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Chuck Berry is 'bubbling over with glee' over weeklong tribute
Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry is 'bubbling over with glee' over weeklong tribute

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The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland will honor a St. Louis icon when it gives Chuck Berry a weeklong spotlight.

“Roll Over Beethoven: The Life and Music of Chuck Berry,” part of the museum’s American Music Masters Series, kicks off today and ends Saturday with a concert in Berry’s honor.

“I’m delighted — bubbling over with glee,” Berry said before performing a sold-out concert on the eve of his 86th birthday Wednesday at Blueberry Hill. “Each honor is a whole new day, and this one is a week.”

The American Music Masters Series, in its 17th year, honors a prior Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee each year. Honorees have included Woody Guthrie, Aretha Franklin, Muddy Waters, Hank Williams, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bessie Smith and Buddy Holly. Berry, a St. Louis native and Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award recipient, was inducted into the hall in 1986.

The rock ’n’ roll pioneer is known for his guitar licks and songs such as “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Johnny B. Goode,” “Maybellene,” “Rock and Roll Music” and his No. 1 hit, “My Ding-A-Ling.”

Berry has a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame and an 8-foot-tall bronze likeness of himself in the Delmar Loop, where he still performs monthly at Blueberry Hill. His daughter Ingrid Berry-Clay, who sings and plays harmonica in his band, said the Rock Hall honor is “another adventure.”

“We’re all very grateful for all the hard work — the decades of hard work — that Pop has put in over the years,” she said. “It’s a heartwarming honor to see.”

Charles Berry Jr., a guitarist in his father’s band, is also proud. “It puts hair on a bald chest,” he said.

Lauren Onkey, vice president of education and public programs for the Rock Hall, said the American Music Masters Series presents an opportunity to explore the careers of its inducted artists who were key to the development of rock ’n’ roll and have changed the landscape of music.

“The goal is to get at the story of the honorees from different points of view with different voices in the mix,” said Onkey, who was in the audience last week at Berry’s Blueberry Hill show. “Chuck Berry is so crucial to the formation of rock ’n’ roll, and it’s the right time to get at that story. He was interested and gave us his seal of approval.”

Onkey said Berry had been discussed as an honoree for a while. Berry worked with the Rock Hall last year on an oral history interview for its archives.

“It’s a story we always wanted to tell, so we said, ‘Let’s go for it,’” Onkey said.

Writer-musician Greg Tate, a founding member of the Black Rock Coalition, said music wouldn’t be music as we know it without Berry. Tate is delivering a keynote lecture this week at the American Music Masters Series.

“Everything we call rock ’n’ roll wouldn’t have happened without him — Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, the Beatles,” he said. “His form, his structure, approach and energy made the guitar matter the way it does. He created his own vernacular, which became the vernacular.”

Tate called Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” a breakout moment in the history of music.

“You can’t say there was ever a song like that before,” he said. “It made space for a new kind of entity. It was swinging, upbeat and affirmative — a ‘world, watch out, here I come’ song.”

Guitarist Ernie Isley, a 1992 Rock Hall inductee with the Isley Brothers, has never worked with Berry, but he said he quickly agreed when asked to perform in Saturday’s tribute concert in Cleveland. Isley, who also lives in St. Louis, said he was inspired by Berry’s talents as a teenager.

“When you pick up an electric guitar for the first time as you’re learning to play, you try different riffs,” he said. “You might play ‘Can’t Get No Satisfaction’ or ‘It’s Your Thing,’ and you’re certainly going to play ‘Johnny B. Goode.’ Everybody does. ... Chuck’s guitar riffs are signature.”

Blues-rock guitarist and singer Joe Bonamassa bought a Gibson guitar like Berry’s a long time ago.

“I’ve always loved his music,” Bonamassa said. “At the end of the day, it’s Chuck Berry. No matter what level or style of guitar you play, you never get past going through Chuck Berry. All styles lead there.”

Bonamassa said Berry’s style is erratic but identifiable — “one of the hardest things to do on a guitar.”

And rockabilly artist Rosie Flores said anyone who has ever played a guitar has to name Berry as an influence.

“There are no guitar licks more fun to start out with than learning to play guitar to Chuck Berry,” she said. “And if you play rock ’n’ roll, you know how to play ‘Johnny B. Goode.’ That was very empowering when you’re 15. And I’m still challenged playing it.”

Events to celebrate Berry this week in Cleveland also include a conference on his career and influence on rock ’n’ roll, a screening of “Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll” and programming for students. Two new Berry exhibitions also are open, featuring items such as his stage clothing, a guitar and an early recording contract. Most of the events will stream live at rockhall.com.

Berry will accept the American Music Masters Award on Saturday at a concert that features Isley, Bonamassa and Flores, plus Merle Haggard, Darryl “DMC” McDaniels, Vernon Reid, Duke Robillard, Ronnie Hawkins and others.

“I’m super-appreciative,” Berry said. “The man upstairs is taking care of me.”

Kevin C. Johnson is the popular music critic and nightlife reporter at the Post-Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @kevincjohnson.

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