In the 1987 Chuck Berry documentary, Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll, director Taylor Hackford recalls Keith Richards insisting that Etta James be brought in as a guest performer at Berry’s two 60th-birthday performances. Though James had sung background vocals on several of Berry’s songs during his Chess Records days, the “Father of Rock and Roll” was vehemently opposed, saying he’d never even heard of her. That all changed when Etta was invited to Berry Park, Chuck’s home in Wentzville, Missouri, for an audition. By the end of her second take of Chuck’s song “Rock & Roll Music”—a track she’d never sung before and hadn’t memorized the lyrics for—Etta James had Chuck Berry on all fours, literally crawling across the floor of the studio to kiss her feet.
Berry, whose troubled history with women is no secret, had been humbled, proved wrong, and filled with wonder. There are myriad illustrations of the power of women in music, but none reveals who holds the upper hand quite like that of a woman singing a man’s song back to him and reducing him to putty. Let this serve as a reminder that though International Women’s Day is on March 8, it’s never too early or too late to get on hands and knees and drag yourself across the carpet to pay tribute.
Nathan King is a Deputy Editor for AIR MAIL