Update: The great Chuck Berry has passed away at 90, joining many other legends in rock n roll heaven. There’s so many great things to say about Mr. Berry. And we’ll have more on the site in the coming week. For now, enjoy one of our favorite Berry items from the archive.
The purpose of Taylor Hackford’s 1987 film Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll was to document two concerts held at the Fox Theatre in St. Louis to celebrate Chuck Berry’s 60th birthday, and that it does, giving audiences loads of concert footage. Berry plays the hits, backed by an all-star band of legendary bluesmen, R&B singers, and rock guitarists, assembled and directed by president of the Chuck Berry fan club, Keith Richards: There’s Bobby Keys and Chuck Leavell, Robert Cray and Eric Clapton, Etta James and Linda Ronstadt.
And that’s not to mention the talking head appearances from people like Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Little Richard, and Bruce Springsteen. In the pantheon of rock-docs, it’s right up there with Last Waltz. The live takes are electrifying—the band’s pistons pound as they struggle to keep up with Berry. If the man had slowed down any in his sixth decade, it’s little wonder he had trouble holding onto backing bands in his youth. Watch him go in the 1958 clip below.
But there’s another reason Berry burned through musicians. He is not an easy man to work with (nor, I would think, for). Brilliant live performances abound in Hackford’s film, but one of its principle charms is the rehearsal footage, where Berry berates and bewilders his musicians–and sometimes, like he does above to Richards, takes them to rock ‘n’ roll school. In the clip above, Richards, Berry, and band rehearse “Carol,” but it takes them a good while to get going. Richards tries to play bandleader and, thinking he’s doing Chuck a favor—or not wanting to lose the spotlight—suggests that Berry play rhythm while he plays the lead.
Berry agrees at first. They bicker and look daggers at each other as Richards spoils a bend that only Chuck can play to his own satisfaction. Finally he dives in and takes over. Why not? It is his song. Richards falls in line, takes the rhythm part, but looks a little sullen as Berry outshines him. It’s almost an oedipal struggle. But the rock forefather isn’t about to roll over and let Richards take over.
Elsewhere in the film, Berry gives voice to the underlying anger he harbored for Richards. The Stones and other British bands took Berry’s riffs (he claimed) and made millions, and Chuck never forgave them. He still doesn’t get enough credit. The Rolling Stones still tour and record, but Berry, almost twenty years older than Richards, is still out on the road too, still showing ‘em how it’s done. See second video below.
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him @jdmagness
HE IS NOT TAKING HIM TO SCHOOL, HE IS JUST BEING AN ARROGANT JACKASS. NO DISRESPECT MEANT.
After watching this film years ago, I learned something along with others. Chuck stole his riffs from Johnny Johnson his piano player and was ex posed by Keith Richards, it was taken to court after this movie was made and the court agreed, Eric Clapton also testified at this hearing.
Your take on this is interesting, but imo flawed:
a. Rock and Roll has always been about amalgamating/mixing/stealing riffs and licks. That’s how it made it from country and R&B to rock and roll.
b. Keith and the Stones among many others have always been straightforward and upfront about Chuck and his contribution to their music, paid the correct royalties, etc. Please show me where they have not shown homage to the man.
As a famous man once said, if you were going to give rock and roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry. Chuck purposely and wisely placed the treble parts (e.g. horn parts, piano parts) in the forefront in his songs and with his guitar, to appeal to a white audience. This was amalgamation and at least tone/arrangement “stealing” at its finest.
Of course, to give due, the man can and could tell a hell of a story in 2 minutes flat, which is what stands out to me after 50 years or so. “I met a German girl in England who was going to school in France, said we met in Mississippi at a Alpha Kappa Dance”…”I saw her from the corner when she turned and doubled back And started walkin’ toward a coffee colored Cadillac”. Those lyrics and more AND of course the signature and much copied guitar riff from the first beat of Johnny B. Goode still sends chills down this old man.
I saw Keith, break a guitar string and smash his guitar in a fury. I asked him why and he said, ‘because it ruined the song for the audience’. Even though I told him that no one noticed, he didn’t care. To him the music was important. Chuck on the other hand, would grab pick up bands of random guys at the dates he did on the ’69 tour and didn’t give a damn about how bad they sounded. That same tour had a man who continually thanked the Stones for having him on their shows, the difference between class and crass B.B.King. class, Chuck Berry crass.
