Sunday, June 16, 2013

Chapter 12 - Why He Matters, Part IV: Chuck Berry as Businessman

Which leads to the next topic— because beyond the art, the poetry, the songs, the performance and the pure presence, there are a couple of other things that make Chuck Berry’s long career so notable.

He fought for himself as an artist—and continues to do so. He makes sure he is paid in advance for his performances. He manages his own career. He insists that every promoter provide the bare bones necessary for him to put on a proper Chuck Berry show: i.e., a few professional musicians, the proper guitar amplifier, and cash. When they fail, he lets them know.

Various people have criticized Chuck Berry’s insistence on being compensated for work performed, including later generation rockers who take in unimaginable riches and have riders demanding assorted wines and chocolates, or tea served in china cups, and who undoubtedly leave most details to legions of attorneys, agents, handlers, publicists, and hangers on.

Eric Clapton said “I still love his music, but meeting him in some senses took the edge off it for me. I found out bit by bit that he was so concerned with money and himself, and he is such an ambitious man, that in a way it kind of spoiled the feeling for the music.”

This is ironic commentary from a man who, with The Yardbirds, The Bluesbreakers, Cream, Derek and the Dominoes, and as a solo act, has gathered more windfall from the inventions of African American and Jamaican musicians than whole armies of the original artists. As best I can tell, from what I admit is only idle knowledge of his music, Clapton himself invented nothing and has written just one truly good song. Instead, like a good second story man he lifted the good stuff, polished it beautifully, and then fenced what he took at great personal profit. Good for him—that’s music. Musically Chuck did much the same thing (though he added several dozen beautifully crafted songs to the mix). But where, then, does Clapton get off talking about ambition, money and self importance? He’s got all of that in spades.

Or listen to Keith Richards, who started his own career covering hits from Chess stars like Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. In my mind he deserves more artistic credit than Clapton—Richards helped write whole bunches of great songs. But discussing the 1986 film Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll he said: “Chuck said to the promoters that he wanted to bring his piano player, but only if they pay him. Chuck’s about bucks.” The Rolling Stones reportedly earned more than $400 million from its “Bigger Bang Tour,” and in 2001 the British paper The Guardian once reported that Richards was worth 130 million pounds. I guess with $200 million in your pocket, a busload of roadies, and a bunch of lawyers, managers, accountants and hangers on, you can be all about the art.

I got the Clapton and Richards quotes from John Collis’s Chuck Berry: The Biography. Collis himself chimes in: “Berry’s prudence with money, his fascination with its accumulation, is legendary. He loves it more than he loves rock ‘n’ roll. The deal is what matters to him, and he reads a contract with X-ray eyes.”

Collis’s quote is probably “on the money,” and less judgmental than the statements by the two well nourished rockers. Chuck Berry would never deny that he’s interested in the money. He remembers how much he was paid at his first gigs in the early 1950s. He remembers how much he was paid to paint the walls of the club, too. (“When the money got larger, I put the paint brush down, picked the pick up, and fiddled!”) He remembers the cost of old cars, tape recorders, guitars, even an $8 pair of pants. As an African American born in 1926, he is a child of both Jim Crow and the Great Depression. Yes, money means something to him.

And to his art! The pecuniary details are as important to his songs as the machines, the safety belts, or the young love. Johnny’s mother remembers where she got the bus money and the money for the guitar, which she bought at a pawn shop. The protagonist of “No Money Down” knows exactly how much he’s got left to spend to insure his “yellow convertible four door de Ville.” The “little money coming worked out well” for Pierre and the Mademoiselle.

There’s a scene in the film Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll where three legends gather around a piano at Berry Park. Bo Diddley starts talking about his early recording contracts. Little Richard admits he never read them. Bo says he did, and begins to say how much he earned per record. Half a cent says Chuck. The records sold for 59 cents. “There were 58 other pennies going somewhere,” says Chuck. “I majored in math. I was looking at the other 58 cents!”

At another point in the movie he talks about the payola scandal, and about finding two other names credited on his first hit record, “Maybellene.” “I knew Alan Freed. I heard him on the radio. He was the disk jockey in New York that played the records. Who was Russ Fratto? He owned a stenography store—a stationary store that supplied Leonard [Chess] with his stationary.”

“Maybellene” is now credited to just one man—Chuck Berry. Berry and his record company also fought to get royalties owed to him by the Beach Boys for using the melody of “Sweet Little Sixteen” to make “Surfing U.S.A.” Even John Lennon had to settle with Berry (he agreed to record more Chuck Berry songs) in return for using Berry’s line “here come old flattop” in The Beatle’s song “Come Together.” Call it hardnosed, or call it smart, or call it taking care of his family and his legacy— it was the right thing to do. How many blues and R & B stars died homeless, their efforts ripped off and returned home by foreign invaders? Not Berry. There’s a mansion on the edge of Berry Park that wasn’t there when my car stalled in 1978. (And that’s his other home. I’m pretty sure the big one is down the road a piece.)

His own musicians sure respect him. “The money's always right and on time,” says Bob Lohr, Chuck’s long time St. Louis piano player. “The touring conditions are the absolute best as well— five star hotels, sometimes first-class airfare, all expenses paid.” Fellow pianist Bob Baldori agrees. “I have never found Charles difficult to work with. He's always been 100% professional and easy going with me.”

If Chuck Berry reads a contract with “X-ray eyes” it’s because he’s a businessman who has been burned and would prefer to avoid it. “I have tried to curb the manners in which I have been ripped off so that it doesn’t happen again,” he told an interviewer from the BBC. “Which has given me a reputation of being—cynical, is it? It’s not that I’m distrustful—it’s just that if the same type of dog comes up and you think that he’ll bite you, well, move out!”

In his book he talks about his first and only manager. Chuck fired him when he learned he was stealing money. After that Berry managed his own career with the help of a few trusted agents and friends.

He wasn’t alone. The great Chess Bluesman Howlin’ Wolf also paid attention to money matters. Wolf paid his musicians’ taxes, social security and unemployment insurance—all unheard of in the blues world of the 1950s. When he fired a musician, or there wasn’t work, that musician could still get a check. When the musician retired, he’d get social security. Wolf also insisted on following the rules of the musicians’ union. Once, Elmore James put Wolf’s name on a poster without Wolf’s permission. Wolf fined James $25.

One of Wolf’s contemporaries talked about Wolf the same way some people talk about Chuck Berry. “He was mostly about money,” the musician said. “He conserved his money and he was always singing about money…. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him broke… He really was into that money thing and he had some money!”

Berry and Wolf, entertainers, sometimes clowns on stage, and undeniably great artists and musical innovators, were serious business people who insisted on being treated with respect, dignity and fairness in the financial rough and tumble of the music business. Musicians should thank them, not just for paving the way musically, but for helping turn the rough and tumble music business into a viable and dignified profession. It is a legacy almost as great as the music itself.

(Earlier chapters of this book length piece can be found in the "pages" to the left, and scattered throughout the blog.  I'll be publishing additional chapters once or twice a week throughout summer.  It starts HERE.  Or to read the next chapter, click HERE.)



eu said...

o melhor!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Anonymous said...

Fantastically written – will be checking in again. Was looking around for a photo of Chuck, listening to the Chess Years set, was glad to have thoughtful reading to accompany my daily appreciation of the Master.

Peter said...

Thank you! And do keep checking back.