But I think we all felt as though we knew him. The only way Chuck Berry and I could have ever met is if I had been on the same bill with him, either in a concert or TV show, but neither obviously ever happened. I still remember when Robert Klein was doing stand-up, on one of his albums he mentioned meeting him, and how appropriate it was that Berry’s first words were “Far out!” “He really IS Chuck Berry,” was Klein’s take on it, “it would have floored me if he’d said ‘Yeh, Bob, I don’t know, this Watergate thing’s really got me down.'”
The press, media, and internet are full of accolades about the man whose influence was felt many decades after his classic work was created. There are times when I don’t feel so bad about being as old as I am, and the fact that I’m old enough to have been exposed to Berry’s music when it was being released to the public for the first time makes me feel I was born at one of the best times in history. My favourite Berry song, as I spin my musical rolodex, would probably be “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” a bigger hit in UK via a note for note cover by Buddy Holly, but more importantly a great piece about pride in who he was, given that his record company wouldn’t let him release it under its original title “Brown Skin Handsome Man.”
I have fond memories of my one Chuck Berry concert, where he wasn’t even the headliner, but it may have just been a coin toss which decided that, as the closer was Little Richard. The opening act of this 1971 show in LA was The Johnny Otis Show, featuring R&B veterans who were around well before Rock & Roll. Otis himself had been an R&B pioneer of sorts, made more remarkable by the fact that he was white. I missed most of their performance, as the method of advance ticketing meant your ticket had to be picked up at this one box office in front of the venue that had no real line, just a mob of people pushing and shoving while crammed in like sardines. Getting my ticket took nearly 45 minutes, while my other two friends who didn’t have advance tickets bought them from a more orderly box office and were in easily 20 minutes before me. They got to actually see Joe Turner, of “Shake Rattle And Roll” fame, who was part of the Otis revue, I only caught the last 15 minutes or so, by which time Turner had been and gone.
Next up was Berry, and it wasn’t a great show, but it was totally not his fault. His opening tune was the 1964 comeback hit “Nadine,” and as he played the opening chords, the drummer came in a beat too soon, and was well into the verse before he corrected his timing. Meanwhile, the bass player played the entire song in the key of E, totally ignoring that the song is in A. I would have excused it, except the bass player was Roy Estrada, who had been a member of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention through their first four albums, and certainly should have known better. He and the drummer were likely stoned. So why did they play so badly? Probably because they had no rehearsal, that Chuck Berry would almost always work with pick-up bands in each town for the last 40 or so years he was performing. It wasn’t asking a lot for rock musicians to know his tunes, as he would be playing and singing them some 20,000 times over the years, so probably the last thing he had time or desire for was rehearsing them.
His audience’s continual expectation to hear nothing but the hits may have contributed to him being a pioneer of one dubious aspect of performance that performers today exploit to the nth degree. When he would sing his major hits, he would gesture to the audience to sing the line that comes next. I think I might have sung more of “Sweet Little Sixteen” that night than he did, but you can excuse it, whereas Rihanna and many other 21st Century stars pointing the mic to the crowd and having them sing when they paid to hear her just sounds self-serving and downright lazy. Berry did the same thing when he eventually sang “Johnny B. Goode,” which was sort of a hallelujah moment, as he had played several songs earlier in the show that started with a similar guitar riff. All the more reason to heap some disdain on his band members, as it would seem to me if you know one Chuck Berry song, you probably know 10 or 15.
This show also featured the sing-along to Berry’s albatross/dick joke, “My Ding-A-Ling,” which sadly was his only recording to hit #1 on either US or UK charts (it topped both). I remember asking myself “what is he doing with THIS tune,” as I was familiar with a doo-wopp novelty from 1954 called “Toy Bell” by a New Orleans group called The Bees, and while the verses were different, the melody and especially the chorus were near identical. The concert I saw was a year before the single, taken from his album “The London Chuck Berry Sessions,” was released, and it floored me when it became such a massive hit. Also interesting that Berry was given sole songwriting credit on the label, not mentioning the writer of “Toy Bell,” Dave Bartholomew, who had also recorded the same song under the title Berry used a couple years before The Bees did. I forgive Berry for that, as there are countless stories of how badly he was ripped off by record companies, song publishers, crooked promoters, and out-and-out racism.
Happily, in all of radio’s tributes to Berry this week, “My Ding-A-Ling” will probably scarcely get a mention, let alone airplay, and that’s called justice. RIP to the man that influenced so many talented people to pick up a guitar.