“Chuck Berry lived to play live music. It was his absolute joy”: Charles Berry Jr on his father’s guitars, music and legacy

The guitar icon’s son and one-time rhythm guitarist on Gibson’s first-ever Chuck Berry signature model, his memories of playing and growing up with a musical icon, and his proudest moment being in the studio with him.

Back at NAMM 2019, as part of Gibson’s huge reintroduction to the world’s biggest music show, the company revealed a new guitar that paid tribute to one of the brand’s most iconic artists, and the Father Of Rock ’N’ Roll himself: Chuck Berry.

Throughout Chuck’s long, storied career, he was a Gibson devotee, playing everything from big-bodied jazzers to slimline ES-series instruments. But there’s no guitar more iconic to Berry’s legacy than the 1955 ES-350T guitar he used to such seismic effect on Johnny B Goode, Maybellene and many others.

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Chuck passed away in 2017, and in tribute to his incalculable legacy, it’s this guitar that Gibson recreated with input from the guitarist’s family, including his son Charles Berry Jr, who was his father’s rhythm guitarist in the latter stages of his career.

Guitar.com spoke to Charles about the creation of the Chuck Berry 1955 ES-350T, his memories of his father, and the legacy of his hugely influential music.

Chuck Berry Tribute ES-350T
Charles Berry Jr with the Chuck Berry Tribute ES-350T

Can you talk us through how you and Gibson came together to create this instrument?

“For the longest time, going back to the 1960s, Gibson wanted to do a signature Chuck Berry guitar – they already had the things like the Barney Kessel back then, the Trini Lopez… and I guess they wanted to have some representation from the rock ’n’ roll world. But my dad decided that he didn’t want to do it.

“But then after he passed away, Gibson supplied a guitar for my dad’s funeral. They sent a brand-new ES-355 that my dad was actually buried with! I got in touch with Gibson, and they worked with the casket company to ensure that they would be able to fit in inside. And after they did that, my mother was like, ‘That was the nicest gesture they could possibly have done.’

“Then about a year later they came to us and asked if we’d be interested in doing a signature Chuck Berry guitar, and my mum thought back to what they did for that final celebration of my dad, and said, ‘Well okay, send us a proposal…’”

How collaborative was the process between you and Gibson?

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“Well, they already had a lot of information and designs that I assume they’d put together during their previous attempts to convince my dad, so they had a bit of a head start. And his original 350T with the P-90 was actually destroyed in a fire, so they really had to rely on the notes that they had and the interactions they’d had with the guitar when it was with my father – they’d taken photographs and so on.

“But the results are just astonishingly accurate, because even between the ’55 350T with the P-90 and the ’58 that had the humbucker, there are all sorts of subtle differences between the guitars, but this is as close to the original as one could imagine.”

Chuck will always be most associated with big-bodied Gibson, what is it about those guitars that spoke to him? Was it the feel? The sound?

“You just hit it on the head – it’s that sound! The tone that you get from a hollowbody guitar was just him. And a real guitarist like my father had the ability to control these big hollowbody guitars, even at high volumes, and still get unbelievable sounds out of them, and that’s what he really loved about them – that ride.”

Chuck Berry Signature ES 350T
Image: Gibson

I guess that played into his legendary showmanship, taming the guitar was all part of the performance…

“Of course! A good guitarist knows how to control feedback, and can take those harmonics that are coming back and starting to feed back, and make it part of the musicality of what’s being played. And as a side benefit it actually makes it all a bit more entertaining – because you’ve got to move around the stage to get the guitar just where you want it so you have that perfect sound… it enhances it!

“One thing that is so cool about the 350T is that you actually feel those guitars resonate as you’re playing, y’know? If you have it set up just right, and it starts to vibrate on your body, then you know that you’ve got that sweet spot! My dad used to say, ‘It makes your insides feel good just playing the thing!’”

Chuck Berry
Image: Ebet Roberts / Redferns

Growing up with a musical icon as a father must have been a pretty unique experience…

“It’s hard for me to really describe it because he was dad! The difference is that none of the other kids I grew up with would come running out of the house to tell everyone, ‘Hey my dad’s on the TV!’ But I always looked at it as that just being the job that he does.

“Of course, it’s different to the lawyers, doctors and that type of thing that lived on our street… but they were all my heroes! My dad was obviously my biggest hero, but as kids on the street we also looked up to all these other mothers and fathers as our role models. I just happened to have a dad who was a role model to a couple of generations of people, not just the kids on my street!”

You weren’t a professional guitarist when Chuck asked you to join his band, did you ever think you’d follow in his footsteps?

“I didn’t join my dad’s band until I was 39 years old… I didn’t start playing guitar professionally until then! I was by far the worst musician of any of the people who played music with my father – I’m just being honest with you!

“But he kept saying to me, ‘Come back next month’ and I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me?! I was terrible!’’ ‘Come back next month’. So I was taught how to be a musician by the best possible people I could be – my dad and the other people in his band.

“But prior to that, my background was actually in information technology – I was a computer geek! I was an analyst and engineer for working for Fortune 500 companies doing consultancy work. And the only reason that I even became part of my father’s band was that my brother-in-law – my sister Ingrid’s husband – passed away, and he’d been the rhythm guitarist in his band.

