Chuck Berry performing at the Hollywood Palladium on March 24, 1980.(George Rose / Los Angeles Times)
Guitarists Bo Diddley (with his trademark square Gretsch electric guitar on the left) and Chuck Berry (on the right) perform at Madison Square Garden in the concert movie ‘Let the Good Times Roll’ on May 6, 1972 in New York City.(Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)
Rock and roll guitarist Chuck Berry performs his “duck walk” as he plays his electric hollowbody guitar at the TAMI Show on December 29, 1964 at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in Santa Monica, California. Other performers included James Browm, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles and Jan & Dean.(Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)
Chuck Berry during rehearsals in St Louis while filming of the documentary “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll.”(Terry O’Neill / Getty Images)
An undated photo of Berry, right, jamming with the Beatles’ John Lennon. Born in Wentzville, Mo. in 1926, Berry was persuaded to be a guitarist instead of a hairdresser in 1955. Subsequently, he became a hero for many British rockers.(Library File Photo)
Chuck Berry performed hits including “Johnny B. Goode” and “Reelin’ and Rockin’” on NBC’s “Flip Wilson Presents The Helen Reddy Show” on Aug. 2, 1973.(NBC )
A Hollywood tour bus displays ‘We Love Chuck’ signs as it drives past a ceremony giving Chuck Berry his Hollywood Walk of Fame star on Oct. 8, 1987. Berry, left, can be seen performing the “duck walk” he made famous.(Thomas Kelsey / Los Angeles Times)
Chuck Berry headlined the Long Beach Blues Festival on Sept. 21, 1992.(J. Albert Diaz / Los Angeles Times)
Chuck Berry shares a moment onstage in 1995 with Bruce Springsteen, one of countless rockers influenced by Berry’s career.(Mark Duncan / AP)
Rock and roll pioneers, from left, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Little Richard at the 50th Annual BMI Pop Awards on May 14, 2002, in Beverly Hills. The trio received the inaugural BMI Icon Award.(Vince Bucci / Getty Images)
At 83, Chuck Berry headlined the Hootenany Festival at Live Oak Canyon in Silverado Canyon on July 3, 2010.(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Chuck Berry, seen performing at the 2009 Monte Carlo Rock’ N Rose Ball in Monte Carlo, Monaco. Berry was born Oct. 18, 1926 in St. Louis. He found success after visiting Chicago in 1955 and recording for the legendary Chess records label.(Pascal Le Segretain / Getty Images)
Editor’s note: Chuck Berry died March 18, 2017 at the age of 90. This article, in which Berry sat down with Times music critic Robert Hilburn to talk about his musical influences, “difficult” reputation and encounters with racial prejudice throughout his career, was first published on Oct. 4, 1987.
Chuck Berry has been prized by rock musicians and fans for four decades as a symbol of the revolution that chased away Big Band music and other dull adult sounds.
In hits like “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Sweet Little Sixteen,” Berry reflected the frisky independence and innocence of ‘50s teens with such unwavering accuracy that they remain anthems of the era.
You know my temp’rature’s risin’
and the juke box blowin’ a fuse.
My heart’s beatin’ rhythm
and my soul keeps a-singin’ the blues.
Roll over, Beethoven
and tell Tchaikovsky the news.
So, here is Chuck Berry sitting in a restaurant reminiscing about Tommy Dorsey’s “Boogie Woogie” and Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” and telling how much he adored singers like Nat Cole and Frank Sinatra.
“The Big Band Era is my era,” he says, recalling his own heroes. “People say, where did you get your style from. I did the Big Band Era on guitar. That’s the best way I could explain it.
The reporter wanted to make sure he was hearing Berry right. Was this rock ‘n’ roll legend saying he would have been just as happy spending his life singing ballads like Nat Cole?
“Oh, I’d have been (ecstatic),” Berry beams. “I never would have touched rock ‘n’ roll. I’m sorry. ...”
Seeing the surprise on the reporter’s face, Berry smiled sheepishly. He felt bad about breaking illusions.
“Rock ‘n’ roll accepted me and paid me, even though I loved the big bands ... I went that way because I wanted a home of my own. I had a family. I had to raise them. Let’s don’t leave out the economics. No way. ...”
Chuck Berry and Big Bands?
Chuck Berry smiling?
Act of Friendship
Joe Edwards doesn’t understand why many rock observers in recent years have used the word bitter to describe his friend, Chuck Berry.
“See that guitar.” Edwards points to the gold guitar in a display case near the entrance to funky Blueberry Hill restaurant. “That’s the guitar Chuck played on ‘Maybellene’ and all the early hits.
“The fact that that guitar is here tells you more about him than I ever could. It was an act of friendship that blew me away.”
