Joe Edwards reflects on his friend, ‘the best-known St. Louisan of the last century,’ Chuck Berry
Legendary musician Chuck Berry, the “poet laureate” of rock 'n roll, died Saturday, at his home in St. Charles. He left behind him a changed world of music, culture, friendship and a dedication to the St. Louis region that continued until the very end.
On Monday’s St. Louis on the Air, Joe Edwards, the owner of Blueberry Hill, a University City restaurant and music club, where Chuck Berry performed more than 200 shows to packed audiences, joined the program to reflect on his friend’s life.
Here are excerpts from Edwards’ conversation with host Don Marsh.
Thank you for joining us to talk about your friend, Chuck Berry, I know you’ve been speaking with people all weekend …
There is such great interest from around the world, whether South America, Asia, Europe. The impact he had not just on music but on culture is just phenomenal … he’s possibly the best-known St. Louisan of the last century around the world as far as getting music to everyone and waking them up to good future possibilities of race relations and getting along.
What comes to your mind, you, who knew him so well, that most people don’t know about him?
Chuck Berry was a very loyal friend. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought I would become a great friend with Chuck Berry, but it did happen due to the trust that built up.
I think people would have loved his sense of humor. If he had not become such a superstar in music, he would have been a great comedian. He had such a command, an unusual, interesting command of the English language.
Take the song “Maybelline,” for example, the word “motorvatin.” That was one word to describe what would take a normal person five words. The speed of the car, moving along, you could almost feel the wind in your hair. He was just an amazing poet, the first great poet laureate of rock 'n' roll.
How did you meet him?
I met him for the first time in the mid-1960s after a concert where as a fan, I said, “gosh, great concert.” It wasn’t until the early 1980s that the friendship really started and he started to let his guard down and a trust built up.
Anytime he said he would do something, he would do it. If he said the show starts at 10 p.m., he would be there at 10 p.m. He might be two hours early or he might be there one minute early, but he was always there at a time that way agreed upon.
… The trust was reciprocal. I trusted him. He was great at Blueberry Hill. And for him to want to play in a small room like the Duck Room at Blueberry Hill, showed how much he appreciated connecting with fans. It was a worldwide respected concert series, legendary, where people would become from Japan, Europe, Brazil.
It is ironic that he played at a place called Blueberry Hill, which was a song made famous by Fats Domino, a contemporary of Chuck’s …
That shows how self-effacing Chuck Berry really was. When he asked me to put together a house band on his monthly concerts he wanted to call it the “Blueberry Hill Band.” He was the strongest-willed man I met in my life until it came to talking about himself. He would always defer and say, “that’s up for other people to decide my impact on the world.” It never bothered him a bit.
Why do you think Chuck Berry stood out from this era?
He was the first-grade poet laureate when he wrote great, insightful lyrics about teenage life. Later, he wrote insightful things about race with songs like “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man,” “Promised Land.”
Also, he was a great guitar player and a great vocalist. He was also a great piano player; he wrote a lot of his songs on piano and transferred them to guitar.
The third reason: he intuitively choreographed the first great rock 'n' roll moves. He was the one who made the guitar a star. Before, it was a rhythm instrument played in the background. Fats Domino, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis … they were piano players and they were great, but Chuck Berry was a guitar player. He would start on stage and play it above his head, through his legs and then the imitable duck walk, which superstars still do on stage today.
He was everything: All three of those factors, plus many more that helped create rock 'n' roll. He gave a voice to the post-WWII generation, black kids, white kids, all are welcome, let’s play some music, let’s rock 'n’ roll.
But he didn’t break his guitar like Jimi Hendrix and some others I can think of …
Time Magazine, when they were doing the all-time greatest 100 popular songs, they included Johnny B. Goode. They wrote: “Unlike the savage thrumming of later rock guitarists, Berry’s virtuosity wore a smile. That good-natured energy is what gave the song its imperishable life.”
Although Chuck Berry emerged in the 1950s, it seems to me his greater influence was on the 1960s, all of the stars of the '60s who played his music.
It was amazing how some of the people met because of his music. Mick Jagger, Keith Richards were influenced. The first Rolling Stones song was a cover of a lesser-known but great Chuck Berry tune called “Come Over.” The Beatles covered “Roll Over Beethoven.”
They all acknowledge the debt they owe him to bring that country, hillbilly music with blues and rhythm and blues and helping create this new genre.
Why did he stay here? He could have gone anywhere and lived as a celebrity …
Chuck Berry stayed in St. Louis. He was born and raised in St. Louis and he stayed here because of his family. His family meant more to him than anything.
He was not about to leave, maybe went on the road touring, but as far as his real home, there was no question, it was always going to be St. Louis. His wife, Themetta, and he had been married for 68 years. His children lived in St. Louis. He was driven to provide for them. Even before he was a superstar in music, he worked really hard to provide for his family.
St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.
Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.