Keith Richards is undoubtedly one of rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest icons—but even the greats have to start somewhere and that somewhere was usually wherever Chuck Berry happened to be playing.
Berry was a constant inspiration in Richards’ life and career. Whether it was providing him and Mick Jagger with something to talk about and begin their journey together as The Rolling Stones songwriting duo or sharing the stage with the icon singing his song ‘Johnny B. Goode’—Berry was a source of unstoppable inspiration for the guitarist.
There was one Chuck Berry performance, however, that captured Richards’ attention more so than any other, the guitarist’s appearance on ‘Jazz on a Summer’s Day’ a concert film which put Berry’s expertise with a guitar up against some of Jazz’s finest musicians.
We’re not kidding around either. Rhode Island’s Newport Jazz Festival, the scene of Bert Stern’s documentary ‘Jazz on a Summer’s Day’, welcomed Berry to the stage but not surrounded by his fellow rock and rollers. Instead, he would have to compete for the attentions of the jazz crowd alongside some of the genre’s most celebrated musicians.
It saw acts like Max Roach, Thelonious Monk, Louis Armstrong and Dinah Washington all grace the stage. It was a seriously esteemed crowd and the margin for error on Berry’s performance was minimal. He, in their eyes, was a young upstart of sorts and his performance could have easily floundered. Instead, he soared.
Caught in the updraft was a young Keith Richards who remembers seeing the performance and feeling an instant kinship and desire to achieve the same glory. “When I saw Chuck in Jazz on a Summer’s Day as a teenager, what struck me was how he was playing against the grain with a bunch of jazz guys,” Richards told Rolling Stone in 2015, highlighting Berry’s complete inability to conform.
“They were brilliant — guys like Jo Jones on drums and Jack Teagarden on trombone — but they had that jazz attitude cats put on sometimes: ‘Ooh… this rock & roll…'” It was a show that could have turned as many people off as it did on. But Richards thinks Berry won over the crowd. “With ‘Sweet Little Sixteen,’ Chuck took them all by storm and played against their animosity. To me, that’s blues. That’s the attitude and the guts it takes. That’s what I wanted to be, except I was white.”
“I listened to every lick he played and picked it up,” he added. “Chuck got it from T-Bone Walker, and I got it from Chuck, Muddy Waters, Elmore James and B.B. King. We’re all part of this family that goes back thousands of years. Really, we’re all passing it on.”
You can watch that fascinating performance below and see the Chuck Berry performance that inspired Keith Richards to be a rock star.