It was a rock and roll brush with greatness that I will never forget. My encounter with Chuck Berry. There he was. Chicago’s O’Hare airport walking down the terminal with that unmistakably gait and stature. An original member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the writer of “Maybellene.” I had to do something. For one, like much of his later career he was being virtually ignored by everyone in the world’s busiest airport. Had it been Justin Bieber the scene would have been significantly different lets just say. Berry going unnoticed glanced my way. I said Mr. Berry, “I am not worthy.” He chuckled and extended his hand. What I saw was the longest set of fingers I have ever seen (and I’ve met a few 7 foot NBA players in my life as well). And then he just continued to walk on by. He was a presence. The moment was one I have cherished and often reflected upon particularly in this last week as the music world said goodbye to Chuck Berry.
To me that moment was representative of the life of Chuck Berry. As an original architect of the blending of blues, gospel and country, Berry essentially created the, at the time unnamed, sound of a generation. A sound that inspired the biggest musical forces in the last 300 years-The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. And here he was minding his own business in Chicago a city where he recorded his legacy and no one recognized or cared to pay their humble respects. Check Berry, in some ways as a result of his own antics, had become person non gratis in the city that shaped his career and launched a genre that has changed the world. Yet no one cared.
Radio stations went overboard across the nation when David Bowie and Prince recently passed, make shift memorials sprouted up all over the country when Michael Jackson died, yet with Berry a couple of songs on KZYR, a few passing comments on national news shows and some tweets from a few people who played in his back up band like Bruce Springsteen and the man who duck walked across tens of thousands of stages passed with a nod similar to the one he gave me at the airport. Cool yet reserved.
Berry’s legacy was of course tarnished with some of his run ins with the law and creepy practices at his own night club yet that doesn’t explain why his legend is not bigger and his death more of a national mourning. The St. Louis born African American unapologetically shredded through racist America performing a brand of music that swayed teenagers hips and broke down barriers while launching a millennial of guitar players and essential inventing the Gibson brand.
There is a moment at the first induction ceremony of the RNR Hall of Fame when Keith Richards bows to Chuck Berry in passionate reverence. It doesn’t appear to have been planned, it was just Richards in awe. It was that awe that bespoke Berry’s influence and impact on Rock And Roll. I encourage you to seek out some of the documentaries on Berry (none better than “Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll” from 1987) and begin to appreciate the presence that was Chuck Berry. Hail! Hail! indeed.