The Blueberry Hill, in the rejuvenated University City district of town, has a great selection on the juke box: Patsy Cline and Lou Reed to U2 and Talking Heads. The walls of the sprawling restaurant also showcase hundreds of photos and records by ‘50s rockers – even a complete Elvis Presley room.
Edwards told Berry a couple of years ago that he was going to add some display cases and Berry casually mentioned that he might give Edwards a guitar.
“That just the way he phrased it, ‘a guitar,’ ” the restaurant owner continues. “So, I assumed it would just be some old guitar--the kind every guitar player has laying around. But when he brought out the case, I knew right away that it was the guitar. ... When he opened it, I was so (touched) that I couldn’t even speak. Think about it: A lot of rock ‘n’ roll began in that guitar.
“Now, tell me, would a bitter man give that away?”
To most critics, Chuck Berry, 60, is rivaled only by Elvis Presley as the most influential figure of the first decade of rock ‘n’ roll – a man whose memorable guitar-oriented rhythm and perfectly sculptured lyrics established him in the ‘50s as the music’s first great songwriter-performer.
He brought his classic songs to life on stage with such an energetic show – highlighted by a zany, low-strutting duck walk – that no one in the audience seemed to notice that Berry was in his 30s, ancient by rock standards at the time, and almost a full decade older than Elvis and Buddy Holly.
If Berry’s music is widely known, his own story is not.
One reason is that Berry, for most of his career, has avoided interviews. He was angered years ago by what he feels were attempts to “sensationalize” his remarks. The only thing most fans know about him is what they have seen on stage the past two decades – and that hasn’t always worked in Berry’s favor.
Many observers have been disillusioned by Berry’s refusal to do encores, which they see as a sign that the singer no longer enjoys performing. They grumble, too, about his practice of using “pick-up” bands hired by the promoter in each city and introduced to Berry only minutes before going on stage.
Though hiring “pick-up” bands is cheaper than employing your own full-time band, it sometimes results in sloppy shows that leave fans thinking of Berry as simply a cold-hearted businessman with no respect for his music or his history.
In the absence of interviews over the last dozen years, it is easy to look at Berry’s history and build the scenario of a bitter man.
After all, Berry spent time in reform school as a teenager, served two prison terms (one for a Mann Act conviction and one for income tax evasion), no doubt saw millions of dollars slip through his hands because of the one-sided recording and publishing contracts rock performers routinely signed in the ‘50s, and experienced the sting of racial discrimination – including seeing doors open much faster for many far-less-talented white rock musicians.
But Berry’s story is finally about to be told.
“Chuck Berry Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll,” a documentary film directed by Taylor Hackford (“An Officer and a Gentleman,” “Against All Odds”), will open Friday in Los Angeles. The film, which includes interviews with Berry, is built around a concert last October for a 60th birthday salute at the ornate Fox Theatre in St. Louis. He was joined by an all-star band featuring the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Robert Cray and Linda Ronstadt.
In addition, Berry’s long-promised autobiography has just been released by Harmony Books. “Chuck Berry: The Autobiography” deals at length with many of the controversial moments in Berry’s life, including his 1961 conviction for violating the Mann Act (transporting a minor across state lines for immoral purposes) and a 1979 sentence in California for income tax evasion.
Equally important, Berry – to promote the book and film – has agreed to a few interviews.
But the early signals from a man already saddled with a “difficult” reputation weren’t good. The best that publicists for the film and the book could guarantee writers was 20 minutes.
Rejecting the Glory
Restaurant owner Edwards, 41, is so in love with rock that he owns his own Rock & Roll Beer Co., complete with a limited “heroes” series. So far, he’s only made deals with Berry and fellow rock legend Jerry Lee Lewis to have their drawings on the cans, but he’s planning to add other stars.
He explains all this while hosting the reporter from California – a job he inherited because Berry was running late. At the last minute, Berry said he wanted copies of any interview tapes.
After the first interview, he went to Edwards’ house to make a duplicate of the 45-minute conversation. Since Edwards didn’t have a high-speed machine, it took the full 45 minutes to transfer the interview to a second tape.
By the time he and Edwards returned, the schedule was off by an hour.
To avoid further delay, Edwards borrowed a second tape recorder from one of his employees so that Berry and the reporter from California could both tape the conversation at the same time. During the interview, the two tape recorders sat before them like pistols in an old-fashioned poker game.
Given his reputation, it was easy imagining Berry – a muscular man with jet-black hair who could easily pass for someone in his 40s – picking up his tape recorder if offended by a hostile question and heading out the door. The whole incident seemed like yet another piece of evidence that Berry is a guarded, cantankerous guy.
