(SNN) There have been some informative and well written tributes to rock & roll great Chuck Berry since his death March 18th—many by people who knew him, interviewed him, or have written about rock & roll all their lives. Instead of that, here's an inelegant yarn about my own Chuck Berry interview moment—complete with O. Henry twist.
I met the late, great Chuck Berry at a James Brown concert back in the early nineties. I was a television entertainment reporter then and was sent to interview Brown, AKA “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business.” I didn’t realize Berry would also be there, much less as the opening act. The only background info I’d gotten was “Go interview James Brown.”
No Google to help out, of course, but I could wing it and sling it with the best of them back then. Besides, I’d grown up with rock & roll.
When we got to the venue, we learned Brown would be delayed. Apparently one of the musicians in his band had—shocker!—brought a doobie to the gig. This greatly displeased Brown, we were informed. We were also told Brown was calmly discussing proper drug protocol with the band in their dressing room. Every now and then, the door would open and I could hear him screaming the riot act at the offender(s). My cameraman waited outside Brown’s dressing room ready to set up when the scolding was over.
Meanwhile, I hung out backstage, waiting for rock and roll to happen, when the tall, slim, graceful man who invented much of it walked by. I reacted calmly and professionally.
“Chuck! Chuck Berry! Holy crap! I’m a huge fan.”
Perhaps he wasn’t used to an aging white dude in a suit acting like a teenager, but for whatever reason, it worked. He stopped, we shook hands and I asked “Chuck, I know it’s last second, but any chance I can get a quick interview with you?”
“Sure, I’ll do an interview,” he said. “But I can’t do it right this second. I gotta find my band. I’ll be back.”
While that may sound like a “see you later, chump,” kiss-off, I knew the words “find my band” had a different meaning for late-in-career Chuck Berry. I knew Berry had stopped taking his own band on the road for concerts. He’d hire a local group, or it might be anyone off the street who knew his music and had a guitar, drum kit or bass handy. Besides, Chuck did most of the musical heavy lifting with his own ax.
For the next half hour I stayed in place, waiting for either Brown or Berry to appear. Adding to the suspence, Berry crossed the stage every few minutes, each time politely reassuring me that he hadn’t forgotten about the interview, and he would be ready soon.
I finally had to leave when Brown waas ready in his dressing room. My cameraman set up there quickly and I raced through the interview, afraid I’d miss my chance once Berry found his band and introduced them to each other.
I rushed back to my spot just in time to see the man himself coming up to me, big smile on his face. I was thrilled. This was the guy I’d listened to in high school, one of the true geniuses of music, one of the most creative and talented performer/songwriters in the history of that rock ‘n’ music. And, thanks to the hardest working man in television that night, my cameraman came hustling up, set up in record time, and handed me a stick mike.
“Wait man, what’s this?” Chuck Berry asked me, genuinely puzzled.
“Chuck, he’s a big fan too,” I said introducing my shooter. (That was a little white lie. The cameraman had a “Best of The Carpenters” cassette in his truck.)
“You work in TV?” Chuck Berry asked. His smile was gone.
“Yes sir,” I said.
“I thought you were a newspaper guy,” Chuck said. “I don’t do TV interviews.”
And with that, Chuck Berry turned and walked away.
At least he didn't utter the final line from his classic hit, Too Much Monkey Business: "I don't want your botheration, get away, leave me be."
Photo: Some Rights Reserved. Image from Organicboi flickr photostream. Original photo can be found here.
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