Gary Clark Jr. performs at the 59th GRAMMY Awards on Feb. 12, 2017
Photo: Christopher Polk/Getty Images
Gary Clark Jr.: You can't shake Chuck Berry
Chuck Berry was playing in my house and my grandparents' house so [his music] was [always] around. I think I really became conscious of how popular he was [when] — this sounds kind of silly to say, but I grew up in the '80s — Michael J. Fox played the Chuck Berry thing [in Back To The Future]. I was maybe 7 or 8 and saw him on TV this guy, this icon … I used to watch every award show and he'd be there. So I don't remember not knowing who Chuck Berry is.
[Then] I opened up for him in Austin, Texas, but I never met him. He just pulled up in his white Lincoln, hopped up onstage, got the money, and got out of there. This was when I was 21, so around the early 2000s.
I stayed and watched after I played and he was incredible, full of energy, duck walking — he played great. It was fun and wild and loose. It was cool, man. He was an icon standing there in my hometown doing his thing.
I may have only been 21, but I was pretty conscious and aware of what was happening and what I was a part of. The thing that I had in my mind the most was back then I was playing a lot more straight-ahead blues and rock and roll stuff and the whole time I was thinking, "Just whatever you do, don't play his licks all night. Try not to do Chuck Berry for Chuck Berry." But I felt I was a part of something and in those years I was moving around, meeting a lot of people — when you're young you meet these crazy icons, these people who paved the way.
But looking back to my early 20s and being on a bill with somebody like that is pretty amazing and there's a little bit of pressure and responsibility that goes with that. It's kind of a big deal, but yeah, I definitely appreciate those moments and understand how major they are for me as an artist.
There are a couple of songs in particular where you hear his influence in my music. There's one in particular called "Travis County" and there's another one called "Shotgun Man" that I did when I was a little kid and originally it was like a folk song and I just kind of switched it and got in Chuck Berry mode.
These are direct Chuck Berry influences that I knew. Anytime I am playing, I'll go, "I can't do that, I gotta get back into my own thing." But it is rock and roll. He invented it and his spirit will continue to last in a lot of music. Think of classic rock, it's Chuck Berry licks with a little distortion and some fuzz. It's everywhere and in my music [and] it's definitely a lasting influence. That's one of those things you pick up and you can't shake. Chuck Berry is everything.