Morgan Enos is a musician, essayist and music journalist specializing in classic rock. He records and performs as Other Houses and has bylines in Billboard, HuffPost, the Recording Academy, Vinyl Me, Please, TIDAL and more. He is also the co-founder and editor of North of the Internet, a series of conversations with creative people. He can be found at his website.
Paul Shaffer believes that rock was born — and died — with Chuck Berry. “To me, this man invented something that we call rock & roll,” he says at a Q&A with journalist Alan Light after a screening of PBS special Chuck Berry: Brown Eyed Handsome Man, out last Saturday (February 29). “When he passed away — and I was honored to be present at the funeral — to me, it was the funeral for the idiom.”
“Because when it was alive,” the longtime Letterman bandleader continues, “he reigned over it.”
Shaffer is perched alongside Berry’s only son Charles Berry, Jr., drummer Steve Jordan, and Ron Weisner, who produced the PBS special. Narrated by Danny Glover, the film consists of decades-spanning live footage of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Jeff Lynne’s ELO and others covering Berry, illustrating how the Father of Rock & Roll’s presence has been felt in the music business for more than 60 years.
Berry’s son aside, the two go back decades with the rock pioneer. Shaffer met him more than 30 years ago in his backing band at the opening of a Hard Rock Cafe; Steve Jordan, a long-time collaborator with Keith Richards, drummed in the 1987 concert documentary Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll. Plus, Weisner, a veteran music manager, once steered the careers of Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson before spearheading this project.
Prior to the screening at the Paley Center For Media in Manhattan, Berry, Shaffer, and Jordan chatted with Talkhouse about their memories of Berry, his surprising business savviness, and, in 2020, the state of the art form Berry helped invent.
Morgan Enos: Tell me how Brown Eyed Handsome Man came to be.
Charles Berry, Jr.: After my dad’s death, a lot of interest was renewed in my dad’s life and his music. Ron Weisner, producer extraordinaire, got in contact with us and said, “Hey, I’m doing this. Would you like to participate?” I said, “Well, yeah, sure we would.” There were some contractual things that had to be worked out, but the goal was, I believe, to represent something to the world that would reflect my dad’s influence on the music industry and on musicians, and this does that to a T.
Paul Shaffer: As far as Chuck Berry, to me, his period coincides with the life and death of the rock & roll era. He invented it, and when he died, it was over.
Morgan: Paul, when and where did you first meet Chuck?
Paul: I was playing at the opening of the Hard Rock nightclub in Dallas, Texas [in 1986]. Dan Aykroyd had reassembled the Blues Brothers band in honor of this opening, featuring Steve Jordan on the drums. They were going to back up an all-star roster of people. Albert King was one of them.
Steve Jordan: Albert King was the one I remember the most because he was the crankiest.
Paul: Of course he was. At my age, I’m starting to understand! And Chuck Berry was going to close. But as he was known for, he said, “I want my own band.” By that, he didn’t mean a band that travels with him, or that he’d rehearsed with. Just, “I want guys who hadn’t played with everybody else all day long.”
Paul: We, of course, all understood that. We were exhausted from rehearsing and from playing a whole show with all kinds of stars. And elated, too. Our band at the time was pretty hot, too, what with these guys, original cats like Steve Cropper and Matt “Guitar” Murphy. It was a thrill to play with them anytime anyway.
Steve: I didn’t know at the time how much Matt “Guitar” Murphy was involved with Chess Records.
Charles: Oh, yes.
Steve: I didn’t know at the time that he had played on Chuck Berry records. I was just a kid. I didn’t know the history of Matt Murphy until later.
Paul: I guess we didn’t witness any interaction because Chuck wasn’t going to play with Matt and us. He was going to have his own band. He was going to go on at about midnight. It was now 11:30 and we were done. I was sort of relaxing in the bar, ordering a cognac, and someone comes up to me and says, “Chuck doesn’t want to go on without you.” I couldn’t believe it, you know? But I said, “Absolutely. I’ll be right there.”
And there we were playing together, and that was the first time. He was just super sweet, playing with guys neither he nor I had ever met. I had heard all the stories about what he’s like to play with and how simple he is to play with. And how he just says, “This means stop; this means go.”
Morgan: It seems like his MO was to pick up a band in every town.
Charles: Yeah, to an extent. I guess this was after Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll was released. My dad was 60 years old and he kind of reformed the band that he had prior, back in the ‘50s, with [longtime pianist] Johnnie [Johnson]. Johnnie was always in and out. Due to unfortunate issues with alcohol, Johnnie had to basically stop touring with my father.
So they joined back up in the ‘70s and did sporadic stuff. Then they did some more in the ‘80s. And then they did more after that. After that period, Johnnie had a resurgence of his own, but my dad would say, “Hey man, we’re going to Europe. Let’s go.” Boom. They’d go.
So he then started to standardize. My sister, who Steve knows, Ingrid [Berry], her husband [Chuck Clay], and a local drummer. He’d travel with them and then I joined that same band after [Clay] died in 2001. It became more of a rarity that you saw a pickup band with my dad.
