Chuck Berry is one of the most influential musicians of all time. There can be no arguing. Regardless of his controversial off-stage antics, he influenced basically every iconic musician from the 1960s and the ‘classic rock’ era, and the mention of his nickname ‘Father of Rock and Roll’ swiftly establishes the extent of the esteem in which he is held.
His lyrics focused on teen life and consumerism, and in addition to his guitar solos and showmanship, Berry practically established many of rock’s now very overworn tropes. Showing just how illustrious his career was, he rubbed shoulders with other influential bluesmen such as Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley.
There can be no greater sign of Berry’s intent than the title and lyrics of his 1956 hit, ‘Roll Over Beethoven’. In the song, he directly addresses the classical composer and instructs him to move out of the way and to stop stifling the progress of this new cultural revolution, rock ‘n’ roll. Elvis, Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles; the list of icons who have covered his work and cited him as an influence is absolutely mind-blowing.
For a man who is so widely revered for his contributions to music and popular culture, it was only right that he should be celebrated by his legions of disciples. This tribute came on his 60th birthday in the guise of two celebratory concerts. The soundtrack album and film, entitled Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll, was released in October 1987, and visually, it’s quite a spectacle.
The concerts were fittingly held in his hometown of St. Louis, Missouri, at The Fox Theatre. The list of legends helping Berry to perform renditions of his best-loved hits was incredible. The band members were: Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Etta James, Linda Ronstadt, Bobby Keys, Julian Lennon, Robert Cray, Johnnie Johnson, Steve Jordon and Joey Spampinato.
Aside from this glamorous backing band, the documentary features some other of our favourite faces. Alongside the concert, the film features behind the scenes footage with the addition of an eye-opening peek into the rehearsals between some of the best-loved names in rock. There are also candid interviews with Berry and some of his family members, presenting a more human image than this electrifying titan of rock ‘n’ roll we all know so well.
If that wasn’t enough, the film contains interesting ‘talking-head’ style appearances from some of the best-loved names in the game. This features accounts from Bo Diddley, The Everly Brothers, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Roy Orbison, Bruce Springsteen on the impact of Chuck Berry. In his segment, Bruce Springsteen says: “Probably like most musicians in my generation, I first really heard Chuck Berry through The Rolling Stones. I think I learnt my first Chuck Berry lead from Keith Richards, probably. That first Rolling Stones record where I think they had ‘Carol’ and a few other Chuck Berry songs on it.”
He continued: “Then from them, I went back and I got his records, and I guess the funny thing was I think that his influence on my own writing came out more later on, when I wanted to write the way I thought that people talked because that’s how I felt that’s he writes.”
Springsteen appended: “You know, if you listen to one of his songs, it sounds like somebody’s coming in, sitting down in a chair and telling you a story about their aunt, or their brother, or describing some girl. It’s descriptive.”
In addition to the marvellous renditions of his songs, and the forensic lip service paid to Berry, the film also contains another magical moment. One of the ‘talking-head’ segments is archive footage of John Lennon discussing Berry’s impact. Spookily enough, at one point during the concert, Lennon’s son Julian arrives on stage to help Berry and the band tear through his most iconic opus, ‘Johnny B. Goode’. It’s safe to say Julian Lennon absolutely steals the show from Berry at this point. Donning a teddy boy quiff and suit, he is the dead ringer for his father in The Beatles’ early days.
Furthermore, it is his singing that really pips your attention. Although no way near as strong of a singer as his father, he sounds very much like him, and for those of us who struggle with sight, you’d be forgiven for mistaking him for his father until you realised it was 1986. The warm embrace Berry gives Julian at the end of the track and the applause he gets is quite something. A magical night featuring some brilliant figures, Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll is undoubtedly etched into the annals of music history.
Watch Berry and Lennon’s performance below.