Several people have written about different shows they’ve seen—or the little contacts they’ve had with Chuck Berry. All of it makes me remember.
The first time I saw him was on a Mike Douglas show. My brother had told me about Chuck Berry, who was “better than Elvis.” I imagined a blond pompadour. I watched him on a little black and white set, interested, not hooked.
A few months later some music woke me up. My brothers were watching Dick Cavit, or some late night show. There he was again, in color. As I say, it woke me up. I must have been hearing something I liked.
The first time I saw him live was at the Memorial Auditorium in Sacramento. It must have been around 1970. (I am strictly second generation Chuck Berry fan. Maybelene had already hopped into the Coupe de Ville before I was born.) I almost missed the show. It was supposed to begin at 7, but there were two opening acts, so we showed up a little late, only interested in Chuck Berry. When we got into the lobby to buy tickets there was blues pouring through the auditorium doors. “Has the show started?” we asked the ticket lady. “Oh, he started about five minutes ago,” she told us, unconcerned. “Who started?” we asked, suddenly realizing who was playing those guitar chords. “Chuck Berry,” she said.
We pushed through the doors into a near empty auditorium and found seats a few rows from center stage. I was mesmerized. Chuck Berry was there (I remember blue jeans, an orange shirt, cherry red guitar) alone at the mike stand, looking sad, and singing the blues. The backup band was local and forgettable, but Chuck Berry was the opposite—a lone troubadour, tall, lean, professional, wishing like hell he wasn’t playing to an empty auditorium, a situation that put a little extra punch into his blues. The guitar was raw, blaring, and beautiful. He pushed through another 45 minutes or so, getting the small crowd up on its feet for most of the show, playing hits I only sort of recognized that day—a song about Boston, Pittsburgh, PA, and the heart of Texas, a couple of “Beatles” songs about Rock and Roll Music and Beethoven rolling over. When Chuck was finally grinning he tried to get the local guitarist to solo and the guy just smiled humbly and plunked a single note. (He probably regrets that now.) Chuck laughed, but it didn’t matter. All he really needed was his guitar and a crowd. He finished with Johnny B. Goode, bowing as he backed off stage, still playing his guitar held upright in front of himself like a religious relic of some sort—and then he was gone, the band still rumbling away, and finally a story from the emcee that there’d been a mix up and Chuck Berry had to get to LA for another show. We watched the other acts for a few minutes, but it was all downhill after Chuck Berry, and we left.
I was totally infected. The next day I rode my bike to the local discount store (“Rasco Tempo a Division of Gamble Skogmo, Inc.”) (I’m not making that up) and found a black and gold double album—Chuck Berry’s Golden Decade—for $6 or $7. That day everything changed for me. I played it front to back three or four times. I couldn’t believe my fortune. One song after another, all perfect, with crackling lyrics, pounding drums and blazing guitar. Within a few weeks I had that record memorized—and before long I was chasing down the influences, like T-Bone Walker and Elmore James.
The next time I saw him was at South Lake Tahoe, in a tiny rock club built out of a former grocery store. It was probably 1971. By then I was a confirmed addict, and had added “Back Home” to my collection. I heard about the show by accident and traveled up on the Greyhound Bus with a couple of friends. This time there was a big, excited crowd, and a great backup band. (There was a slight miscue when the drummer, a thin black man with an afro, a little cap, and goatee stepped onto the stage. Half the crowd cheered, thinking it was Chuck Berry. The drummer laughed. I cringed.)
People talk about short shows. Chuck played two sets at this one—and the show was so long that I actually left before it was over, totally exhausted and satisfied. I remember well walking away in the cool night with Chuck Berry music pouring out the side doors into the parking lot.
During the break between sets I spotted Chuck Berry sitting near the side of the stage, smoking a cigarette and chatting with someone. I couldn’t help myself. I pushed forward, held out my hand, and blurted: “You’re my idol!” He nodded and shook my hand, and I left him to his conversation. Ah well!
I’m not sure of the order here—I saw Chuck Berry a couple more times at the Sacramento Memorial Auditorium as part of the Richard Nader Rock and Roll Revivals. These were fun shows with a good backup band and giant crowds and the only tension I felt every time is whether Chuck could dominate the lineup—especially after Bo Diddley blew the crowd out of control each time. I shouldn’t have worried. For him it was a piece of cake.
Also in the mix during this time was an outdoor show at Monterey, at the fairgrounds where they filmed Montrey Pop. Someone has written about this show in a book, calling it an example of how far things had fallen for the great Chuck Berry. I’m sure I met that author because I remember meeting another crazed Chuck Berry fan near stage. But we saw different shows! For me, that one will always be one of the best. Chuck came out and pretty much ignored the crowd, plugging in his nutmeg Gibson and riffing on a slow blues number—slow bunches of bent double string notes. I was mesmerized again—just like I was at the first live show. Now I knew all the riffs, and there was Chuck, three feet away, making them happen. The backup band was an oldies band (Butch Wax and the Glass Packs) who put on a show similar to Sha Na Na and were perfect for the job. After jamming for a while, maybe playing one or two more numbers, Chuck jumped into Nadine. It wasn’t a perfect rendition, but it was long and good and the crowd started moving. And then, when it was over, Chuck says: “I think me and the band are warmed up now—so let’s start the show!” And from them on, what seemed like hours of perfect music, great dancing, splits, and guitar wizardry. (Chuck Berry’s most exciting guitar work are the blistering solos on the original records—but during the late 60s and early 70s he was at his peak of virtuosity. Listen to the guitar on Back Home or the London Sessions.) I think I may have wound up on stage at the end of that show, though I’m hoping for dignity’s sake that this is a false memory. I know that I have a photograph of the young cop who stopped us from chasing Chuck back stage. (My brother made it past the cop and watched him drive away in a Cadillac convertible). A girl near the stage got his autograph on a scrap of binder paper and gave it to me after the show. I still search my old boxes trying to find that thing! I have some badly exposed snapshots of Chuck performing that day. Damn Instamatics! The prints are dated August 1974, which jibes with my memory and the memory of one of the musicians, posted below. (The musician also confrims that this was a LONG show.)