The Santa Barbara writer created one of the first modern hard-boiled female private eyes and topped bestseller lists for decades, inspiring loyal readers to name their daughters after the series’ heroine, Kinsey Millhone. She was 77. Full obituary(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Eu was the first woman to serve as California secretary of state and the first Chinese American to hold a constitutional office in California. She instituted voter registration by mail and got federal approval of legislation allowing voters to register at the Department of Motor Vehicles and other state agencies. She was 95. Full obituary(Los Angeles Times)
The veteran sports broadcaster was long recognized as one of the most versatile and perhaps most enthusiastic announcers of his era. He also was an author, a longtime fixture at Pasadena’s Rose Parade, the host of several sports-themed TV game shows and was still calling San Diego Padres baseball games in his later years. He was 82. Full obituary(Lenny Ignelzi / Associated Press)
A Boston Globe report in 2002 revealed that Law, the former archbishop of Boston, had transferred abusive clergy among parish assignments for years without alerting parents or police. The failure to stop child molesters in the priesthood sparked what would become the worst crisis in American Catholicism. He was 86. Full obituary(Associated Press)
Lee, elected in 2011, was the first Chinese American mayor of San Francisco, home to the oldest Chinatown in the United States. He oversaw years of dramatic growth that transformed the city’s skyline while also sending real estate values to stratospheric levels. He was 65. Full obituary(David Butow / For The Times)
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Called “the Elvis of Opera” and the “Siberian Express” by some, Hvorostovsky was known for his velvety baritone voice, dashing looks and shock of flowing white hair. He was 55. Full obituary(Shiho Fukada / Associated Press)
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The fashion iconoclast’s clingy styles helped define the 1980s. Naomi Campbell was a favored model, and Michelle Obama wore his designs as U.S. first lady. He was 77. Full obituary(Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times)
In the summer of 1969, Manson masterminded a string of bizarre murders in Los Angeles that both horrified and fascinated the nation. He is considered one of the most infamous criminals of the 20th century. He was 83. Full obituary(Associated Press)
Kaji was the founding president of the Japanese American National Museum, established in 1992 in Little Tokyo. Years earlier, he established his own accounting firm and was part of a group that founded Merit Savings & Loan, one of the first and one of the few Japanese American-owned banks. He was 91. Full obituary
(Edward Ornelas / Los Angeles Times)
As one of the founding fathers of rock ’n’ roll, Fats Domino blazed a singular path in the history of popular music. Pounding a piano and booming in a baritone both warm and conversational, he gave the nascent genre a shot of rhythm and blues, jazz and boogie woogie from his native New Orleans. He was 89. Full obituary(AFP / Getty Images)
Best known for his portrayal of the sharp-tongued butler in the TV sitcoms “Soap” and “Benson,” Guillaume also played Nathan Detroit in the first all-black version of “Guys and Dolls” and became the first African American to sing the title role in “The Phantom of the Opera,” appearing with an otherwise all-white cast in Los Angeles. He was 89. Full obituary(Ann Johansson / For The Times)
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Hall, the original host and co-creator of “Let’s Make a Deal,” the long-running game show that debuted in 1963, made kooky audience costumes and carnival-style bartering an institution on daytime television. He was 96. Full obituary(File photo)
Hefner built a publishing and entertainment empire on the idea that Americans should shed their puritanical hang-ups and enjoy sex. As the founder of Playboy magazine, he pitched an alternative standard — swinging singlehood — which portrayed the desire for sex as being as normal as craving apple pie. He was 91. Full obituary(George Brich / Associated Press)
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The gay rights pioneer brought a Supreme Court case that struck down parts of a federal law that banned same-sex marriage and led to federal recognition for gay spouses. She was 88. Full obituary(Richard Drew / Associated Press)
The manic comedian burst onto the post-World War II show business scene with partner Dean Martin before launching his own highly successful solo career a decade later. He later poured his energy and time into philanthropy as host of the annual Muscular Dystrophy Assn. telethon, a charity event he hosted for 44 years. He was 91. Full obituary(EPA)
Gregory became the first black stand-up comic to perform in major nightclubs in the early 1960s. He satirized segregation and race relations in his act and launched his lifetime commitment to civil rights and other social justice issues. He was 84. Full obituary(Associated Press)
The multiple-Grammy-winning country-pop singer sold more than 45 million records and was known for a signature string of ‘60s and ’70s hits that included “Gentle on My Mind,” “Wichita Lineman” and “Rhinestone Cowboy.” He had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2011, a battle that inspired a farewell tour, documentary and a heartbreaking final album, “Adiós.” He was 81. Full obituary(Las Vegas News Bureau )
