
Some years ago, I put together a gathering of the surviving founding fathers of rock & roll in New Orleans. We had Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino and, of course, Chuck Berry. Just to see the four of them sitting there side by side was enough to take your breath away. This was IT! These four gentlemen made music that changed the world. I was so excited about this summit that I brought my son, Sebastian, to witness the event. ONCE IN A LIFETIME.
My friend Steve Bing flew us to pick up Jerry Lee in Memphis. Little Richard came in on his bus. Chuck insisted on traveling separately with his son Charles. Fats lives in NOLA so all we needed was a meeting place. I had convinced Jann Wenner, the chairman of the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame, that we needed to film this. So he put the production in motion. Peter Guralnick, the great music writer, came in to interview the four legends. It was hilarious, awkward, touching, sometimes competitive, paranoid and priceless. Proving once again you can’t wrangle cats. Especially the hippest, coolest cats like this group.
Just a few years ago, I had the opportunity to stop in St. Louis with some friends and visit Chuck. He was playing a gig that night at a club in town. Just to see him still taking the stage at his age was a momentous occasion. His daughter, Ingrid, and his son Charles were performing with him and had his back. In the dressing room, Ingrid said, “Oh dad, dad, you gotta hear Robbie’s song ‘Somewhere Down The Crazy River.’” Chuck smiled and said, “I like that title, you know why? Cuz that’s where I live, down the crazy river.” He laughed and patted me on the back.
I was so glad to see the original guitar god one more time. My son Sebastian had said to me, back in New Orleans, “Did you see his hands? Did you see those fingers? No wonder he can play like that. So much music came out of those hands. Wow!”
I heard that NASA had sent a copy of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” up into outer space. Probably in case aliens from another world heard it. That would tell them something about us earthlings. And maybe … all they needed to know.
Bless his soul.
Hear memorable Chuck Berry collaborations, featuring Keith Richards, Etta James and many more.