JW: Chuck Berry has a reputation for being difficult. Was that your impression of him?
MC: I met a lot of eccentric people working at Chess but Chuck was by far the most extreme in that sense. He has lived life by his own rules and doesn’t really care about other people’s rules. In a way you have to respect that. But it’s hard to deal with at times. He’s a true outlaw and laid the foundations for that rock’n’roll lifestyle. He went to jail for a second time in 1979 because he refused to pay his taxes. He could have paid up and avoided prison. But he didn’t care. I didn’t personally have any problems with him. It helped that I didn’t have to deal with the business end of his career.
Me and Chuck go back a long way. I was thirteen when he signed to Chess, having been recommended by Muddy Waters. He’d stop over at our house. He’d sleep in my bedroom. I used to take him out for breakfast and he’d always amaze me by ordering a strawberry shortcake as a starter. Chuck did everything differently to other people. Mostly we talked about cars and girls. He especially loved girls. He had one of the world’s first Polaroid cameras and had hundreds of pictures of beautiful girls. He was a creative guy. A poet. A genuine artist. He was a great musician and an inspired lyricist. He really understood the psychology of white teenagers. The teenage revolution began in 1955. Suddenly kids were driving around in flash cars, going to drive-in movies, drive-in hamburger joints. This was a whole new crazy cultural shift in America. It wasn’t happening in the black population but Chuck instinctively understood what was happening with the white kids and he captured that entire upheaval in his songs.
Chuck revolutionised the fortunes of Chess Records. From 1950 to 1955 we’d had blues hits. But even a number one record on the blues chart sold no more than 20,000. Then we signed Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. Suddenly it all changed. I met Chuck recently in New York, hadn’t seen him in twelve years. I was telling him about the time in 1955 when my dad was driving through Chicago and we heard Maybellene being played for the first time on the biggest white radio station. My dad was so happy at that moment because he knew he’d got his first crossover hit. Life was different for us after that. We’d always been poor. Any profits from Chess were ploughed back into the label. My mother didn’t have a dollar to buy me a water pistol when all the other kids in the neighbourhood had them. As soon as Chess were having hits on the pop chart, my parents got lavish in terms of buying stuff for their kids. I was telling Chuck all this and saying that he’d radically changed my life. He said, “It wasn’t one-way traffic, Marshall. You guys made my life great. I couldn’t have gone anywhere without Chess Records.” That was an emotional meeting for me. I think it was emotional for Chuck too.
Read the rest of it HERE.