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As Chuck Berry Turns 90, a Look at His Bizarre Friendship With Keith Richards

As Chuck Berry Turns 90, a Look at His Bizarre Friendship With Keith Richards

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Chuck Berry with Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones at The Fox Threatre St Louis during filming of the documentary Hail Hail rock N Roll. (Photo by Terry O'Neill/Getty Images)
Chuck Berry with Keith Richards at The Fox Theatre St. Louis during filming of the documentary ‘Hail Hail Rock N Roll’  (Terry O’Neill/Getty Images)

Did you know that Chuck Berry cowrote the Beach Boys’ hit “Surfin’ USA”? He actually never sat down in a room with Brian Wilson to bang out the track, but Wilson was so influenced by Berry that he took the tune to “Sweet Little Sixteen,” added some surfing lyrics and those remarkable vocal harmonies, and in 1963, produced his band’s first top 10 hit.

CHICAGO - CIRCA 1958: Rock and roll musician Chuck Berry poses for a portrait session in circa 1958 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
Chuck Berry poses for a portrait session in circa 1958 in Chicago, Illinois (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

By that point, Berry had already had six of them, including “Maybellene,” “No Particular Place to Go,” and “Johnny B. Goode.” He was a massive influence on countless artists, including The Beatles’ John Lennon and The Rolling Stones. In fact, he played such a crucial roll in shaping rock-and-roll that one of the movie Back to the Future‘s best jokes comes when Chuck’s cousin, “Marvin Berry,” calls him about that “new sound you’re looking for.”

 

Berry’s last hit came in 1972, when a live recording of the novelty song “My Ding-a-Ling” unexpectedly went to No. 1 on both sides of the Atlantic. (It tells the story of a beloved childhood toy and includes the chorus, “My ding-a-ling, my ding-a-ling/I want to play with my ding-a-ling.”) Ever since, Berry has toured relentlessly and occasionally drifted a bit more into the spotlight, notably with Back to the Future and when Pulp Fiction featured “You Never Can Tell” in John Travolta and Uma Thurman’s dance contest.

Yet for a man so central to popular music, he has been largely ignored in recent years. (Berry is hoping to change this with the just announced release of the new LP, Chuck, his first since 1979—that’s right, the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s all passed between albums—which is dedicated to his wife of 68 years.)

One of few people who’s never forgotten Berry is The Rolling Stones’ lead guitarist Keith Richards, and for that devotion Richards has been literally punched in the face.

NEW YORK - MAY 6: Guitarists Bo Diddley (with his trademark square Gretsch electric guitar on the left) and Chuck Berry (on the right) perform at Madison Square Garden in the concert movie 'Let the Good Times Roll' on May 6, 1972 in New York City, New York. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
Bo Diddley (with his trademark square Gretsch electric guitar on the left) and Chuck Berry (on the right) perform at Madison Square Garden in the concert movie ‘Let the Good Times Roll’ on May 6, 1972 (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

The Stones’ guitarist has always been quick to credit Berry for everything involving his famous band. Indeed, he says that the only reason he struck up a conversation with an 18-year-old Mick Jagger was that he was so impressed that Jagger was carrying a copy of Rockin’ at the Hops by Chuck Berry. (Mick solidified his standing in Richards’ eyes by also having a copy of The Best of Muddy Waters, which contained the song “Rollin’ Stone” that led to their group’s name.)

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - OCTOBER 20: Singer Chuck Berry performs at the Izvestia Hall on October 20, 2013 in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Yuri Martianov/Kommersant via Getty Images)
Chuck Berry performs at the Izvestia Hall on October 20, 2013 in Moscow, Russia (Yuri Martianov/Kommersant via Getty Images)

In 2014, Richards said of first hearing Berry:

“Chuck Berry, he just leapt out of the radio at me. I ate him basically, I mean I breathed him—it wasn’t just food, he was the air I breathed for many years when I was learning guitar and trying to figure out how you could be such an all-rounder. Such a great voice, such a great player and also such a great showman … it was all in one package.”

Richards even staged two concerts for Berry’s 60th birthday, which were filmed for the documentary Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll. (See the trailer below.)

 

In return, Richards got to spend time with a man who, to put it generously, is difficult. Richards said that Berry “gave me more headaches than Mick Jagger” and as anyone who’s read Keith’s autobiography can tell you, that’s a lot of headaches. Indeed, on one occasion Berry literally gave Richards another type of headache after punching him in the face. Why? Keith dared to touch Berry’s guitar. (It wasn’t the first time Berry hit a rock icon: He reportedly also beat up Jerry Lee Lewis.)

Still, Richards remains as fond of Berry as ever, and he does owe him a debt: “I lifted every lick he ever played.” On Chuck Berry’s 90th birthday, watch Keith Richards’ good-natured discussion of the face-punch incident below. At the bottom, watch the two men doing what they do best: playing guitar. (They’re also joined by some other guy named Eric Clapton.)

—Sean Cunningham for RealClearLife