“So he needed a new rhythm guitarist, and he said to me, ‘Well how about you?’ And I was like, ‘C’mon dad… you’re kidding me right?!’ But he was serious! And that’s how it all transpired. I picked up a guitar first when I was 12 years old, and like any 12-year-old I was able to play Smoke On The Water, but that was honestly the extent of my playing abilities!”

Chuck Berry Sr and Chuck Berry Jr
Charles on stage with his father (Image: Bobby Bank / WireImage)

That must have been an insane learning curve – to go on stage with a band as tight and experienced as your dad’s was…

“Oh, it was something else! Because like I said, I did not know what I was doing! But I slowly picked up bits and pieces over time… and I’ll tell you what, I became the best air guitarist on the planet! That all changed when I actually had to put my fingers on the guitars… but I really did have to start from zero and work my way up!”

How was it being on tour with your dad? He had been a working musician for so long, was he pretty demanding with the standards he expected?

“Well, here’s the thing with that: It was 2001 when I joined my dad’s band, and at that point, he’d been regularly playing at a local pub here in St. Louis, in Blueberry Hill, and it was basically the same band for each one of those shows. Now, he was famous for picking bands up, but this wasn’t a pickup band – it was my sister, my brother-in-law and Jimmy Marsala, who had at that point been my dad’s bassist for 30-something years, and a local drummer and keyboard player that he’d known forever.

“So these people really knew what he was going to do before he was going to do it! So say if he was going to change the key in the middle of a song, they knew what to do! So I relied heavily on Jimmy Marsala – I stood next to him every night and he’d be like, ‘Oh, here comes the change man! Get ready!’”

Chuck Berry
Image: David Redfern / Redferns

Even though he’d been doing it for so many decades, it sounds like he never really lost the thrill and the joy of performing…

“There were three loves in my dad’s life – my mother, who he was married to for almost 68 years, his children, and playing that music. Now I ranked it like that… but the music might have come before us kids, I don’t know! But he lived to play live music. It was his absolute joy – that and making my mum happy.

“He had no greater amount of fun that when he was up on stage performing – that was what kept my dad going. It was always, ‘Oh I’ve got another tour next month… I’ll be going out soon… I’m ready, let’s get it going on!’”

Your dad’s work ethic was pretty legendary, as was the blue-collar nature of the way he did his tours – driving himself to gigs and that sort of thing…

“Well y’know, he was a carpenter! My dad grew up during the Great Depression, and I think there’s something about that generation… they just knew that in order to survive that they had to work! And he was the hardest working man I have ever seen.

“They always said James Brown was the hardest working man in showbusiness. Well if that’s true, then my dad was right up behind him! They just had this work ethic, whether it was playing on stage, building a barn or pouring concrete – because he did all those things – it was unbelievable.

“The first time I went to Europe with him with my father, we went to Italy and yes, we did drive ourselves everywhere! Then four or five months later we had 17 dates in 18 days, starting in Moscow and ending in the Gran Canaria… and I was just like, how is my 82-year-old father doing this?! Getting up, driving, playing shows, jumping on planes… it was just incredible, I was awestruck by him, truly. But the work kept him vibrant and youthful, because it kept him on the go!”

Chuck Berry
Image: Frans Schellekens / Redferns

You worked on your dad’s final album, too, of course, which he’d been working on for decades. It must have been a hugely special experience…

“It was a huge source of pride for myself and for everyone else. Of course, I can’t take credit for working on this from 1991 until it was actually released, but I contributed my part! And the proudest part of that whole experience – asides from working with my father and my sister and the rest of the band – is that my son is also on that album. I had hair growing on my chest I was so proud, not only that he was on there, but that my father wanted him to be on there – it was beautiful!

“We did contribute a lot more of the behind-the-scenes stuff – picking out the record label to work with and all that. But all the credit on that album goes to my father and my mother.”

Chuck’s music is obviously iconic, it’s part of the fabric of culture and has endured for so long. What do you feel when you hear songs like Johnny B Goode on the radio, how does it make you feel?

“It just makes me feel really good, man. And to specifically pick out Johnny B Goode, it makes me very proud, because there’s no other rock act that can say that they have their music in interstellar space! There isn’t another band or artist who can say that – radio stations might be broadcasting the signals out there, but there’s no gold record!”

That gold disc being aboard the Voyager probe… was that a bit of a moment for your dad as well?

“My dad was pretty laid-back about most of this stuff : he would get awards and that kind of thing and he was like, ‘Oh they gave me a Lifetime Achievement Grammy? Oh okay, whatever… They gave me a gold record for My Ding A Ling? Well, that’s a silly song but okay, great…’

“But when the Voyager blasted off with that record on it, he was truly enthused, he could not believe it. Because my dad was a science buff, and he loved that whole thing, so the fact that Karl Sagan advocated for that whole thing, and he got to meet him and a whole bunch of people at NASA he was just like, ‘Wow! I can’t believe this is all going on! They took my record and put it on that thing… and it’s past the moon already!’”

Chuck Berry
Image: Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

Given that your dad resisted the signature guitar thing for so long, now that it’s here, how do you think he’d feel about Gibson honouring him with this instrument?

“I think this would be another instance where he probably wouldn’t say anything to Gibson or anyone, but he’d say to my mum, ‘…I got my own guitar now!’ Because he was a businessman, so he never wanted to show all his cards! But I think he’d be very pleased, that this guitar that helped start his career is now a part of Gibson’s line of instruments.”

Read more artist interviews here.

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