Keith Richards’ Chuck Berry, “Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll”

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Chuck Berry | Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll (Collector’s Edition)

“He gives me more headaches than Mick Jagger,” rasps Keith Richards at the end of this 1986 documentary, now released for the first time on Blu-ray.

The unforgettable life and music of  Chuck Berry are celebrated in this landmark feature film, capturing a once-in-a-lifetime gathering of rock ‘n’ roll’s finest! In 1986, Keith Richards invited a roster of brilliant musicians to honor Chuck Berry for an evening of music to commemorate Berry’s 60th birthday.

“I like the recordings because I like the result of the recording not being in the studio for hours on end. Don’t get me wrong, my second home is in the recording studio and I love the whole atmosphere of the studio but it’s not like at a gig – you know the minute you go out there and strike the first chord that you are going to have a fantastic time and it just gets better and better as the gig goes on. You don’t want to stop really.”

 

 

 

Chuck Berry’s biggest fan explains how Berry set the template for rock guitar. “Chuck Berry once gave me a black eye, which I later called his greatest hit. We saw him play in New York somewhere, and afterward I was backstage in his dressing room, where his guitar was lying in its case. I wanted to look, out of professional interest, and as I’m just plucking the strings, Chuck walked in and gave me this wallop to the frickin’ left eye. But I realized I was in the wrong. If I walked into my dressing room and saw somebody fiddling with my ax, it would be perfectly all right to sock ’em, you know? I just got caught.”

Richards, a lifelong Chuck Berry fan (Berry’s “Carol” was covered on the Rolling Stones’ 1964 debut), intended to pay tribute to his idol by staging a 60th birthday concert in Berry’s hometown of St. Louis, backing him with a great band (drummer Steve Jordan, keyboardist Chuck Leavell and perhaps most importantly original Berry pianist Johnnie Johnson) instead of the often ragtag local pickup musicians he has used for decades of touring. Richards also invited guests like Etta James, Eric Clapton (who burns up a stunning slow blues “Wee Wee Hours”), Linda Ronstadt and Robert Cray to join the festivities. Director Taylor Hackford was tapped to not only capture the performance but provide biographical details about Berry’s life.

 

Even if you’re a rock guitarist who wouldn’t name him as your main influence, your main influence is probably still influenced by Chuck Berry. He is rock & roll in its pure essence. The way he moved, especially in those early film clips; the exuberant ease when he laid down that rhythm was mystifying and something to behold. He used his whole arm to play. He used the shoulder and elbows. Most of us just use our wrists; I’m still working on the shoulder bit. Chuck was not one of those guitar players grimacing at every note he played, which is so common among us all. Chuck’s smiling as he’s playing that shit.

Ultimately, the two hour documentary displays Berry’s warts and all personality. The concert is frustratingly cut up and interspersed with talking head footage from Berry, family, friends and especially other musicians such as Bruce Springsteen and Roy Orbison. But the feature is a mesmerizing document of an extremely conflicted legend, one who, among many other issues, could not remember the words to some of his biggest hits.

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