By the time of that show the album Bio had come out—and I wanted Chuck Berry to play something newer than his classics. (I still do!) I handed him a note asking for my favorite—Got it and Gone. He leaned over, read the note, and laughed. He probably barely remembered recording the song and sure as hell wasn’t going to play it. So it didn’t happen—but I’ve been happy to see him play Bio at several shows since then.
In the early 1980s I saw him at a Lake Tahoe casino, but it never really counted for me. The band was very professional and songs were all arranged with short spots for Chuck’s solos-- a bit like when you see him on TV with the show's house band. That’s what some people want—play it the same every time. But from my perspective it isn’t Chuck Berry. Chuck Berry plays the same songs different every time.
Years later-- 1989-- I saw him at the Paramount Theater in Seattle. Full house, competent if uninspiring band, and Chuck was great (when he actually played his stuff!) (It wasn't like those older shows-- the endless music shows. It was stop and start-- a man on stage with his guitar and a local band, with a few too many stops and starts and joke songs. But the crowd was happy, and so was Chuck, and it worked for me.) My ex wife and I were in the front row. What I remember most is that Chuck locked eyes and did a little dance for my ex during a blues number. I took some good pictures— (just got one signed at Blueberry Hill!) We went outside after the show and watched Chuck drive away in another Cadillac convertible, towel round his neck. By my pictures I think he was wearing the same red pants (minus a big brass button) that he'd worn 15 years before when I saw him at Monterey. (I've seen the purple ones a few times, too!)
Then, in the spring of 2001, I see a notice that Chuck Berry will fill in for an ailing Jerry Lee Lewis at the EMP in Seattle. It’s a last minute change. He’s playing that night! I get tickets for myself and my two little girls. We get there early and see a black town car leaving the underground garage. The driver’s got a captain’s hat, and he’s leaning forward trying to figure out which way to go. “That’s Chuck Berry!” I tell my kids. The girls shriek (they’re properly indoctrinated) and we lurch towards the car, but no chance-- Chuck is determined to get out of there. Anyway, what the heck would I say this time? “You’re my idol” is about all I’ve got. He’s with a man who’s at least his age. Somewhere in Seattle some restaurant is about to be visited by great CHUCK BERRY. I try to imagine being in that place when the two walk in. But we have tickets. We get inside and find spots by the stage. My younger daughter is only tall enough to see people’s butts, so she spends most of her time on my shoulders or in my arms. Everyone within sight is a fanatic. When it’s finally time for the show Chuck comes out in a captain’s cap, a glittering shirt and a foul mood. The first thing he does is pull all the plugs from his amp and guitar. A cool 22 year old is sent out to get the wires right while Chuck taps a very large foot. This, we agree, is pressure. The kid does it though, and the fanatics all mumble knowingly about the contract. The second thing Chuck does is kick a dumbstruck guitarist from stage before the band plays a single note. “It’s in the contract,” he says. “Drums, bass and piano. That’s it.” I feel terrible for the guitarist. He didn’t write the contract—he’s just a victim of it. The band is actually a good fit—a bunch of old rockers who’ve played together for decades, but Chuck’s in no mood. He reduces the bass player to three notes, “ba-bump, ba-bump, ba-bump, ba-bump” and it stays that way for the rest of the night; he instructs the pianist on some Johnny Johnson for Wee Wee Hours; he plays a good chunk of the show without accompaniment. I’m mouthing Wee Wee Hours while he plays it, and absorbing the music lesson (the chord slides up from E to G, and from A to C) and Chuck looks at me and says “You’re remembering somebody, aren’t you?” (He’s got that wrong. If anything, I’m forgetting somebody. Anyway, it’s part of our once a decade conversation.) Chuck plays My Ding-a-Ling. I’ve got my five or six year old on my shoulders, a few feet from his knees. She listens a while, then blurts: “He’s singing about his p&@%*!” Even this didn’t even get a smile out of him—but in the last 15 minutes he perked up, improved his mood, and blew the crowd away, as usual.
Then, a few months ago, Blueberry Hill, which I’ve written about elsewhere. I thank God, Joe Edwards and the Band for Blueberry Hill—where things are happier than at the EMP. And thank God for Chuck Berry, too.
Whenever you’re ready to put out that “new” album, Mr. Berry…
Last edited by Tulane on Mon Mar 16, 2009 1:15 am, edited 3 times in total.