Back

Chuck Berry 1989

Blaze destroys Chuck Berry's studio

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

March 26 / 1989

By Carolyn Bower / the Post-Dispatch Staff

A fire early Saturday morning destroyed a recording studio at the farm of rock singer Chuck Berry in St. Charles County. Among the losses was a priceless master tape of songs for a new album, Berry said.

Three firefighters suffered minor injuries fighting the fire, in a 7,500-square-foot building at 691 Buckner Road, about 4 miles south of Wentzville. Berry was staying with his family in St. Louis at the time. Several members of Berry's staff who live in houses at the farm were uninjured.

Officials got a call at 2:06 a.m. from a neighbor reporting the fire. The one-story, concrete-block studio is among several buildings on Berry's 160-acre farm, called Berry Park. The building, built in 1959, contained a recording studio, audio tapes and nightclub furniture. In a telephone interview Saturday, Berry said the fire had destroyed a master tape with 13 numbers he had completed off and on over the last seven years.

Berry was philosophical about the loss. ''All things change; nothing remains the same,'' he said. ''There's no way to put a value on it.''

Berry - who became famous for such hits as ''Maybellene,'' ''Sweet Little Sixteen'' and ''My Ding-A-Ling'' - said most of his equipment was insured. He said he was still trying to determine the extent of the loss and was undecided about rebuilding the studio.

''Too much else is going on,'' said Berry.

He recently purchased the Southern Air Restaurant in Wentzville and still performs around the world.

Wentzville Fire Chief George Ehll said the recording studio was a total loss. About 50 firefighters from the Wentzville, New Melle, Lake Saint Louis and O'Fallon fire protection districts fought the fire. The blaze was brought under control about 3:30 a.m., and firefighters left about 6 a.m., Wentzville Fire Chief George Ehll said.

Officials are investigating the cause, but they discounted arson, Ehll said. The neighbor who reported the fire lived on Buckner Road, said Chris Newbold, fire marshal for the district. ''She happened to be up and looked outside and saw a glow,'' Newbold said. ''She hopped in her car, drove closer and saw it was on Mr. Berry's property. Then she found a phone and called 911.''

Newbold said people at the farm had been asleep and unaware of the fire until firefighters awakened them. When firefighters arrived at 2:15 a.m., flames were shooting from the building's roof, Ehll said. Wind from the south was fanning the fire, and firefighters were hampered by lack of water in the area, Newbold said.


Lewis and Berry: 2 giant talents play same bill

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

August 27 / 1989

By Steve Pick

When word came that Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis, two of the highest deities in the pantheon of rock 'n' roll greats, would be playing on the same bill, as they did Friday night at the Fox Theatre, several possible scenarios were imagined:

Both acts could walk through sets of hits, relying on their reputations to win the applause.

One, or the other performers, could have a hot night while the other walked through.

Or, in the best of all possible worlds, the one we actually lived in for one night, both Berry and Lewis could live up to their undeniable abilities.

Tales of the fierce rivalry between these two geniuses are among the great legends of rock 'n' roll. The most famous of these had a young Lewis either burn his piano or kick it off an ocean pier to close a set he performed in the '50s when he lost a coin flip and had to open for Berry.

Lewis has always been known as a brilliant performer. Films from the early days of his career show a wild and very young man jumping all over his piano, banging out chords with his feet, and singing with an open - and to many people dangerous - sexuality, which permeated every sound he made. Even in the early '60s, when he recorded ''Jerry Lee Lewis Live At Hamburg,'' which may be the single greatest live rock 'n' roll album ever made, he showed no signs of slowing down, despite the fact that his sales success had moved from the pop charts to country.

At the Fox, Lewis used few of the youthful moves once so much a part of his act. But he was every bit as powerful a performer, and every single move he made seemed profound. Lewis just may be the single most charismatic performer I've ever seen. He could strike dramatic poses with slow and very short movements of his legs and shoulders. He could hit one key on the piano with such delicate force at such a perfect moment as to practically suspend time itself, and at another time bang out the most wonderfully dissonant, dirty and mean chords, which would push the song into a new level of brilliance. He was incapable of singing a note in the wrong place, displaying a sense of phrasing which gave every word multiple meanings. Jerry Lee Lewis has been the first to tell us - many times - that he is a genius, but it took this performance to make me realize he wasn't kidding.

Every song he sang was about himself, and most were also about sex. He rarely used a personal pronoun when he could manage to insert his own name into a lyric. He even managed to turn Hank Williams' ''Cold Cold Heart,'' originally a plea from a man to a woman who scorns him, into a demand that the woman wise up and hop into bed with him. The sheer audacity of Lewis' persona would seem unconscionable were it not for his enormous talent.

Chuck Berry, on the other hand, has always seemed like a nice guy on stage. In fact, he's often seemed like such a nice guy that audiences here have let him get away with not remembering his own guitar licks, forgetting which song he was in, and in general not putting too much effort into his performances. This is, after all, the man who created the basic vocabulary, both lyrically and on guitar, for rock 'n' roll music, and he is from St. Louis.

