Chuck Berry and the 1965 Blues Festival
There are a lot of poster covered walls at the Arhoolie Foundation’s offices. These posters were collected by Arhoolie Foundation’s president Chris Strachwitz over the past 60 years as he pursued his passions as a record collector, record company owner, concert producer, magazine publisher, film producer, radio D.J., archivist, discographer, and all around fan of vernacular music.
When Chuck Berry passed away on March 28th, 2017, it reminded us of one of the posters on the wall. In 1965 Chris Strachwitz produced the Berkeley Blues Festival bringing Chuck Berry to Berkeley California and then to Los Angeles. Here’s a 7 minute interview conducted a few days after Chuck Berry passed away with Chris remembering those days and the two concerts.
Note the concert program, review and interview transcript below.
Interview of: Chris Strachwitz
Interviewed by: Tom Diamant
Interview Date: May 23, 2017 & May 29, 2017
Interview Location: Arhoolie Foundation offices, 10341 San Pablo Ave, El Cerrito, California
Concert Program. Click to enlarge and read.
TOM DIAMANT: Chris, in 1965, you produced the Blues Festival in Berkley. I’m curious, were you a concert promotor or producer, or why were you even getting involved in producing?
CHRIS STRACHWITZ: Oh, yeah, I had done, I think, some stuff before with Howard Zinn, you know, he was part of the Cabal gang. Anyway, oh, yeah, we thought, you got to push this music. This was the beginning of Blues Festival, you know. (laughs) That was a new phenomenon.
TD: Well, was it something that you were, like, thinking it was a good idea, or something you’d be interested in producing concerts, or did you feel it was a way of promoting the music that you were recording for Arhoolie Records?
CS: Well, probably a combination, and I had met Mary Ann Pollard and her husband, they were a wonderful black couple from south Texas, actually, who lived here, and who were into promoting, like, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, and Odetta, and you know, folk artists like that. They had been really helpful to us, [00:01:00] as to how to account for, you know, if you sell so many seats in the Berkley Community Theater, you’ll break even on so and so forth. They were just absolutely our guiding lights to the whole scenario. Yeah, they were really helpful. They knew Phil Huffman, you know, who was a kind of, guru daddy over the folkies in those days in Berkley. Yeah, I just enjoyed it, you know. I thought it was fun, it was something to do. If there was a chance to make money, that’s so much better, you know, because I wasn’t making anything with Arhoolie Records, that’s for sure. That wasn’t really happening at the time.
TD: I’m surprised that you wanted to get Chuck Berry, because that seems a little more pop feel than you’re normally associated with.
CS: Oh, no, no, I loved his music. Oh, my god, you know, every day I would hear his stuff on the radio when it first came out, you know. [00:02:00] And then we had gotten, I think, in touch with the, what was that agent, see, Universal Promotions or somebody, who was booking almost all the big black artists, you know, in New York City, and I think that’s how I got him. And so, we did this program, which also featured Big Mama Thornton and the Chambers Brothers and Long Gone Miles and Fred McDowell, plus Bill the big R&B band. Well, they weren’t so big, and they were terrible. It was Johnny Talbot and his band. I mean, they did OK with their own kind of soul music, but I thought they could back up Chuck Barry, of course, ha, ha, ha, ha, that was not about to happen, because Chuck Berry usually, you know, he just travelled by himself, and he would grab the musicians who were going to back him up, and take him in the back room and rehearse. This is how his stuff goes, [00:03:00] (imitates rhythm), you know, (imitates rhythm). But I made a real mistake in hiring this band instead of — oh, I think that was because we were using the Berkley Community Theater, and the Union insisted that we have a band. But anyway, he was fine. He did his thing, and nothing perturbed him. And I also got together with Ed Pearl at the Ashgrove in Los Angeles who put the same program on down there, but I had told him about how bad the band was that was backing Chuck Berry up here, and so he went to his friends at Pacific Jazz Records, I think they were called, and they supplied him three very good jazz musicians, a drummer, a bass, and a piano player, I think. [00:04:00] And Chuck Berry took them in the back room and said, “This is how my stuff goes, can you follow that?” And they said, “Oh, yeah, yeah, we can do that.” And apparently they were very successful at it. So, if you heard the program here, you were probably somewhat disappointed, but Chuck Berry was quite a character. I remember picking him up. Ed Pearl gave me his beat-up old Mercedes to pick up Chuck Berry at the LA Airport, and Chuck Berry just look at me, “What are you driving,” you know? (laughs) I said, “Well, it’s a friend of mine, he has the car,” because Chuck Berry said, you know, “I’m hired and you’ve got to pick me up and put me up and all that sort of thing.”
TD: Did you actually, you know, have any good conversations with him or talk to him much?
CS: I’m sure I probably did, yeah. You know, we talked up all kinds of BS, you know, I’m sure. He was just really… (laughs) I don’t know how to put it, he was… [00:05:00] “What — who am I playing for, a bunch of weird hippies here?” But he didn’t care where the money comes from. He had no qualms about that, as long as you paid him. But I don’t think he’d ever encountered sort of a hippy outfit to greet him, nor to promote him, you know. (laughs) I think it has always been by fairly professional music promoters, you know? Just traveled all by himself, just him and his guitar, you know. But he was a cool dude, and of course, before the concert started, I think it was actually just before he went on, he said, “OK, where’s my bread?” And I had it in an envelope, and that was that. He was a very good businessman, you know, he was a smart guy, and he was just really… (laughs) I was quite taken by him, you know. [00:06:00] He obviously was a very attractive performer who’s an unbelievable showman, and knew exactly what people went for.
TD: So, I’m curious, first of all, who was Long Gone Miles, who’s on the bill?
CS: Oh, he was a good friend of Lightning’s, and he had moved out here to the west coast from Houston. He’s in some of those Les Blank films. And of course, the Chambers Brothers were young guys, I think they were from Mississippi. And, they were living in the LA area. And Ed Pearl was very much taken by them, I think. No, it was a great concert. Of course, I was a real Chuck Berry fan myself, you know. He was sort of the Bob Dylan for most of us. He had the rhythm, the beat, just unbelievable lyrics, you know, he really spoke to you. And you knew what he was talking about, you know? He didn’t hide his words under strange cloaks, no. No, it was just fantastic, we had a good time.
TD: Did he interact with any of the other performers? Like, with Big Mama Thornton and all that? Did they all get together and talk and hang out or anything?
CS: Not that I remember, no. He was not that kind of… He was strictly the businessman to do his show, and he came on and demanded his bread, (laughter) before he went on. That’s really all I remember about it, you know, that struck me as unusual, but, you know, can’t blame the man after all I heard about later from what so many black artists got beat out of their money, you know, and so forth and so on. And he had it all together.