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The literary editor helped revolutionize American cuisine by publishing Julia Child and other groundbreaking cookbook authors. She worked for decades with John Updike and Anne Tyler and helped introduce English-language readers to “The Diary of Anne Frank.” She was 93. Full obituary(Christopher Hirsheimer)
Best known for “Buried Child,” “Fool for Love” and “True West,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright explored the fringes of society and the failure of the nuclear family. He also earned an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor in “The Right Stuff.” He was 73. Full obituary(Los Angeles Times)
Bennington, the lead singer of Los Angeles hard rock band Linkin Park, led the sextet to become one of the biggest acts of the 2000s. The group’s beat-driven sound was long a force on rock radio. He was 41. Full obituary(EPA)
Kanno spent what should have been his final high school years confined to a World War II-era internment camp. He went on to become one of America’s first Japanese American mayors as an early-day politician in Orange County. He was 91. Full obituary(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)
Romero will be remembered best for co-writing and directing “Night of the Living Dead.” The “Living Dead” franchise went on to create a subgenre of horror movies whose influence across the decades has endured, seen in films like “The Purge” and TV shows such as “The Walking Dead.” He was 77. Full obituary(Amy Sancetta / Associated Press)
The Oscar-winning actor appeared in classic films such as Alfred Hitchcock’s “North By Northwest” and starred in the “Mission: Impossible” television series in the 1960s. He won his Academy Award for his portrayal of washed-up Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood.” He was 89. Full obituary(CBS Photo Archive / CBS via Getty Images)
Mirzakhani was a Stanford University professor who was the first and only woman to win the prestigious Fields Medal in mathematics. She was 40. Full obituary(EPA)
A prominent champion of democracy, free expression and constitutionalism since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, Liu had been jailed four times and — when freed last month — was eight years into an 11-year sentence for “inciting subversion of state power.” He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 and was saluted for his “long and nonviolent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.” He was 61. Full obituary(Associated Press)
The French survivor of Nazi concentration camps and a European Parliament president was one of France’s most prominent female politicians. She was best known in France for leading the heated battle to legalize abortion in the 1970s. France’s abortion rights law is still known four decades later as the “Loi Veil.” She was 89. Full obituary(AFP / Getty Images)
The British author created Paddington Bear, the marmalade-loving teddy in a duffel coat and floppy hat. His creation become an icon immortalized in print, on screens and as countless stuffed toys. Bond was 91. Full obituary(Sang Tan / Associated Press)
Pressman, center, was an Emmy-winning journalist who worked at WNBC for more than 50 years after stints at New Jersey’s Newark Evening News and the New York World Telegram and Sun. He covered the 1956 sinking of the Italian ocean liner Andrea Doria, riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, the Woodstock festival in 1969 and the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. He was 93. Full obituary(Ron Frehm / Associated Press)
As chancellor, Kohl, left, pictured with President Reagan in 1987, oversaw the reunification of Germany. He later suffered a fall from grace with a failed bid for a fifth term in 1998 and later allegations of criminal malfeasance. He was 87. Full obituary(European Pressphoto Agency)
West donned a cape, cowl and tights to become an overnight sensation in 1966 as the star of the campy “Batman” TV series. With West as the strait-laced crime fighter who spoke with what has been described as ironic earnestness and Burt Ward as his youthfully exuberant sidekick, Robin, “Batman” was a pop culture phenomenon. He was 88. Full obituary(Fox Broadcasting Co.)
The English-born biochemist and pharmacologist did work that helped prolong the lives of breast cancer patients by inhibiting the disease’s path in women whose tumors had failed to shrink after they had undergone conventional treatments. She is credited with helping save the lives of thousands of women. She was 82. Full obituary(University of Maryland School of Medicine )
Krisel’s designs for thousands of tract homes in the Coachella Valley cemented his career and shaped the image of Palm Springs as a mecca for Midcentury Modern architecture. He also designed the futuristic “House of Tomorrow” in Palm Springs, which was featured in Look magazine in 1962 and five years later came to be known as the honeymoon hideout of Elvis and Priscilla Presley. He was 92. Full obituary(James Schnepf / Palm Spring Mode )
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The former dictator of Panama often played opposing sides of Cold War-era political battles until he was ousted by his on-again, off-again sponsors and toppled in a U.S. invasion. He was 83. Full obituary(AFP / Getty Images)
Deford was an award-winning sports journalist and commentator whose elegant reportage was a staple for years at Sports Illustrated and National Public Radio. He was the first sportswriter awarded the National Humanities Medal. In 2013, President Obama honored him for “transforming how we think about sports.” He was 78. Full obituary(Carolyn Kaster / AP)
