The concert held on October 16, 1986, to celebrate Chuck Berry's 60th birthday and later released as the rock documentary Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll, directed by Taylor Hackford, featured a spellbinding lineup of musicians, including Eric Clapton, Etta James, original Berry keys man and blues-piano virtuoso Johnnie Johnson, sax extraordinaire Bobby Keys and Julian Lennon. It was a powerful show of reverence for rock and roll's poet laureate, a tribute as could only be orchestrated by the film's musical director and Berry fan: Keith Richards.
In his 2010 autobiography, Life, Richards shared a letter from April 1962 to his aunt Patty that recounts his introduction to Mick Jagger, writing: "You know I was keen on Chuck Berry and I thought I was the only fan for miles but one mornin' on Dartford Stn. … I was holding one of Chuck's records when a guy I knew at primary school 7-11 yrs [sic] y'know came up to me. 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 I mean… he is called Mick Jagger." The letter goes on to explain how Richards had started going to parties with Jagger, who he characterized as "the greatest R&B singer this side of the Atlantic." He talks about the band they form, how he plays guitar "Chuck style" and how he recently purchased a Chuck Berry LP "straight from Chess Records Chicago." By his own admission, Richards wanted to play like Scotty Moore and Chuck Berry when he first began playing guitar.
More than two decades later, in 1986, Richards was tapped to induct his "numero uno hero" into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, during the Rock Hall's inaugural awards ceremony. "It's very difficult for me to talk about Chuck Berry 'cause I lifted every lick he ever played," half-joked Richards during his induction speech. "This is the gentleman who started it all, as far as I'm concerned."
Over the years – and in spite of a mutual admiration and respect between the two – Berry and Richards have had some memorable spats. This year, during an episode of his Ronnie Wood Show on Absolute Radio, the two-time Hall of Fame inductee talked about an incident that left Richards with a black eye. "I used to play with [Chuck Berry] quite a lot, and he’d always have to have the money up front in his guitar case, and he’d leap straight from the stage with the guitar case full of money, throw it offstage and into the cab," he recalled. "Once Keith was there in the audience, and Chuck came off stage, and Keith ran up behind him, tapped him on the shoulder, at which Chuck turned round and went whack and smashed Keith in the eye, gave him a big black eye." Ultimately, the pugilistic misunderstanding was amicably resolved, and Richards was left with another dubious claim to fame.
After hours of rehearsals and careful planning, Berry's reputation for quite literally playing to his own tune came to fruition on stage at the Fox Theater in Saint Louis, on the first night of the 60th birthday concert. The provocative rock and roll innovator played in different arrangements and keys than had been planned, according to Richards, though it came as no surprise to him: "And he sure pushed me hard — you can see it in the film. It's very difficult for me to allow myself to be bullied, and that is what Chuck was doing to me and to everybody else."
In the clip below, taken from Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll, Berry schools Richards on guitar technique, creating a palpable tension in the room as Richards tries to keep his cool as the Berry-led band work through "Oh, Carol."
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum will screen Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll in the Museum's Foster Theater on Wednesday, October 24, as part of the Rock Hall's 17th annual American Music Masters series of events honoring Chuck Berry.