Like everyone else of a certain age, I first heard of Chuck Berry when “Maybellene” came out in 1955. It really changed the scene. Not just musically, but culturally too. I was hooked.
Years later, in the mid-1960s, I met Chuck Berry when he played a concert at a high school here in St. Louis. I can’t remember which school now, but after the show I came up to him and congratulated him on the performance. He was really accessible back then and that also made an impression on me. Twenty years later, unbelievably, we’d become friends.
It began with a beer line I founded in early 1980s called Rock & Roll Beer. I thought it would be fun to have a beer that tied into the music tradition of [my restaurant and music club] Blueberry Hill. After a couple of years, I decided to do a “Heroes of Rock & Roll” series in which the cans would feature the early pioneers of the music. It was important to me that the first series be dedicated to Chuck Berry. So I put in some calls and finally got a hold of him, and he agreed to meet me at the restaurant.
Chuck was always his own man. He didn’t have an entourage or anything. He just showed up by himself.
He drove in from Berry Park [his estate outside Wentzville] or maybe his home in Ladue. Anyway, I think he wanted to see Blueberry Hill and get a feel for who I was and what this was about. We sat in a booth. I can’t remember what he was wearing, but he probably had on a bolo tie. He always wore bolo ties.
See also: "Blueberry Hill Turns 40: A look back"
I showed him the contract I’d drawn up. It was pretty simple. I think he respected that. I explained how I wanted to have an image of him on the can and asked if he could loan me some photos and if I could choose one. Then I gave him a list of 16 of his anthems that I wanted to list on the can, and I asked him what he thought. Let me tell you, it’s hard to narrow down his songs to just 16. But I think he was intrigued by all of this. I think he was also impressed by the money I offered. It was probably as big an endorsement as Coca-Cola or some big corporation would have offered back then. I’ll say that it was in the five figures. It was a lot for me at the time.
A few months later, the first cans of Rock & Roll Beer with Chuck’s image on them arrived from the brewery in New Orleans. It was an event. All kinds of people showed up at Blueberry Hill on a midweek afternoon to celebrate the new "Heroes of Rock & Roll" series. Chuck was there, too. Funny thing is, I doubt Chuck ever had a sip of Rock & Roll beer. He didn’t drink.
I can’t pinpoint exactly when it was after that day that I realized our business dealing had turned into a friendship. Amazingly, though, it happened. He’d invite me out to Berry Park and he’d come down to Blueberry Hill on occasion. I do remember one of our first evenings out: The Neville Brothers were playing at Mississippi Nights, and I asked if he’d want to go check them out. I remember Aaron Neville was thrilled that Chuck was there. It was an exciting night, and we had many more after that.
I particularly remember going with Chuck to see Paul McCartney play Busch Stadium in 1993. Chuck was of course a huge influence on The Beatles and so many more. Keith Richards and Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones formed a friendship over the Chuck Berry record one of them was carrying when they met on a London train station. There are so many stories like that. But anyway, I asked Chuck if he wanted to meet Paul when he came through St. Louis. He said sure, and I started calling over to England trying to reach McCartney’s people.
After about six weeks, I finally got a hold of Paul’s road manager. By then, he was already on tour in the U.S.. and they set it up. Chuck and I went down to Busch Stadium and had dinner with Paul and his late wife, Linda, and their kids. It was a great time listening to them discuss so much of their shared history in music. I also remember that by the halfway mark of the concert, Chuck and I were both starving. Then it dawned on us that Paul and Linda were both vegetarians and so was our dinner. We, on the other hand, were more meat-and-potatoes people.
Chuck never did like to discuss his legacy. He’d always say, “That’s for other people to decide.”
He had this shyness when it came to talking about himself. I think that’s why he would rarely grant an interview. I remember it took me five years to get him to do his last interview with Rolling Stone. Most musicians would kill for that kind of exposure. But Chuck didn’t need it. Also, he figured he’d already told his stories. He’d tell reporters, “Read my autobiography. It’s all in there.” And a lot of it was.
See also: "A Conversation with Chuck Berry"
You can tell that Chuck wrote the autobiography himself because the language is so uniquely his. It’s often poetic. He had a way with words and could create terms to fit an emotion. The best example of that is “motorvatin’” in "Maybellene." As I was motorvatin’ over the hill, I saw Maybellene in a Coupe De Ville. "Motorvatin"—it describes so much. You’re in a car. You’re really moving. It’s a feeling that needed Chuck Berry to accurately describe.
His autobiography also didn’t gloss over his flaws. Chuck wasn’t perfect. He’d admit that. But despite that, his overarching goal in life, was to provide for his family. He and Themetta were married for 60-plus years. And his kids [three daughters and one son] were so important in his life. And, of course, Charles Jr. and Ingrid played with their dad at the monthly shows at Blueberry Hill. They were—and are—a warm family.