The gravel-voiced singer helped lift the Allman Brothers Band to prominence with a hard-churning brand of soulful rock that became part of the soundtrack of the 1960s and ’70s and set the coordinates for a musical genre known as Southern rock. He was 69. Full obituary(Los Angeles Times)
The only member of the Baseball Hall of Fame to serve in Congress, Bunning pitched the first perfect game in modern National League history and became the first pitcher after 1900 to throw no-hitters in both the American and National Leagues. Serving in both the House and Senate, the Kentucky Republican was a fierce protector of state interests such as tobacco, coal and military bases. He was 85. Full obituary(Associated Press)
As President Carter’s national security advisor, he helped topple economic barriers among the Soviet Union, China and the West. He helped Carter bridge wide gaps between the rigid Egyptian and Israeli leaders, Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin, leading to the Camp David accords in September 1978. He was 89. Full obituary(Associated Press)
Perenchio deftly pulled the levers of power to create culturally defining media events, propel political candidates, collect masterpiece artworks and become one of the richest men in Los Angeles. In late 2014, he announced that he would leave much of his collection — at least 47 works valued at more than $500 million — to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. He was 86. Full obituary(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
The suave British actor starred in seven James Bond movies and brought a likable, comedic dimension to the unflappable secret agent. From 1973 to 1985, Moore was Agent 007 in “Live and Let Die,” “The Man with the Golden Gun,” “The Spy Who Loved Me,” “Moonraker,” “For Your Eyes Only,” “Octopussy” and “A View to a Kill.” He was 89. Full obituary(Associated Press)
The polarizing Fox News founder was credited with turning the news channel into a ratings powerhouse over his 20 years at the helm. He was ousted from the network following sexual harassment charges. He was 77. Full obituary(Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times)
Cornell gained fame as the lead singer of the bands Soundgarden and later Audioslave. With his powerful, nearly four-octave vocal range, he was one of the leading voices of the 1990s grunge movement. He was 52. Full obituary(EPA)
Best known for directing “The Silence of the Lambs,” Demme displayed a wide-ranging and big-hearted curiosity about all facets of the human condition that animated such diverse films as “Melvin and Howard,” “Something Wild,” “Stop Making Sense” and “Philadelphia.” He was 73. Full obituary.(Ken Regan / Orion Pictures)
The former child star played Joanie Cunningham in the sitcoms “Happy Days” and “Joanie Loves Chachi.” Her more recent credits included “The Love Boat” and “Murder, She Wrote.” She was 56. Full obituary(Wally Fong / Associated Press)
Morano, born Nov. 29, 1899, was believed to have been the last surviving person in the world who was born in the 1800s. She was 117. Full obituary(EPA)
Using insult as his weapon of choice and a quick, knowing smirk as his defense, Rickles delighted audiences with his brand of aggressively caustic humor that targeted everyone from unknown “hockey pucks” to big-name celebrities. He was 90. Full obituary(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
The longtime gay rights and AIDS activist designed and sewed the banner that would become a symbol for LGBTQ rights around the world: the rainbow flag. He was 65. Full obituary(EPA)
A close confidante of Nelson Mandela, Kathrada dedicated his life to opposing apartheid and racism. An African National Congress activist, he played a major role in South Africa’s liberation struggle. He was 87. Full obituary(Kopano Tlape / EPA)
Barris was the creator and host of the “The Gong Show” and had a television empire that included “The Dating Game,” “The Newlywed Game,” “The Game Game” and “The $1.98 Beauty Show” along with a Mama Cass special. He was 87. Full obituary(Los Angeles Times)
The billionaire businessman and philanthropist was the last in his generation of one of the country’s most famously philanthropic families. He was 101. Full obituary(D. Pickoff / Associated Press)
The Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper columnist was part of the wave of practitioners of what came to be known as New Journalism: a group of gifted writers that included Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Hunter S. Thompson, Joan Didion and others who reported on the social and cultural upheavals of the 1960s and ’70s. His writing made him a New York City institution for more than 40 years. He was 88. Full obituary(Mario Cabrera / Associated Press)
One of the founding fathers of rock ’n’ roll, Berry was an innovator who designed much of the music’s sonic blueprint and became his era’s most creative lyricist. He was 90. Full obituary(Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)
The Nobel-prize winning poet was known for capturing the essence of his native Caribbean. His work was widely praised for its depth and bold use of metaphor, and its mix of sensuousness and technical prowess. He was 87. Full obituary(Berenice Bautista / Associated Press)
A towering political figure who became the top prosecutor in Los Angeles County and then California before running for governor, Van de Kamp helped institute a revolutionary computerized fingerprint identification program, was instrumental in the push to “fast track” cases stuck in the state’s civil courts and pressed a laundry list of environmental, consumer rights and campaign finance reform cases. He was 81. Full obituary( Los Angeles Times)
