Chuck Berry – 2002


(l-r) Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, lifetime achievement honorees at the BMI Pop Music Awards dinner in Beverly Hills, May 2002.

(l-r) Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, lifetime achievement honorees at the BMI Pop Music Awards dinner in Beverly Hills, May 2002.

Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Bo Diddley were the recipients of BMI’s lifetime achievement honor at the performing rights group’s annual bash in Beverly Hills on May 14, 2002. They did not perform, unfortunately, leaving it to the likes of George Thorogood and Johnny Lang to pay tribute to their music. I spoke to Bo and Chuck separately during the black-tie event. It was a bit chaotic, lot of people interrupting, and I was winging it with the questions. Certainly, it was not the time or place to get deep.

I asked Bo about his relationship with Chuck and Little Richard: “Both my brothers.” But brothers argue, I said. “I ain’t got nothing bad to say,” he replied. “So if that’s what you’re trying to get to, you’re talking to the wrong dude. We don’t hug and kiss each other, but they’re my buddies, y’know?”

And then I spoke with Chuck, the most significant rock ‘n’ roll poet, hoping to release a new album that year. We’re still waiting, Chuck! [October 2016 update: It seems that album will come out next year, per Rolling Stone.] I was quite proud of myself when I asked a question about racial content in his past works. He denied any such thing, asked me to give an example, and I immediately came up with “Brown Eyed Handsome Man.” He had this look on his face, “well, you got me there, white boy.” (Or maybe I’m completely deluded.)

CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT THE RECORD YOU’RE WORKING ON? WHAT’S THE PROGRESS THERE?

No, I can’t because there’s nothing to it. But all the songs are original and I’m trying to do it as best I can, finally, after so many — what? — 12 years of preparation.

ARE YOU WRITING THE SONGS YOURSELF? OR DO YOU HAVE COLLABORATORS?

I always write—. I thought you were a fan of mine! No, but yes, they’re all mine. By yours truly.

THAT’S COOL. NO RUSS FRATTO AND ALAN FREED IN THE CREDITS THIS TIME?! (AS WAS THE CASE, INFAMOUSLY, ON “MAYBELLINE.”)

Most of the songs on most of the albums — in fact on all of the albums — were actual originals.

WHEN DO YOU THINK THAT RECORD WILL COME OUT?

Hopefully this year.

DO YOU HAVE A LABEL?

No, I’m going to shop for that. I’ve had lots of … ideas for a record company, but I haven’t made the choice.

HOW WOULD YOU CHARACTERIZE THE SONGS ON THIS RECORD? HOW ARE THEY DIFFERENT FROM YOUR OTHER WORKS? (ASKED BY ANOTHER REPORTER.)

They’re different in the sense that they’re not the other songs repeated again, as most of my albums are. Most of them are repeated. So in that way they’re different. But still Chuck Berry songs so far as I know Chuck Berry!

WAS THERE ANY KIND OF LIFE EXPERIENCE YOU DREW FROM WHEN YOU WERE WRITING? (ASKED BY THE SAME REPORTER.)

Some of the songs are life. Some of the songs are not life. Sweet Little Sixteen was not life. I was 32 [sic] when that was written.

IS THERE A THEME IN THE NEW SONGS? OBVIOUSLY YOUR EARLIER STUFF WAS ABOUT GIRLS AND CARS AND SCHOOLS.

They say that, yeah. But it’s really about life — and Chuck Berry.

AND THERE WAS A POLITICAL SUBTEXT TO SOME OF YOUR SONGS AS WELL? SOME RACIAL CONNOTATIONS OR RACIAL INIQUITIES?

I don’t think I’ve ever written a song with any race in it. I don’t know. Could you name one?

BROWN EYED HANDSOME MAN?

Well, yeah, yeah.

BLACK PRIDE, SOMETHING LIKE THAT

Yeah, yeah, well, anyway. I didn’t mean it to be race. Let’s put it that way. That’s written about life, and life — I guess — has to do with race.

SO WHAT’S ON YOUR SCHEDULE FOR THE REST OF THE YEAR?

Only this record. I’m putting all my energy into it. Sixteen years. You might be excited!

ARE YOU DOING THIS IN ST. LOUIS? AT YOUR HOUSE?

All over. All over.

ARE YOU WORKING WITH JOHNNIE JOHNSON?

Johnnie Johnson hasn’t been with me for several years, and I don’t think he’ll be with me for several more years (laughs). Of course everyone asks about Johnnie Johnson, and I’ll answer! [Johnnie Johnson, Chuck’s pianist and muse, died in 2005, aged 80.]

(interview interrupted)

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NOTE: Unrelated to the above interview, my gossipy rock bio Strange Days: The Adventures of a Grumpy Rock ‘n’ Roll Journalist in Los Angeles is available for sale here. For more info, go to strangedaysbook.com

Copyright © 2002, 2014 by Dean Goodman. PLEASE DO NOT CUT AND PASTE THE WHOLE THING

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