Charles: It was usually us. I did close to 500 shows with my father over 14 years and I traveled the world, and it was the same band, the same five people backing him. The exception [was that] sometimes when we went to Europe, the promoter would say, “Alright, I’ll go find anybody to play keyboards and drums, but it’s going to be the same people.” We knew exactly what he was going to do before he did it.
And this dude. [Gestures to Steve.] My dad’s like, “Yeah, I want Steve.” Every chance he got, he did play with you after Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll was recorded. He’s like, “That guy with those braids, he took care of it.” And I’m like, “Yeah, of course, he did, because he’s Steve Jordan.”
Paul: Steve, when did you play with him after that movie? What sort of gigs did you do, like he’s telling us about?
Steve: I would say every now and then if I was coming to a gig or something. But it was really the film that solidified our friendship. Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll wasn’t just a concert. It was an experience. The two weeks of rehearsal and living together on his compound, the whole thing. We got to really know him and also see him dust off Berry Park and reopen the thing because it lay dormant for a long time.
He was rediscovering his past. When we walked into the [Fox Theatre in St. Louis], it hadn’t been used in years. I walked in there and found vintage drums that were used on records. It was just wild, taking the tarp off of the board… we rediscovered his playground together.
And then, of course, the reintroduction to Johnnie Johnson was really the thing. [He’s] really the unsung hero of the music, and we didn’t know how that was going to work out. But Chuck was very open to it, and they were like [laces fingers together]. Ian Stewart, who was the piano player for the Rolling Stones — one of his last requests was that Keith gets Johnnie Johnson to play.
When you’re going through something like that, you don’t realize the history that’s being made because you’re living it. You’re in it.
Morgan: Tell me about the process of finding and restoring this footage.
Charles: I know they did some serious digging. You’re dealing with multiple formats. Some of it may be videotape, some of it may be on film. A lot of this stuff is from the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, right up to today. I know they had to meticulously correct some of the colors, but they also had to get the audio right.
Steve: I think the thing that’s fascinating is getting the rights to use all of that stuff.
Charles: You’ve got multiple major acts that have the rights to their music, or some of it might be owned by a record company. [Weisner] had to go and negotiate to license all their stuff. And it’s entire songs, which is unheard of.
Steve: That’s where it gets very expensive. You usually pay x amount for a certain amount of time. For instance, when we were making the film Cadillac Records, we had to pay your father $50,000 to use ten seconds of one song.
Charles: Oh, of course!
Steve: Little bits of music cost a lot of money.
Paul: That’s the secret. Use the whole song! Maybe that’s how you get it cheaper!
Charles: Nope, no discounts!
Steve: ARC Music owned half [of Berry’s catalog] and Chuck owned half. Chuck was very smart. Most of the artists didn’t own anything.
Charles: That wasn’t without a great deal of fight and an excellent lawyer, Bill Krasilovsky.
Paul: He wrote the book.
Charles: He wrote the book. That’s right, Paul.
Paul: This Business of Music.
Charles: This guy was a super-genius. My dad went straight to him and said, “Hey, we need this fixed.” So, some of it’s still shared, but at the same time, that’s better than none of it being shared.
Steve: Having half of something is better than having all of nothing. And your father got his money from the Beach Boys [for “Surfin’ U.S.A.”].
Charles: And the Beatles — John Lennon [for “Come Together”]. However, whereas you would have thought those people would have cut his head off the first chance they get, Brian Wilson said, “Man, Chuck was right.”
Steve: And then they ended up doing a version of “Rock and Roll Music” later on in their career. That was probably one of their last hits.
Charles: He’s basically saying, “I didn’t realize I took something from Chuck Berry and turned it into one of our own songs.”
Steve: Chuck’s music was almost like public domain to most of the kids who were listening.
Paul: It’s like what’s happening today where people think they’re writing their own songs and they’re just taking somebody else’s. Ariana Grande took “Raindrops on roses/And whiskers on kittens,” but it’s from The Sound of Music.
Steve: Most of the records being made now are samples of something that was done in the ‘60s and the ‘70s. People are writing songs from a basis of not writing anything.
Paul: That’s music, though. The rock & roll era is over. Ron [says] the same thing. Live performance doesn’t happen anymore.
Steve: It’s funny, because how do you make most of your money these days? It’s by playing live because there’s so little revenue in the record business anymore. But when you go see people play live, most of it isn’t live. You’re not going to see people play music. You’re going to see a production. When you go see a big solo artist or something, you’re going to Barnum & Bailey Circus, really. It’s not like you’re going to see Joni Mitchell. You’re going to see an elephant, somebody with a trapeze…
Charles: With some music that just happens to be around it.
Morgan: So what was a Chuck Berry concert in contrast?
Paul: A musical performance. Where people are making music.
Steve: I haven’t given up hope yet completely. Rock & roll will never die.
Charles: It’s still got a pulse.
Paul: OK. I’m going to take that from you two guys as fact.