Waller’s bestselling, bittersweet 1992 novel “The Bridges of Madison County” was turned into a movie starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood and a Broadway musical. “Bridges” turned the unknown writer into a multimillionaire and made Madison County, Iowa, an international tourist attraction. He was 77. Full obituary(Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier)
The Boxing Hall of Fame trainer and manager handled the careers of 19 champions including heavyweight Evander Holyfield. Duva with his family built the promotional company Main Events into one of boxing’s powerhouses. He was 94. Full obituary(Mike Groll / Associated Press)
As a state legislator and 10-term congressman from Southern California, Beilenson advocated for abortion rights, environmental protection and gun control. Among his proudest achievements was sponsoring the 1978 legislation that created the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, protecting a wilderness that extends from the Hollywood Hills to Point Mugu. He was 84. Full obituary(Los Angeles Times)
The silver-haired and dapper Osborne was a bona fide movie connoisseur who displayed his wide knowledge of films as the genial host on Turner Classic Movies since its launch in 1994. Osborne was a longtime columnist for the Hollywood Reporter and the “official biographer” of the Academy Awards. He was 84. Full obituary(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Preval was the only democratically elected president of Haiti to win and complete two terms. He was elected by a landslide in 1995 as the chosen successor of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. His second term, which started in 2006, was marred by the disastrous earthquake of Jan, 12, 2010. Many Haitians accused him of a fumbling response to the tragedy. He was 74. Full obituary(Associated Press)
Paxton’s career began in B-movies, experimental film and music videos, then moved through bit parts in big pictures and, ultimately, leading roles. His movie successes included “Apollo 13,” “Titanic,” “A Simple Plan,” “Weird Science,” “Twister” and “True Lies,” and among his TV role was that of a polygamist Mormon businessman in the HBO series “Big Love.” He was 61. Full obituary(Los Angeles Times)
The retired Los Angeles County Superior Court judge became an unlikely American TV icon. Called the “Solomon of Small Claims,” Wapner presided over “The People’s Court” for 12 years in the 1980s and ’90s. He was 97. Full obituary(Rene Macura)
Arrow was the youngest person to win the Nobel Prize for economics. He helped push and pull economics into unexpected arenas — global warming, the electoral process, pay equity and healthcare. His groundbreaking work redefined the world’s understanding of the free marketplace. He was 95. Full obituary(Associated Press)
In a career spanning five decades, thousands of reviews and dozens of books, Schickel chronicled Hollywood’s changing landscape. His piercing critiques made him one of America’s most important film critics in an era when cinema became increasingly ingrained in the cultural consciousness. He was 84. Full obituary(Michael Lionstar / Knopf)
McCorvey was the “Jane Roe” in the 1973 Supreme Court case Roe vs. Wade, which struck down many state laws that restricted abortion. Years later, she told a U.S. Senate subcommittee that she would like nothing more than to see Roe vs. Wade overturned. Her statements reflected the journey of a woman who went from being an anonymous plaintiff to a symbol for both sides of the abortion debate. She was 69. Full obituary(Getty Images)
Dubbed the “Acrobat of Scat” for his vocal delivery, Jarreau was admired by fans for his imaginative and improvisational qualities. He is best known for his single “We’re in This Love Together” from 1981. He is the only Grammy vocalist to win in the jazz, pop and R&B categories. He was 76. Full obituary(Felipe Dana / Associated Press)
Mansfield won the Nobel Prize for helping to invent MRI scanners. In 1978, he was the first person to step inside a whole-body MRI scanner so it could be tested on a human subject. His work, alongside chemist Paul Lauterbur, revolutionized the detection of disease by revealing internal organs without the need for surgery. He was 83. Full obituary(David Jones / Associated Press)
The Los Angeles producer, composer and arranger influenced some of the hip-hop era’s biggest hits, most notably Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg’s “The Next Episode.” Among those whose work includes Axelrod productions are A Tribe Called Quest, DJ Shadow, Schoolboy Q, Wu-Tang Clan, Mac Miller, Lil Wayne, Eminem, Earl Sweatshirt and Common. Axelrod was 83. Full obituary(B+ / Stock)
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But Berry proved to be as agreeable as Edwards had predicted. When his 90-minute tape ran out, he didn’t bother stopping the interview to get another. He simply let the conversation continue.
“Forget it,” he said. “Yeah, I suppose I’d like to have the tape in case someone twists some of my words. That’s what (soured me) on doing interviews years ago. No matter what I said, they would write what they wanted to. After a while, I didn’t see any value in talking to people. But the main reason I want the tapes is that it helps me remember things (in my life), things that I might say and want to use in another book.”
Much like John Lennon, whose straight-forwardness was much admired by Berry, there is little pause or sense of self-censorship in Berry’s conversation. While surprisingly refreshing, this frankness makes it easy for him to be misunderstood.