St. Louis was also important to him. A lot of performers as famous as he is would have moved to L.A. or New York or someplace. He chose to stay here in his hometown, even though his hometown—especially in the 1950s and 1960s—wasn’t always so inviting.
He got convicted of the Mann Act here in 1961 for bringing an underage girl—an employee who worked for him at his Club Bandstand in the Grand Center—across state lines. The Mann Act had all kinds of racial overtones [the law’s official name is the White Slave Traffic Act], and the judge actually used the n-word on the bench in the first trial, which Chuck successfully appealed. I think it’s fair to say that the St. Louis establishment at the time didn’t want a black-owned club in that part of town.
He learned a lot the hard way. In the 1950s, he—like a lot of performers back then—got ripped off by record labels and promoters. So he made a decision early on: Enough of that. He wanted his money upfront—in cash, no bounced checks—before he went on stage. He got a reputation of being a little difficult because of that. But it was his way of protecting himself. He wanted a guaranteed amount.
In some of the bigger shows he played, especially over in Europe, I’d tell him, “Chuck, if you take a percentage, you can make a lot more money.” But he’d say no. He wanted that set fee. And if the promoter made a killing on the show, well, good for him for arranging and publicizing it. Chuck would always be there to collect, though. There was some show he played—I think it was in Philadelphia—that was booked for the day that a snowstorm with a foot of snow basically shut down the entire city. But Chuck, he showed up. He kept his part of the bargain and was ready for his paycheck.
Chuck wouldn’t sign a representation contract with a talent company even though for decades Dick Alen of the William Morris Agency booked most of his concerts. I know it drove the higher-ups over there nuts, but they loved having him as a client even without a contract. Later Chuck asked me to be his representative, and I accepted as a friend. He had me put together a contract that it you wanted to do business with Chuck Berry, you had to go through me.
For promoters, he really was pretty easy to work with, provided you followed the contract. His rider, for example, was minimal compared to a lot of other music celebrities. He wanted a nice hotel room, some fresh orange juice at the show, and a rental car—either a Cadillac or a Lincoln Town Car.
Chuck loved to be behind the wheel. I wouldn’t say he was a great driver, but he was certainly an inventive one.
I remember driving with him in Los Angeles once. We were on one of those massive, 10-lane freeways, and Chuck realized we were driving the opposite way we needed to be headed. He just pulled a U-turn through the median like it was nothing, and off we sped the other way. Another time, I was up in Chicago with him in this big tour bus he owned. Chuck was whipping around turns like it was a sports car. A few times I thought that was going to be the end of us there.
Once, a promoter tried to impress him by sending a limo to the airport to pick him up. Chuck wasn’t happy about that and wouldn’t step foot in the limo. He wanted to drive himself to the concert in the Cadillac or Lincoln that was specified in the contract.
With Chuck, it wasn’t so much about money, though he certainly did well for himself—especially compared to some of the other pioneers of rock who’ve struggled financially. His passion was performing.
That’s how he came to play monthly at Blueberry Hill’s Duck Room all those years in front of 340 people for $35 a ticket—$10 when the soon-to-be legendary concert series started.
I’ll never forget how that came together. He and I were sitting at my house late at night in 1996 and he was reminiscing about his early days, playing at places like the old Cosmopolitan Club in East St. Louis. He said, “You know, Joe, I’d love to play a place the size of ones I used to play back in the day.” It took about a half a second. We looked at each other and said, “Let’s do it. Let’s do it at Blueberry Hill!”
Those first shows were in the Elvis Room, with its low ceilings and all. Six months later, I opened the Duck Room, and it was important to me that he be the first performer to christen the stage. It was the same way when The Pageant opened in 2000. Chuck played it first.
Chuck was still making music well into his eighties. I remember when he was around 85 or so, he showed up early to my house. We were going to a charity event together, and I wasn’t ready yet. As I went upstairs to change clothes, he asked me for a pad of paper and a pencil and sat down at my piano. When I came back down 20 minutes later, he’d written half a song, and it sounded pretty darn good to me. He had a bunch of stuff he was working on well into his eighties. I watched him record new songs in the 1990s and into the mid-2000s. The music was fantastic.
There were times I thought Chuck would perform until his dying day. And I think he would have if his hearing remained better. He could still wow audiences.
Sure, he’d forget some lyrics—he didn’t use a teleprompter like other stars—but he’d also catch fire. He had these hands. These great big hands. They were great for the guitar. But for the piano? I don’t know how he didn’t hit four keys at once with those things. But he also was a good piano player nonetheless.
I don’t think either of us thought he’d do those Blueberry Hill shows for nearly 20 years. I remember before he played his 200th show at Blueberry Hill [on January 15, 2014], he joked about how we’d celebrate the next 200. And, well, I almost wouldn’t put it past him.
Editor’s note: This article was composed from interviews conducted with Joe Edwards prior to the passing of his longtime friend Chuck Berry.