Chuck Berry invented rock and roll. Just ask the Beatles, The Rolling Stones or The Beach Boys.
New Years Eve 1990, my band, Johnny Baron and The Bel Aires, were booked to open for Chuck at Caesars Lake Tahoe, Nevada (now Montbleu Resort Casino). We did our show and hurried side stage to watch Chucks’ performance. Anyone who’s seen Chuck in his later years or who has seen the movie ‘Hail Hail Rock and Roll!’ with Keith Richard knows that Chuck can be unpredictable, and at times, down right contrary. Suffice it to say that, on that evening, Chuck was both! After a series of verbal tirades aimed at his pickup band and the house sound engineer, Chuck walked off stage at 11:30 - a full half hour short of the New Years Eve festivities which he was supposed to MC. I was standing next to the general manager of Caesars and he was not pleased. Since Chuck was booked there for two nights, December 31st and January 1st, he definitely had a problem. I immediately suggested that he hire our band to play the next night as we knew Chuck’s songs inside and out. He agreed and insisted on an actual rehearsal with Chuck the next afternoon; unheard of where Chuck is concerned.
The following afternoon at five o’clock sharp, we were on stage warming up and Mr. Berry and his daughter walk in. Right away he tells us to stop playing and that he was going to teach us how to play ‘Chuck Berry Music”. He shows our drummer, David Lauser, the ‘Chuck Berry beat” - Ba bump Ba Bump Ba Bump etc. Then shows our bass player, Joe Orlando, the simple but critical bass part to play with that beat - Ba Boom Ba Boom Ba Boom etc. Then he moved on to our piano player, Doug Wagner. Then it was my turn - A Rump A Rump A Rump A Rump etc. Then we put it all together with Chuck playing his signature syncopated chord stabs on top. Magic! We thought we knew all about it but doing it at the feet of the master took it to a whole new level. The interesting thing about that rehearsal was, we never did rehearse any 'Chuck Berry Music'. All Chuck wanted to play was Jerry Reed and Bob Wills songs. A very interesting insight into a very complex man.
Then it was time to break for dinner before the show. I took Chuck’s guitar, which had been damaged by the airlines, and set to work on it. His guitar at that time was a rare late eighties Gibson Chet Atkins model with gold hardware. A great looking 'show' guitar. Chuck told me later that he flew his stage guitars with his luggage, and when they would wear our or break, he would just write them off and buy another. He seemed very proud of that. This one was missing a bridge saddle and there were a few panicked moments there when I though Chuck was going to have to play my pink custom shop Fender stratocaster. Again, an unheard occurrence, as I don't believe anyone has ever seen Chuck playing a Fender guitar! Miraculously, Joe Orlando managed to create a makeshift bridge saddle in the down stairs machine shop of Caesars! I took his guitar and cleaned it, re strung it, intonated it and stretched out the strings. Later that evening, as we were all walking out on stage, I hung the guitar around his neck and looked him straight in the eyes. “Don’t touch the tuning pegs!” I told him. He looked at me funny for a second, then smiled and nodded. Showtime!
I’ll never forget that night. Chuck walked out on stage like the star he was, waving to the audience and already sporting a perfect sheen of perpiration. He was so kind to us on stage. At first, he would play these little games, like slowing down, speeding up, getting louder, then playing whisper soft. We followed him like our lives depended on it; never taking our eyes of him. After each time he would turn around and laugh and smile. 'Play for the money boys” he would tell us on the sly. Another kindness was to noodle briefly on his guitar before each song so that we might have a clue as to the key the next song. No actual song titles were ever disclosed. I would figure out the key and, as casually as possible, pass it on to the guys. He could have buried us like he did the pick up band from the night before, but he didn’t, bless him!
As the show went on, he loosened up considerably. I watched him as he transformed from Chuck Berry - grown man - into Chuck Berry - very limber 16 year old kid. The years fell away. He started to really rock, and enjoy himself. He totally got that audience on his side and kept them in the palm of his hand the entire night. Half way through the show, he unplugged his guitar and plugged his cord into my guitar. He brought me up front and featured me on all the guitar solos from then on. I did the duck walk and the splits, both patented Berry stage moves. He loved it, laughing and smiling. Time stood still. Suddenly, we noticed half the audience was dancing on stage with us. Magic was in the air! Chuck did a half hour version of ‘Reelin’ And A Rockin’ that was sheer inspired brilliance! New verses keep popping up, each one a bit more ‘blue’ than the next, but always tasteful and never crude. Chuck's true self - the poet - emerged. Creating and rapping out verses, shouting out choruses, leading us all into that hallowed space that only true shamans and magicians/musicians know about. Rock and roll heaven. What a night!
After the show, the band was called back into Chucks' dressing room where he regaled us with Chivas whiskey and answered all my fevered questions about Leonard Chess, Willie Dixon and the early days in general. He could not have been more generous to a bunch of star struck kids. We just wanted him to know how much he meant to us.
God bless you Chuck, and thank you so much. Long live Rock and Roll!