Asked how he feels about awards – specifically the 1986 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, he said, bluntly, “Those don’t mean a thing to me.”
That answer, in a 20-second TV bite, could do much to re-enforce the bitterness doctrine surrounding Berry.
But Berry, in almost Zen fashion, has worked to maintain what might be described as an “emotional neutrality” in his life.
“I don’t want the bottom, so I have to sacrifice the top...,” he says, matter of factly. “Rather than have joy, I would rather be absent of pain. … I think it is better that way because people have killed themselves over the lack of glory. They have also killed themselves from the depths of degradation.”
Art Versus the Businessman
Berry grew up in a working-class black neighborhood in St. Louis, son of a carpenter. He sang in church and began playing guitar and piano in his teens. He had eclectic musical interests and influences – from the blues of Muddy Waters and the swing of Count Basie to country and mainstream pop. He was in his late 20s by the time he joined the Johnnie Johnson trio at the Cosmopolitan Club in East St. Louis. Until then, he had worked a variety of odd jobs and had studied cosmetology. Music was more of a recreation than a career obsession – until he learned that he could make money at it.
After becoming known on the local scene, Berry signed with Chess Records in Chicago and released his first single in 1956. “Maybellene,” an upbeat novelty that appealed to the teenage rock audience, was a smash – the first of Berry’s nine Top 40 singles over the next three years.
Berry’s songs – others include “Johnny B. Goode,” “Back in the U.S.A.,” “School Day” and “Too Much Monkey Business” – are such simple, yet enduring statements that virtually every aspiring rock band since the Beatles and Rolling Stones has included at least one in its repertoire.
In trying to reflect the attitudes and aspirations of his teen audience, Berry moved beyond the novelties to touch on some of the frustrations and aspirations of young people.
“The Promised Land” is a richly appealing look at a young man’s travel across the country from Norfolk, Va., to Hollywood in search of the big time. (Berry wrote the song in prison, consulting an atlas to make sure the route outlined in the song was accurate).
With his profits, he opened a club in St. Louis briefly in the early ‘60s and a more ambitious recreation park on his farm in Wentzville, 35 miles west of here. But he eventually concentrated on real estate. Among his properties: homes in St. Louis, Hollywood and several in the Wentzville area.
Now that the book and movie are coming out, Berry is not about to take it easy. He is working on a new studio album and will tour next year with his own band for the first time in years.
Berry said he stopped using a regular band years ago for two reasons: His booking agency told him it was easier to book him as a solo artist and it meant more money for him. It also meant he didn’t have to be responsible for watching over the musicians, whose drinking habits, he said, bothered him.
He dislikes encores, saying he prefers to put his “all” into the show itself. Through it all, Berry felt no need to explain himself – though he admits the back-up bands were sometimes ragged. His only obligation, he felt, was to live up to the contract. To him, it was never bitterness or indifference, only business.
Berry is co-producer (with Stephanie Bennett) of the film, but it doesn’t mean it is a glossy portrait of him. He gets in a heated exchange with Keith Richards during a rehearsal sequence, telling Richards that he is going to do it his way – not Richards'– because his way has worked for 60 years. He talks repeatedly about music in terms of the money, not art.
During the interview at the Blueberry Hill, Berry smiles when asked about art.
"(To me, art) was drawing,” he replies. “To sing was not art. In fact, I first heard the word artist (applied to music) when they said, ‘The artist go in here.’ To me, that meant the painters go in here. That was my sense of it. I grew up thinking art was pictures until I got into music and found I was an artist and didn’t paint.”
Facing the Prejudice
Big-band music wasn’t all that Berry liked in the ‘40s and ‘50s. He was also a big fan of blues singer Muddy Waters, and he listened a lot to country music. His own music would seem much closer to those styles than to big-band music. Still, the big-band singers hold a special place in his heart.
Here are excepts from the interview with Berry (some of the questions have been revised to better reflect the flow of the conversation):
Teenagers in the ‘50s saw your music as a revolt against the Big Band Era, which seemed so formal, so less spontaneous and real.
“That’s because of the lyrics. The lyrics (of the big-band songs) were not today, not right now (like rock ‘n’ roll). Everybody went to school. I directed my music to the teenagers. I was 30 years old when I did ‘Maybellene.’ My school days had long been over when I did ‘School Day,’ but I was thinking of them. (Teenagers) were the ones I was singing to, so why not sing lyrics of their life?”
Most people thought rock was just a passing fad. Did you think your career might be over quickly?
You were very frank in the book about some relationships with other women over the years. Did your wife feel uncomfortable about some of the things you wrote in the book?
“This wife of mine. I don’t even care to talk about it too much because it is not anybody’s affair, but this woman I married once and for all. My father married once. I married once. This is a conviction of ours. This is the way we grew up. Nobody can bring us apart. ...
