One day, in 1987, I met Chuck Berry. I was 17, completely broke and traveling from Paris home to Colorado. I had spent my last $42 on a student fare from Orly Airport to London Gatwick, from where I could use an existing return ticket to get home. The only hitch, I had a 36 hour layover in London and not a dollar to my name.
There was considerable drama in leaving Paris but I made it to London and sat, with my backpack and a guitar for 36 hours until my flight to St. Louis boarded. My biggest concerns: running out of cigarettes, and draining the batteries on my Walkman before getting home. (Shut up, it was 1987!) My friend Victoria came and visited me for a few hours at the airport, which helped pass the time and kept me from falling asleep before my flight.
When I was finally able to board, I grabbed my guitar and backpack, said goodbye to Victoria, and made my way to the bowels of economy seating in the tail of the 747. I was exhausted, and just wanted to sleep. Shortly after take-off, I was ready to shut down.
That’s when one of the stewardesses approached me and asked if I was the young man who got on the plane carrying a guitar. I said I was that guy, whereupon she told me there was a man upstairs in first class who wanted me to come meet him with my guitar.
I took my guitar from the overhead, and walked to the front of the plane. I remember the spiral staircase up to the upper deck was too small to hold my guitar as I went up; I had to climb the stairs hugging it to my chest.
There, with a large, friendly smile, sat Chuck Berry. He had been in London promoting Hail, Hail Rock ‘n’ Roll which came out earlier that year.
I sat in first class with him, playing guitar and talking almost the entire way from London to St. Louis. There was one other passenger and one steward and we all acted like friends for a few hours, though we had little in common other than being on that plane at that time.
Upon arrival in St. Louis, he signed my boarding pass, shook my hand (which I recall was tiny in his), picked up his black briefcase (the only item he travelled with) and walked toward customs. There, I panicked not having any money to pay duty on a few items I was taking home. I certainly had not told him I was broke, but I believe he sensed I was nervous about going through customs, because he pushed in front of me (only me) and asked if he could go through first. I said sure, and I was immediately waved through as agents all descended on Mr. Berry and his little briefcase. I looked back, he smiled and waved, and I never saw him again.
He was very “business-like”, not the friendliest, warmest character, but very nice, and very interested in people who loved music. Meeting him was surreal, and very memorable. I’m sad to learn of his death tonight. I can only hope he knew how much it meant to have him invite me to sit with him on that long flight all those years ago.
Here’s my autographed boarding pass, which I still have.
NOTE: This post, including the photo of Chuck Berry’s Autograph first appeared as a Facebook post on March 18, 2017.