Though there were two or three moments during his hour on stage at the Fox that needed such forgiveness, this was the single best show I've ever seen Chuck Berry give. Right from the start, he served notice that he was ready to actually play, as he opened with a strong instrumental that featured many of the classic licks he had developed back in his early records. One of the best decisions he made for this concert was to stop trying to recreate those original recordings, and to simply play the songs as if they meant something to him now. This meant that his guitar playing was freed from the rigors of memory, and put into the creative, improvisatory plane that helped him to make them so great in the first place.

Berry's band was the same that had backed up his daughter Ingrid, who opened the evening with a fine set of hot, soulful blues. For the most part, they functioned as many Chuck Berry back-up bands have in the past; the musicians had to stay on their toes and follow wherever he decided to lead. On piano was his longtime associate, Johnnie Johnson, and the two musicians took every opportunity to play directly to each other, often engaging in guitar/piano dialogue as warm as a conversation between two old friends could be.

Of course, Berry's reputation was made as a songwriter, and he pulled out some of his best for this show. For me, the highlight was his rendition of ''Promised Land,'' a song he doesn't usually do live. Many writers have praised Berry's lyrics as being among the most pure examples of poetry in rock; ''Promised Land'' struck me as being one of the purest examples of his lyrics. The song tells the story of a young man, presumably black, who is born in the southeastern portion of the country, travels through the South, finds happiness as he heads west and achieves salvation by flying in an airplane in California. In just a few verses, Berry captured the triumph and exhilaration, which he must have felt when he wrote it, of a black man being so successful at a time when very few were; the fear and tension of life in a racist society; and the breadth of a country where both such things were possible.

At the end of his concert, Berry had the curtain go down while the band still played, and he put all of his obvious excitement into one of the best guitar solos imaginable, which continued for chorus after chorus while the crowd stood and cheered. When the curtain came back up, he kept playing, and got even better before he finally took off his guitar, waved it to make a small feedback pop, and walked off stage. He had to take another bow, and the audience cheered for well over five more minutes after the lights came on. Chuck Berry has had many triumphs in his long career; this night felt like one of the best.


Thwarted Chuck Berry's restaurant can't get liquor license

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

September 29 / 1989

By Lisha Gayle / the Post-Dispatch Staff

Chuck Berry's long-ago troubles with the law have bottled up an effort to get a liquor license for a restaurant. For almost a year, Berry's secretary, Francine Gillium, has been trying in vain to get a license for the Southern Air in Wentzville. Berry said this week that he was leasing the operation to Gillium. ''I will assist in the entertainment, of course,'' said Berry, the rock 'n' roll pioneer.

Although Gillium got a ''yes'' Wednesday night from Wentzville's aldermen, she keeps getting a ''no'' from the state Division of Liquor Control. William J. Torno, the agency's district chief, cited Berry's past - a conviction for armed robbery, tax troubles and a violation of the federal Mann Act, a morals law. Torno als o cited a raid and 30 arrests in August 1974 at Berry Park Country Club, at Berry's farm near Wentzville. In a telephone interview Wednesday night, Berry said that he knew he would never be granted a state license but that he thought his corporation could get one.

The state first denied a license for Southern Air in August 1988, when the applicant was Chuck Berry Communications Systems Inc. In November, the state again denied a liquor license, this time to Gillium, identified as the Southern Air's sole owner.

Mike Trask, a special correspondent to the Post-Dispatch, contributed information for this story.


Chuck Berry taped women, suit charges

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

December 27 / 1989

By Ralph Dummit / the Post-Dispatch Staff

A suit accuses rock 'n' roll pioneer Chuck Berry of videotaping women as they used the women's room at his Southern Air Restaurant in Wentzville. Hosana A. Huck of Wentzville, once a cook at the Southern Air, filed the suit Tuesday in St. Charles County Circuit Court.

The suit alleges that the videotapes ''were created for the improper purpose of the entertainment and gratification'' of what it describes as Berry's ''sexual fetishes and sexual predilections.'' Berry, 63, lives near Wentzville; he was unavailable for comment. He has owned the restaurant, a landmark along Interstate 70, for more than a year.

The suit says Berry installed the videotaping equipment in a second-floor office. The suit charges that in the 12-month period ending last Sept. 1, Berry ''intentionally and without just cause or excuse intruded upon [Huck's seclusion and privacy without her permission by surreptitiously making or manufacturing videotapes depicting [Huck undressing and dressing and using the toilet at the restaurant.'' The suit says that other female employees and customers were videotaped in the bathroom.

The suit calls such taping ''outrageous, beyond all possible bounds of decency.'' Huck claims emotional distress, embarrassment and humiliation and is seeking unspecified damages. The Southern Air is normally closed only on Mondays. But it was also closed Tuesday, and an employee who asked to remain unidentified said she had heard that Berry had stated that the restaurant ''would be closed for three days or maybe longer.'' Jeannie Turner, daytime manager, was unavailable for comment.

Back