Chuck Berry’s influence on the world of Rock n Roll is unquestionable. To this day his work continues to inspire artists and musicians across the globe, but none more so than in his home of St Louis, Missouri.
Bluesman Mike Zito grew up in the River City, and throughout those formative years, he was surrounded by both Berry’s music and those who worked or performed alongside the legend himself. Subsequently, Zito decided that for his latest record he would pay tribute to this iconic rock n roll pioneer, and native of his home town.
HRH Mag caught up with Mike Zito (before the lockdown!) to get the lowdown on his Chuck Berry tribute album, growing up in St Louis and the city’s thriving music scene.
I just wanted to have a bit of a chat with you about the new album that you’ve got out, which is a tribute to the late great Chuck Berry. You both hail from St Louis. I just wanted to know how important was it for you to represent one of the city’s most iconic musicians?
Yeah, it’s very important to me. And one of the biggest parts is growing up there in St Louis and being a kid working at a guitar shop for 10 years that was in my neighbourhood. Chuck came into that store a handful of times. So did Johnnie Johnson his piano player, so did his son. And one of the guys that worked with me played the drums with Chuck. Billy Peek who was the guitarist for Rod Stewart on Hot Legs he was also Chuck’s guitar player. It was kinda like all around.
So as soon as I started playing gigs when I was 18, 19, and 20 playing in these bars, learning to play, playing four hours a night we played lots of Chuck Berry. You had to, it was a staple. And so I guess not realizing it when you’re around it, you are just kind of saying, wow, whatever I guess that’s just the way it is. But, being almost 50 years old now I look and go, wow, I had no idea how lucky I was to get to be around all this music and have it influence me in such a way, you know?
So did you ever actually get to see Chuck play live? Maybe at Blueberry Hill or somewhere like that because I know he used to play there once a month.
I opened up for Chuck twice at Blueberry Hill over the years. So it was great and I got to speak to him many times. He was always very nice to me and it’s odd to explain. I mean he was not like a dear friend, but he was always very nice to me. He knew who I was, he knew where I worked. The music store I worked in it had been there for a long time. I don’t know how else to describe it. I guess it would be the same as if someone said they lived near Jimi Hendrix and he lived to old age and he just came in and hung out. It’s kind of odd, but he did and his guitar playing in St Louis is a part of the scene. It’s just its part of what I like when I hear guitar, kind of it needs to be in there because it’s just the way I hear it.
You’ve put out so much of your own work over the years and you’ve produced lots of different bands how does it feel this time around to be representing other artists work rather than writing your own songs? Did you feel that you had to put your stamp on Chuck Berry’s tracks or are you trying to cover them like for like, would you say?
I still approach the record as it’s a Mike Zito record. This is my record, I am the artist. And that was kinda my big thing. First, the record label didn’t know was I going to make a record where everyone turns in Chuck Berry songs and we make like a compilation between us. And I said no, it’s a Mike Zito record, it’s me and my band, we’re doing all the songs and then I’ll have guests on the songs. So I still had it in mind that, I wanted to tell my story. That’s why St Louis is on the cover with the arch and the river. That’s why the first song is St Louis Blues with Charlie Berry the third, his grandson.
So you know, I worked on the arrangements on kind of what works for me. Sometimes it worked for me to do it kind of the way it was done and we just put energy into it. Sometimes it changed a little. It also depended on, I kinda had an idea of okay this is the song I want Sonny Landreth to play. And so we want to record it because I know as a producer this will really fit Sonny Landreth, it’ll make him shine and it’s exactly up his alley. So we would also keep that in mind. Like, all right, so who’s the guitarist? Who’s the guest on this song. Most of the songs I chose or I gave them one or two choices, but I had it in mind what I hoped they would do. And I pretty much got my way throughout the album because I made the record I wanted to make. You know, I wanted to hear Walter Trout play Johnny B. Goode. If anybody’s going to play Johnny B. Goode, there was either him or Joe Bonamassa. And Joe and I both agreed it should be Walter, because I mean he’s the elder statesman and he’s our hero. He’s the one that will play it like a teenager.
And one of the coolest things about this album is the video that you did with Walter. I just wanted to know what was it like working with Walter on that video and whose idea was that? Also, who let Thomas Ruf get in there with the cameo?
Well, you know, when you pay for the video, you can do what you want. So that was my idea. The whole video was my idea. Again, to me, this is all about just heroes and music and rock and roll and guitar. And just all this fun stuff that inspires me to be a kid again. And Walter is right up there, you know what I mean? He’s one of my heroes.
And so I thought I know Walter and his family very well. We’re pretty close. And so every year for New Year’s they have like a New Year’s Eve party in their driveway. So I just contacted Marie, Walter’s wife. First I called Walter and I said, would you do this? And he said, yeah. So I got ahold of Marie and I said, Hey Marie, I have an idea so hear me out. Again you got gotta accommodate these people. They’re doing me a huge favour by even agreeing to do it let alone, Hey, can I come to your house? But it more sense than trying to make Walter travel. I said I’ve got a great idea. How about I come to your house and I knock on the door and you want to know what the hell I’m doing there. You run me off and then the doors open and Walter’s playing Johnny B. Goode with the kids.
St Louis, it’s got such a thriving blues scene and I know on this record, you’ve got Jeremiah Johnson but also you’ve got guys out there like, Marquise Knox and Tony Campanella, who I know is on your label now and Devon Allman. But St Louis is never quite held in the same esteem as say Texas, Memphis, New Orleans or Chicago. I just wondered why do you think that is?
For whatever reason, whatever it is, what I can tell you is I grew up in St Louis. I was born and raised there and I lived there for all my formative 32 years, even though I live in Texas now. And I like it where I live because I grew up in the middle of the city. I grew up poor in South St Louis in an apartment and I wouldn’t change any of that because it educated me. It taught me, I learned so much. And to be a musician and to be around all that music was astounding.
Whether or not the scene, people don’t realize how amazing it is. I assume the same way that they don’t realize that the St Louis Cardinals are second only to the New York Yankees as the most winning Major League Baseball team in the history of baseball. Because the city is in the middle of the country and it’s where people on the coast call fly over areas, because they don’t pay attention to it. It’s not New York. It’s not Los Angeles. It’s not Texas, it’s not Florida, whatever. But they are crazy.
Chicago is so famous with the blues mostly because that’s where the business took place. That’s where the record labels were. So the musicians went to where the opportunities were of course, but its nuts because St Louis is still vibrant and has such an amazing history of music. But you know, I don’t know I mean I probably have a bit of a chip on my shoulder because that’s my hometown and that’s what I love and I want to share that love with people. But you know, it is what it is.
St Louis is an old city, look it’s not a fancy city, maybe it’s not as cosmopolitan as other cities, but it is a blue-collar down and dirty real city in the United States. One of the oldest cities in the United States with an amazing history and it can’t be denied. To me, if everyone else had their way, you would never hear about it. So the fact that it’s still out there and we’re still fighting for it says something because it has its own true history.
Mike Zito’s latest studio album -Rock N Roll: A Tribute to Chuck Berry is out now via Ruf Records.