Chuck Berry, shown performing in Orange County in 1997, could be aloof or sweetly endearing up close and personal, writes longtime Times pop music writer Randy Lewis. (Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles Times)
“Chuck Berry doesn’t give interviews.”
My first encounter with Berry didn’t go so well. In four decades as a music journalist, I’ve seen Berry many times — concerts that ran the gamut from pedestrian to thrilling.
Along the way, I also had three direct encounters with one of the original architects of rock ’n’ roll — as a fan, as a fellow musician and as a pop music writer.
Taken in combination, these encounters ultimately inspired sympathy for the slings and arrows he’d suffered through his life, helping offset the initial disappointment I felt as a fan at his frostiness.
Yet later, these few brushes with fame made it that much more rewarding to score a few minutes of what felt like honest dialogue with a man who was equally innovative as a guitarist and as a songwriter, and whose combination of cockiness and self-deprecating humor helped define the rock ’n’ roll attitude.
The first meeting with him came in 1977 in the most mundane of surroundings. I was having lunch with a co-worker at a restaurant on the ground floor of an office building in Hollywood, not far from Sunset Boulevard and Vine Street, when we glanced over at the lunch counter and spotted Berry sitting alone, hunched over a sandwich.
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We were young scribes covering music business news for a low-budget record industry trade publication, Cash Box magazine, but we approached as fans.
“Mr. Berry?” I asked hesitantly. “We’re both great admirers of your work and just wanted to say hello.”
He smiled, guardedly.
One of us mentioned that we worked in the building across the street, for Cash Box, and asked if he was working on any new music.
He immediately stiffened. “Oh, you’re trying to get an interview, aren’t you?” It wasn’t what either of us had in mind, but the damage was done.
“Chuck Berry doesn’t give interviews,” he said, and turned back to his sandwich.
It was a visceral lesson in his legendary combative relationship with the press, as he had felt that he’d been burned over the years by news coverage of his run-ins with the law.
More than a dozen years later, I had another close-up-and-personal brush with the author of “Johnny B. Goode,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Sweet Little Sixteen” and so many other songs that constitute the foundations of rock ’n’ roll.
Through a series of events lost to me in the mists of time, a group in which I played sax at the time, the Beat Pests, was invited to open for Berry. He was booked for two shows on the same night at a club on the fringes of the L.A. music scene, the Strand in Redondo Beach.
To be on the same bill with Berry certainly constituted a bucket-list moment for any ersatz rock musician, but as for thinking of myself as a “fellow musician” of Chuck Berry, I will invoke Leonard Cohen’s reference to Hank Williams residing “100 floors above me in the Tower of Song.”
We’d worked up opening sets of about 40 minutes for the early and late shows, but were instructed to hold off taking the stage until the rented equipment, a pair of Fender Showman amps, as stipulated in Berry’s contract, arrived. They showed up late. Consequently we started late.
About 15 minutes in, we were informed, “Chuck is here and ready to go, you’re done!”
Between sets, one of the members of Chuck’s locally arranged backing band — bassist Steve Soest, who also runs a guitar repair business — secretly grabbed Berry’s wildly out-of-tune guitar and tuned it without his knowledge, prompting a look of perplexed pleasure from Berry when he started playing again.
When the Beat Pests’ drummer started to take his seat behind the drum kit for our second set, he was informed there would be no second set since Chuck’s first ran long.
Our 15 minutes of fame? Over.
About a decade later, in 2002, I was invited to meet with Berry before an appearance he was making the same night on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.”
His publicist warned me to keep it short, as Berry didn’t often talk to the press.
I was ushered into his dressing room in the bowels of the “Tonight Show” offices in Burbank and I brought up a concert he’d recently given at the Universal Amphitheatre. It had been one of his good nights, and he’d soared on a double bill with Little Richard.
We hit it off, and he seemed to relax when I asked where he still got the energy he had displayed onstage just shy of turning 75.
“It must still be fun,” he answered, “because I don’t have to hit a lick anymore,” acknowledging that fans would applaud him just for showing up onstage.
“What keeps me going is that I appreciate that response,” he said. “Plus, I’m still learning, and that’s a big part of my life, to learn. These guitar strokes I’m learning, still learning — yes, it’s fun. Anybody would understand it’s fun.”
He alluded to the impending release of a new album he’d been talking about for years — one that figures to see the light of day at long last later this year. (That album, “Chuck,” was announced in October as due for release in 2017, and now it figures to be the final collection of new material from rock ’n’ roll’s first guitar hero and original lyric poet.)
I received another glimpse into his fabled testiness when I asked whether it was “harder” to continue performing as the years went by.
“Break down ‘harder’ for me,” he said playfully, but also almost as though he were an opposing attorney. “Yes, it’s more tiring, but since I don’t do it as much as I used to, it’s not really that much more taxing. See why I couldn’t answer the question before? Ahh,” he added, “I should have been a son of Einstein.”
Or perhaps of Mark Twain, who famously observed that “The difference between the almost-right word and the right word is really a large matter — ’tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”
For a man who also always strived for the right word rather than the almost-right word — whether it was “motorvatin’ over the hill” in “Maybellene” or a “Coolerator [that] was crammed with TV dinners and ginger ale” in “You Never Can Tell” — the difference between “harder,” “more tiring” and “more taxing” was no small matter.
He even chose to share a snippet from a song he’d written recently, which as he pointed out, “has nothing to do with ‘come back, baby,’” alluding to the lyrics of youthful romance or frustration that populated his early songs.
“A builder built a temple/He wrought it with grace and skill,” Berry recited.
Come to think of it, that pretty well describes the body of music created by one Charles Edward Anderson Berry.
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