John Lennon Finally Meets & Jams with His Hero, Chuck Berry (1972)

“If you had tried to give rock and roll anoth­er name, you would call it Chuck Berry,” says John Lennon by way of intro­duc­tion to his hero in the clip above from The Mike Dou­glas Show. The two per­form Berry’s “Mem­phis, Ten­nessee” and “John­ny B. Goode” (with Lennon’s back­ing band, Elephant’s Mem­o­ry, and unwel­come dis­cor­dant back­ing vocals from Yoko). The moment was a major high­light of Lennon’s post-Bea­t­les’ career. The year was 1972, and Lennon and Yoko Ono had tak­en over Dou­glas’ show for the week, book­ing such guests as Ralph Nad­er, Jer­ry Rubin, and then Sur­geon Gen­er­al Dr. Jesse Ste­in­feld. Dou­glas called it “prob­a­bly the most mem­o­rable week I did in all my 20-some­thing years on air,” Gui­tar World notes. Lennon used it as the oppor­tu­ni­ty to final­ly meet, and jam out, with his idol.

Berry wasn’t just a major inspi­ra­tion for the young Lennon; “From his song­writ­ing and lyrics, to his gui­tar play­ing and stage antics, per­haps nobody else short of Elvis Pres­ley was as influ­en­tial on [all] the young Bea­t­les as Chuck Berry,” writes Bea­t­les schol­ar Aaron Krerow­icz, list­ing “at least 15” of Berry’s songs the band cov­ered (as either the Quar­ry­men or the Bea­t­les). Paul McCart­ney cred­its Berry for the Bea­t­les’ very exis­tence. They were fans, he wrote in trib­ute after Berry’s death, “from the first minute we heard the great gui­tar intro to ‘Sweet Lit­tle Six­teen.’” But it wasn’t only Berry’s play­ing that hooked them: “His sto­ries were more like poems than lyrics…. To us he was a magi­cian.”

McCart­ney first point­ed out the sim­i­lar­i­ties between Lennon’s “Come Togeth­er” (orig­i­nal­ly penned as a cam­paign song for Tim­o­thy Leary’s run against Ronald Rea­gan for the gov­er­nor­ship of Cal­i­for­nia) and Berry’s 1956 “You Can’t Catch Me,” he tells Bar­ry Miles in Many Years From Now. “John acknowl­edged it was rather close to it,” says Paul, “so I said, ‘Well, any­thing you can do to get away from that.’” Despite the result­ing “swampy” tem­po, Berry’s legal team still sued over the lyric “here comes old flat-top,” a direct lift from Berry’s song. In an out-of-court set­tle­ment, Lennon agreed to record even more of Berry’s tunes. “You Can’t Catch Me” appears on Lennon’s 1975 album of clas­sic cov­ers, Rock ‘n’ Roll.

This legal tus­sle aside, there was no beef between the two. The appear­ance on Dou­glas’ show proved to be a huge boost for Berry, who revi­tal­ized his career that year with the sug­ges­tive, con­tro­ver­sial “My Ding-a-Ling,” his biggest-sell­ing hit, and — in an iron­ic twist — orig­i­nal­ly a goofy nov­el­ty song com­posed and record­ed by Dave Bartholomew 20 years ear­li­er. When asked by Dou­glas, how­ev­er, what drew him to Berry’s music, Lennon echoes McCart­ney: “[Berry] was writ­ing good lyrics and intel­li­gent lyrics in the 1950s when peo­ple were singing ‘Oh baby, I love you so.’ It was peo­ple like him that influ­enced our gen­er­a­tion to try and make sense out of the songs rather than just sing ‘do wah did­dy.’”

Lennon was­n’t above cov­er­ing Gene Vincent’s “Be-Bop-a-Lula” a few years lat­er, and the Bea­t­les them­selves mixed intel­li­gent nar­ra­tive song­writ­ing with healthy dos­es of pop non­sense — pat­tern­ing them­selves after the man Lennon called “my hero, the cre­ator of Rock and Roll.” A few years after Lennon’s 1980 death, Berry returned the com­pli­ment, call­ing Lennon “the great­est influ­ence in rock music” before bring­ing Julian Lennon onstage and exclaim­ing, “ain’t he like his pa!”

The year was 1986 and the occa­sion was Berry’s 60th birth­day con­cert. After their per­for­mance of “John­ny B. Goode,” Berry leaned over to Julian and said, “Tell papa hel­lo. I’ll tell you what he says. I’ll see him.” It’s a bit­ter­sweet moment. Lit­tle, I guess, did Berry sus­pect that he would rock on for anoth­er 30 years, releas­ing his final, posthu­mous album in 2017 after his death at age 90.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Chuck Berry Jams Out “John­ny B. Goode” with Eric Clap­ton, Kei­th Richards, John Lennon & Bruce Spring­steen

Chuck Berry Takes Kei­th Richards to School, Shows Him How to Rock (1987)

Hear the Orig­i­nal, Nev­er-Heard Demo of John Lennon’s “Imag­ine”

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (3)
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  • Joxn says:

    I’ve watched the video before. Pret­ty sure at one point John was try­ing to engage in a gui­tar bat­tle yet Chuck was hav­ing none of it.

  • Dan says:

    And in the midst of it all, Yoko mak­ing scared kit­ty nois­es at the top of her lungs. That woman is con­struct­ed of con­cen­trat­ed essence of “Look­it Me”.

  • Bev says:

    Dis­ap­point­ed to see open cul­ture bring up Yoko as “unwel­come noise” — lest you for­get that it was both Lennon and Ono doing a takeover of the show for a week, maybe it wasn’t the vibe , but it was absolute­ly wel­come from Lennon — so inter­est­ing how sex­ism per­me­ates even sites I revered such as this. Bum­mer.

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