Chuck Berry passed away this week. He was 90 years old.
I had heard of Chuck Berry, like a lot of my generation, through the Beatles and the Rolling Stones’ covers. I first saw Chuck perform at my very first rock festival called “Pop 69” at Toronto’s Varsity Stadium in 1969.
I had never seen anything like Chuck Berry before. He commanded the stage, the songs and the audience. I think, or at least I’d like to think, and… because this is my story, I know, that after seeing him, I began my journey of discovery to find other artists from the 40s and 50s. The ones that influenced the artists I loved like Ray Charles and Louis Jordan.
I saw him a couple of more times at H.B. Beale and at Alumni Hall in London. He was such a great showman and the lyrics in his songs were always entertaining and interesting. In an earlier post I spoke about the humour in songs such as his “No Particular Place to Go”. If you read through the words of “Memphis” which is a conversation between the singer and the operator. You realize that the singer is trying to contact his six year old daughter because “we were pulled apart because her mom did not agree, And tore apart our happy home in Memphis Tennessee.”
Here are a few more examples of Chuck Berry’s lyrics.
As I was motivatin’ over the hill, I saw Maybelline in a Coup de Ville.
Don’t care to hear ’em play a tango, I’m in the mood to dig a mambo;
It’s way to early for a congo, So keep a rockin’ that piano
-Rock and Roll Music
They furnished off an apartment with a two room Roebuck sale
The coolerator was crammed with TV dinners and ginger ale,
But when Pierre found work, the little money comin’ worked out well
“C’est la vie”, say the old folks, it goes to show you never can tell
– You Never Can Tell
I feel like I’ve been playing “Johnny B. Goode” and “Roll Over Beethoven” my whole life. We play two of his songs in the Eclectic Vinyl Orchestra: “Rock and Roll Music” and “You Never Can Tell (C’est La Vie). You may remember “You Never Can Tell” from the dance contest in the movie “Pulp Fiction”.
Like a lot of other musicians, I got to play with Chuck Berry once in the early 80s’. The promoters would supply him with an amp and a band. Chuck was famous for being tough on this backup bands. I saw him grab the sticks of the drummer at one show to make him stop playing.
Our sax player, Jim, tells the story about when he was 17 going to see Chuck play.
“Chuck actually fired the whole band, because of the drummer. Well, they sorta quit after he told then they were doing it wrong too many times. He’d actually stop the song, educate them, but the drummer always wanted to play a pickup beat even after being told not to. Chuck then played the rest of the gig solo. Quite an event!”
Here is a quote from Bruce Springsteen who backed him up in the 70s.
“About five minutes before the show was timed to start, the backdoor opens and he comes in. He’s by himself. He’s got a guitar case, and that was it, I said ‘Chuck, what songs are we going to do?’ He says, ‘Well, we’re going to do some Chuck Berry songs.’ That was all he said!”
In our case, he wasn’t going to meet with us before the show but eventually agreed to the promoter’s request. We asked him what we were to do, he said, “It’s just Chuck Berry shit.” Oh, and he said, ‘When I bring my legs together, stop playing”.p>