“We lived in the basement of our first home in order to rent out the upstairs. We came up together and sacrificed. I slept in the Hertz cars when I didn’t have but four hours before catching the morning plane, going from gig to gig rather than pay $18 to Holiday Inn. This was when I was making a $100, $150, $125 a night. I’d sleep in the car and the security at the airport would tap on the window when he came to work so I wouldn’t miss my plane.”
A lot of black performers were bitter about the discrimination they experienced, especially in the South, during the early tours. You don’t seem to share that anger.
“No, I saw why (there was prejudice). Before I even went (into) music, I knew black people made bread for white people with their black hands, but to go and touch a white woman ... on the arm was forbidden, taboo. These were the things that intrigued me. Why do you eat out of my hands, but do not want me to pat you on the back? (I saw it was) a tradition ... a belief that (the whites) had.”
Elvis and you were the most important of the early rock stars, but Elvis, being white, got much more media exposure. Did you feel cheated?
“Again, I knew why. Television stations were owned by whites. ... Besides, I never saw we were rivals. ...”
But didn’t it seem unfair?
“No, it is not unfair that six people have on gray suits and I have on a blue suit or it’s not unfair that seven people are eating turkey and I chose to have chili or whatever. That’s what it was. More people chose his music than chose mine ... or my records.
“There were so many avenues that lead up to that . . . tradition, acceptance. It is more comfortable to be around your own than a foreign element. All this had to do with it (and I could see it). Now who is going to change all of that ... tradition ... just to sell a record. ...”
How about the money? Did you feel cheated the way a lot of other ‘50s artists do?
“I keep thinking about the positive side. ... I’d say, ‘Look how much money I made from writing my songs and singing them, both of which I like to do.’ ... I remember the Rolling Stones getting $50,000 in Miami on the ‘Ed Sullivan Show’ and I was making $500 a night and they were playing my song ... but (I thought) about the $500 that was coming every night. In 100 nights, I’d have $50,000.”
What’s your view of the Mann Act conviction?
“A lot of extenuating circumstances go along with it. One, I had a nightclub in St. Louis that was predominately catered to by the white populace of St Louis ... and shortly before that whites weren’t allowed into the Fox (movie theater), which was just two blocks away. Now here you’ve got what they called a mixed racial club that was catered to by whites ... and here, down the street we just are trying to see what it is like to let blacks in the Fox.
"(You could picture people saying) ‘Now this is going too fast, let’s shut the club down ... (and) in order to shut the club down, you have to (shut the owner down). That wasn’t the only thing that happened – getting me into jail from the Mann Act. Many things happened. They made us paint the walls, fix the pipes ... made us do all kinds of fire protection. But I knew why. I wasn’t wanted on Grand Avenue. I was the instigator.”
(Berry writes in the book that he met a woman in Juarez and brought her back to St. Louis to be a hostess in his club, but the woman, who told him she was 21, turned out to be a teenager.)
Let’s talk about your honors again. Isn’t it gratifying to walk into a place like this and see your pictures on the wall and your guitar in the display case, and to think how much your music has meant to people over the years?
“I swear it does not mean a thing. ... I am telling you I don’t have the good feelings or the bad feelings either. I have bad physical feelings. In other words, someone can rub my neck with a feather and that feels good. Someone kicks me on my leg, that feels bad. But if somebody says anything derogatory or someone says you are the best performer I have ever seen in my life, that doesn’t mean a thing.”
“For rhythm and lyrics, it would be ‘Back to Memphis.’ I think it is a heck of a story ... a fellow went up north to make it and (finds) there is no place like home. It is the grown boy talking to his mother rather than little ‘Johnny B. Goode.’
“For heart-throbbing, tear-dropping, it is ‘Memphis, Tenn.,’ which is the tenderest. For novelty, it is ‘No Money Down.’ For teachings, it is ‘Downbound Train,’ because it is spiritual and it shows if you really need to do well, you will do well.”
What are the rewards now? Just money?
”... I wouldn’t be out there (anymore) if it was money only. ... My money is making enough money for me to live on (for the last) five to eight years ... not only me but all my people. The money is never (ignored). I wouldn’t work benefit after benefit the rest of my life. But it isn’t the main reason I go out anymore.”
What do you think about the film? The ending, where you are alone at the piano singing “Cottage for Sale,” is quite touching.
“I am hoping (the film) makes it into the hearts of many people, which will mean box office ... but if I had directed that film I would have had a flair of an ending instead of the quiet ending. I would have ended it like my show. I would never stop my show with ‘Cottage for Sale’ or anything like it. I want to leave sweating, hot and happy and hearing (the applause).”