By the end of his touring career, Chuck Berry was rarely doing interviews. The legendary rock and roller had worn out his welcome with most journalists and his cantankerous attitude soon found him bottom of the priority list. But one TV host had a real affection for Berry, none other than Johnny Carson.
The enigmatic host of The Tonight Show Carson drew huge crowds with his network late-night show. It was one of the best shows on TV for ratings and could bring in any name it wanted to. In 1987, it welcomed Chuck Berry.
Usually, when musical guests are invited on stage they’re given either and allocated performance slot or indeed some interview time with Carson. Berry was given the entire episode; three interview segments and some musical performances too. But would Berry show up his host?
Perhaps it was because of their similar ages, or perhaps because in 1987 Berry was back on the promotion trail. But however you cut it, Carson got more out of Berry than any interviewer had done before. Aside from promoting his new book and Hail Hail Rock & Roll—a concert film about his 60th birthday—Berry shared more than ever before.
After performing ‘Memphis’ on stage for the audience, Carson welcomes him to the couch. y this time Berry was well into his “pick up band” years. A time in his life when he ditched his own band to save cash. It’s a subject he’d shut down for years but Carson had him open up about why he fired his band, “in the ’60s, things got a little juicy, and then they got a little smokey in the late Sixties. I didn’t want any part of it,” Berry said.
Later Berry also shares the ingredients that make him the star he is today, “I wanted to sing like Nat Cole with lyrics like Louis Jordan, with the swing of Benny Goodman … playing Carl Hogan’s riffs, and with the soul of Muddy Waters. I had it all mixed in.” After a performance of ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ Berry returns in an even more relaxed state, sharing why he still performs, “I really do. When I’m near that mic and there’s people looking at me, it just goes all through me.”
Rolling Stone suggests that the antagonistic rock and roller actually fancied a career in comedy before becoming the main man on stage. It may have been why he was so comfortable with Carson or indeed allowed him to go further than any interviewer before him.
Whichever way you look at it, this may well be Chuck Berry most revealing interview ever.