Keith Richards and The Rolling Stones owe a lot to Chuck Berry, and without his pioneering strides in rock ‘n’ roll, The Rolling Stones would simply not exist. As The Stones’ fame increased, they and Berry became friends, with Richards performing as part of the band for Berry’s 60th birthday celebrations back in 1986.
Out of all of The Stones, Berry certainly had the most significant impact on Richards. Over the years, the guitarist has discussed the influence of Berry extensively. Famously, when Richards and Mick Jagger first met on a train in London, it was Jagger’s possession of a Berry album that caused the two to hit it off. Right from the start, The Stones were intrinsically linked to Berry.
“To me, (Berry’s music) had sort of a crystal clear clarity of what I wanted to hear, and what I was aiming for,” Richards told the LA Times of Berry’s influence on his teenage self. “And they were having fun — that was the underlying aspect of it all,” he added. “There was an exuberance, and they were not too serious. What was serious was what was going down — they weren’t serious about it.”
Despite all the love that he and The Stones have sent Berry’s way over the years, it wasn’t always reciprocated. After watching their hero play one night, Berry punched Richards in the face, but the violence wasn’t baseless. Richards recalled in Rolling Stone: “We saw him play in New York somewhere, and afterwards I was backstage in his dressing room, where his guitar was lying in its case. I wanted to look, out of professional interest”.
Like many axemen, Berry wasn’t impressed at the sight of Richards touching his guitar. “As I’m just plucking the strings, Chuck walked in and gave me this wallop to the frickin’ left eye,” Richards revealed. “Chuck Berry once gave me a black eye, which I later called his greatest hit”.
The Rolling Stones guitarist did admit that it was totally his fault that Berry punched him. He confessed that he would have responded similarly if he caught someone touching his guitar without permission.
Richards later admitted that he was at fault and would likely have done the same thing if he saw someone else with his guitar. He said: “I realised I was in the wrong. If I walked into my dressing room and saw somebody fiddling with my axe, it would be perfectly all right to sock ’em, you know? I just got caught”.
This wasn’t the only time the two tempestuous guitar heroes clashed. When rehearsing Berry’s hit ‘Maybellene’ for his 60th birthday celebrations, the pair jostled for the lead guitar role, which created tension. A report in the LA Times claims that Berry snapped at Richards. “You’re gonna have to let me lead on the songs I sing,” he said. “I’m responsible for how they go over”.
Instead of fighting it, Richards took a break until the song had finished, and it, like the punch scenario, would be forgotten quickly. The 60th birthday celebrations, now known as Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll, was a resounding success. Aside from the fact that iconic guitarists are volatile figures not to be provoked, there is another key lesson to take from this tale. Never get between a guitarist and their axe.