It’s just two musicians bantering. Keith appears to be the class act in this one. Agree with Doug above.
Chuck Berry never stole anything from Johnnie Johnson. Maybe Mr. Johnson was trying to stole something from Chuck Berry. I know the story. Period.
Ashamed of my “hero” Chuck; He’s
still great, but why would he try to “pull-
wool” on us about that fantastic lead
guitarist from the Rolling Stones? Is
he jealous? Both are Awesome in there
own way! The manners exhibited clearly shows Berry not to be the man
I thought he was.(-still,-love his music,)
-apology IS due!;(dumb-ass!).
Chuck’s the Buck.
Keith is one of the worst players in the history of the electric guitar. He was only kept under control by having Brian and Taylor push him out of his god awful laziness. Now the Stones just have two Keith clones, both god awful.
Berry always sounded better with an unrehearsed pick up band than the Stones ever have with Ron and Keith.
1) c.b. pretty much invented rock guitar
2) he spent years setting his amp up to achieve his sound. Why wouldn’t he get upset when the recording engineer changes the setup
4) Keith played the riff slightly wrong and chuck showed him the right way
5) while it got a bit heated when chuck was dissatisfied with the performance, it was all smiles when the song was learned properly
6) calling a composer classless for demanding his work be just the way he wrote it? Wtf, I mean c’mon, it’s his work
“Keith is one of the worst players in the history of the electric guitar.”
Great as Keith may be at playing in the style of Keith Richards, he did get the lick VERY wrong! Chuck had no option really. Dave Edmunds found Richards’ inability to grasp Berry’s riffs maddening too.
In an interview in, I think, Guitar Player Magazine, Chuck acknowledged he stole a lot of his licks from Illinois Jacquet… a jazz/ R&B tenor saxophone player.
Here’s Illinois’ breakout hit performing with the Lionel Hampton Big Band’s recording of Flying Home, featuring Illinois Jacquet on honking tenor sax:
Chuck Berry probably used some of Lionel’s licks to, I think. And ones from other people.
A listening of Louie Jordan’s Tympani 5 would lay to rest where the “Chuck Berry” guitar licks were born.
Check out “Ain’t That Just Like A Woman” recorded 6 years before Chuck took the stage in Johnnie Johnson’s band, and 10 years before “Johnnie B. Goode.”
Rock ‘n Roll, Blues, Rock-a-Billy, whatever, took from the past, and delivered to the future. The perfect translation of the word, “tradition.”
Delighted to find your site!
Thank you so much for posting
Well said. Glad I’m not the only one to understand what was going on.
You’re all taking it too seriously. I’ve watched this heaps of times and love seeing how easy true talented musos make it look. It’s so funny the two of them at each other that I’m sure it’s staged. Richard’s glances at Chuck and the others are priceless as are those of the piano player. Loosen up folks and see it for what it is, pure comic entertainment by a group of extremely talented musicians. One of my favourite clips.
I cannot now tell which I have enjoyed more. Reading the above comments or just watching those two guitar players and their band. Sure was tense in there at times! I have to agree with Aussie S above. The nett result is pure “rockin'” joy for those who like this music still. Great clip, great comments, great times.
The fact that Keith Richards saw Mick Jagger on the train carrying Chuck Berry music this same date of Chuck Berry’s Birthday 10/18/61 was supposed to happen! God has a great way of making things work out at exactly right time!!
Keith invented a style and he’s a great guitar player, not interested in being demonstrative. Go listen to Van Halen.
I’ve watched Hail Hail many times and I think Keith knew the lick and was messing it up just to get Chuck’s goat.
Keith richards couldnt hold chuck berry jockstrap and vaugh blow dick
He was the only artist I knew who could undress every single woman with his eyes….and make it feel good!
Oh, come on! Listen to Down the Road Apiece from as far back as ’65 and tell me with a straight face that Keith Richards can’t play the hell out of Chuck Berry lucks!!!
Keith Richards is an incredible guitar player. The moron above should clean the crap out of his ears.
Keith’s solo in “Carol” from GET YER YA YA’S OUT shows once and for all who was the master interpreter of Chuck Berry. Y’all can shout me down as much as you like–it won’t change my mind. The best Berry guitar i ever heard. Thank you Keith!
Keith, Chuck…they all got it from T-Bone walker.
Absolutely! Keith has the chops when it comes to Chuck’s licks …