The Rolling Stones cover Chuck Berry’s ‘Little Queenie’ at Madison Square Garden, 1969
The Rolling Stones have always worn their influences firmly on their sleeves and perhaps their greatest inspiration was Chuck Berry, a figure who helped craft The Stones’ early sound like nobody else. When they reached the zenith of live music and performed on the hallowed turf of Madison Square Garden, the band decided to pay homage to their hero with a thunderous version of ‘Little Queenie’ which took the roof off the legendary New York building.
Berry played a huge part in carving out the success of The Stones with their very first single being an electric cover of Chuck Berry’s ‘Come On’ and they’ve also covered his track ‘Carol’ on a plethora of occasions. Although, their versions of those Berry classics are phenomenal and fierce tributes to rock ‘n’ roll’s forefather, their best take of a Berry number is ‘Little Queenie’. Their finest outing of the classic is this version from Madison Square Garden which appeared on their live album Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out. Ask any fan and they will agree that there is a strong case for the best iteration of The Stones being the line-up that included Mick Taylor and hearing his chemistry with Keith Richards on this song makes it hard to dispute.
It’s difficult to quantify the impact Chuck Berry had on The Rolling Stones. Keith Richards certainly wouldn’t have become the player he did if it wasn’t for Berry and The Stones man once commented: “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.” The duck-walking guitarist helped to invigorate Richards to follow his own dream of becoming a rock hero.
As well as pushing Richards to pick up a guitar he was also the reason that he reconnected with his old school pal Mick Jagger. The two artists were crossing paths at Dartford station when Jagger was holding some Chuck Berry records. “This is a true story – we met at the train station,” Jagger recalled in 1995. “And I had these rhythm & blues records, which were very prized possessions because they weren’t available in England then. And he said, ‘Oh, yeah, these are really interesting’. That kind of did it. That’s how it started, really.”
An 18-year-old Richards revealed in a letter to his Aunt Patty that “you know I was keen on Chuck Berry and I thought I was the only fan for miles but one mornin’ on Dartford Stn. (that’s so I don’t have to write a long word like station) I was holding one of Chuck’s records when a guy I knew at primary school 7-11 yrs y’know came up to me.”
He added: “He’s got every record Chuck Berry ever made and all his mates have too, they are all rhythm and blues fans, real R&B.” It was clear that Berry would become a shining influence on the band from then on, impacting almost everything they did in the early years. It was the push the band needed and they soon rose to prominence of such regard they were afforded the chance to play with their heroes.
In 2017, Richards recalled a nightmarish encounter he had with his idol to Rolling Stone: “Chuck Berry once gave me a black eye, which I later called his greatest hit,” Richards proudly recalled.
The Rolling Stones guitarist continued: “We saw him play in New York somewhere, and afterward I was backstage in his dressing room, where his guitar was lying in its case. I wanted to look, out of professional interest, and as I’m just plucking the strings, Chuck walked in and gave me this wallop to the frickin’ left eye.
“But I realised I was in the wrong,” he admitted and even revealed, “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.
“He was a little prickly, but at the same time, there was a very warm guy underneath that he wasn’t that willing to display. Chuck is the granddaddy of us all. Even if you’re a rock guitarist who wouldn’t name him as your main influence, your main influence is probably still influenced by Chuck Berry.”
Although Chuck Berry may not have been the kindest to Keith Richards when their paths crossed, it’s clear that by even allowing the band and Richards to share the stage that held a deal of respect for them. We’d imagine that the respect stems from performances like the one below. This ferocious cover of ‘Little Queenie’ is wild and the visceral reaction from the crowd is the reason why there was no live act on the planet who were fit to lace their boots in 1969. Except maybe, Chuck Berry.