It is impossible to overstate the significance of Chuck Edward Anderson Berry. He's been frequently credited with inventing the entire genre of rock & roll music, but his influence reached much further than the radio. His existence changed the world.
Berry was the ultimate cultural icon. No other figure in the history of modern music has had such a lasting, measurable impact. And as a native and proud St. Louisan, Berry has always held an extra-special place in the heart of locals. Chuck Berry, you see, belonged to us. He was the embodiment of all that is magical and special about St. Louis culture, and when he died last month, a huge part of our history died along with him.
It took a few weeks to put together, but Berry’s family planned a wonderful series of events to celebrate his life. Chuck loved an audience, and this entire past weekend was set up so that fans could participate in saying goodbye. There was a toast held outside on Delmar Boulevard on Saturday night, followed by a viewing of Berry’s body on Sunday morning at the Pageant that was open to the public.
The private service for the family was scheduled to commence immediately after the public viewing, and the Berry family gave out passes to the private service to three hundred members of the public who queued up excitedly in the hopes of witnessing this historic event. It was a generous offering to many of Chuck’s biggest longtime fans.
Some of those fans had been waiting outside the Pageant since 5 a.m., when the line for the viewing started. There was a steady stream of mourners all morning, but most just popped in for a minute or two, paid their respects and then left. There was never a long, intolerable line to get into the viewing. In fact, for most of the day visitors could pretty much just walk right in.
Many fans who expected the process to take longer spent the rest of their day hanging around outside the venue, enjoying the breezy weather while trading their favorite Berry stories. The majority of these fans had managed to see Berry play live, something that all agreed was a special event.
In a live music setting, Chuck Berry could not be beat. He played a monthly show at Blueberry Hill’s tiny basement venue, the Duck Room, well into his '80s. Though those shows got progressively looser over the years, Berry made up for his slipping technical abilities by piling on the charisma. He stood there and smiled and the entire crowd smiled back, overjoyed just to be in the same room as him.
And though he was always untouchable on stage, Berry’s behavior off stage was more than troublesome. To put it simply: Chuck Berry was not always a hero. He had a long and documented history of assaulting women and this fact did not go unaddressed on the day of his service. A small group of protesters held up signs outside of the entrance to the Pageant to remind visitors of the darker side of his history.
But inside the venue, it was all love. Berry’s body was laid out tastefully and the room was beautifully decorated and lit. A parade of speakers took the stage to sing Berry’s praises. Many of them took the time to mention that Berry was a civil rights icon: What Berry did with music helped people to cross racial divides out in the streets. White audiences who might not have otherwise embraced a black musician were helpless to resist the power of Berry’s guitar.
Gene Simmons of KISS was a surprise speaker at the service. He was hiding out in the back and looked properly devastated before being asked to say a few words. His impromptu speech was one of the best of the entire event; he told the audience about his own past as a young immigrant to the United States and about how Berry and his music helped to bring people together.
“It’s a sad day, but I think it’s a happy time. Look at the legacy,” Simmons said. “He broke down the barriers and made all kinds of people’s hearts and minds open up to the idea that we all belong to the same people.”
Another crowd favorite was Marshall Chess, son of Leonard Chess of Chess Records. He’s an engaging, delightful storyteller and his charm was on full display. But the speech of the day, appropriately, came from Charles Berry Jr. He was funny, sincere and remarkably composed, given the circumstances. He explained that his father was his hero and that he felt honored to be able to learn from the master. He said that many people taught him how to be a musician, but that his father taught him how to be a man.
Charles Berry Jr. thanked his many friends and family members in attendance and then, in a remarkable display of midwestern hospitality, he took a moment to address the public, who had been seated in the balcony area. He looked up and said, “You’re my friends now, too, because you’re here with me.”
During this moment, and when Berry’s clearly heartbroken grandchildren performed (“We are doing this in remembrance of our grandfather, and for the joy of our grandmother”), the crowd always acted respectfully, seeming to realize that though it looked like a state funeral and the deceased was a world-renowned celebrity, this was absolutely a personal family event.
The entire service was overwhelmingly and impressively touching. There were musical performances from Marlissa Hudson, Dwayne Buggs, Johnny Rivers and Billy Peek. Outside after the service, the Funky Butt Brass Band played a devastating rendition of "St. Louis Blues" as the coffin was loaded into the hearse. (Little Richard had also been scheduled to attend and sing a gospel song, but he had fallen ill and couldn’t make it.) Near the end of the service, condolence letters from Bill Clinton, Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones and St. Louis mayor Francis Slay were read to the crowd. Slay’s proclamation was read by new mayor-elect Lyda Krewson, and it praised Berry for always sticking close to home.
Legendary local bluesman Mat Wilson is a huge fan of Berry and attended every event this weekend that honored his hero, including the public toast and moment of silence held at Berry’s Walk of Fame star outside Blueberry Hill on Saturday night. A scholar of American music with a special interest in regional history, Wilson praises Berry easily and enthusiastically.
“My band, the Loot Rock Gang, got to open for Chuck, and I also had a chance to open for Chuck playing guitar for my wife, Little Rachel,” Wilson says. “It was quite the honor. Chuck is the grandfather of rock & roll and I think it was really special to have him here in our neighborhood. He’s the originator. It’s not to be taken lightly that the originator of rock & roll came from our own town.”
Echoing this sentiment, St. Louis native and real life guitar hero Richard Fortus (Guns ‘N’ Roses, Love Spit Love, Thin Lizzy, Pale Divine) also stopped into Berry’s viewing on Sunday afternoon to pay his respects.
Fortus said, “For me, this was a big part of my growing up, being from St. Louis. Not only his music, but his persona. The early videos for me were huge: seeing Chuck Berry on TV and what an enigmatic performer he was. I remember playing down on the Landing when I was a kid and him coming in and grabbing a guitar and yelling at people if they didn’t know his songs. It was awesome.
"It was special, growing up in St. Louis and knowing that he was part of the lineage," he added. "He’s one of the biggest parts in the history of rock & roll.”