One likes to believe in the freedom of music.Rush – Spirit of Radio.
I once danced onstage with Chuck Berry. Or, to be more precise, Chuck Berry played Johnny B. Goode while I danced five feet away from him. Not, you understand, go-go dancer style in a knit mini or anything weird like that, just danced. Onstage.
It was 1987, August 8th to be specific. Berry was doing a two show gig at “Mount Chinguacousy” during the Brampton Flower Festival. The first show is a bit legendary in Chuck Berry circles because he fired his band during School Days. Berry was infamously difficult, but even for him firing the band, onstage, mid-show was notable.
The second show went better, however, and Berry got to the last song without so much as a sour word towards the musicians who had been hired to back him. So while closing out Johnny B. Goode, Berry invited some young ladies to dance onstage. One of them was my then girlfriend. Berry called her onstage, and from the angle he called her, I thought he motioned to me. Sadly, both she and I pointed to ourselves and said, “me?”
and when he nodded yes and said back “yes you”, I took my cue and went. It wasn’t until I read about the spoil sport bastards who crashed the stage when Chuck was calling on some girls to come up in that weeks Brampton Guardian that I realized, no, not me.
So I’m dancing beside a guy with a notorious temper on a night when he’s already fired his band once (i.e. maybe not a good night). Looking back I can consider myself lucky I didn’t get conked with his legendary ES-355.
The band Berry fired that night were hired by the promoter of the show. As was Berry’s practice from fairly early on, he toured without a band, and every town he went to his contract stipulated they hire a band. The band would get no rehearsal time with Berry, no chord charts and no set list prior to show. In the recording of that August night, Berry stops School Days and tells the band, no playing during the breaks. He continues the song and in their enthusiasm, they can’t help themselves but add some pickup notes at the end of each break. At songs end he gives them shit in front of everybody and does five songs without them before they return chastened but apparently much improved.
It seems strange to hire a different band for every show, and it can’t have been easy to be one of Berry’s back up players. Bruce Springsteen did the gig once in his pre-fame days, and writing about it years later noted that Berry played his songs on odd keys like Bb and Eb (while everybody and their brothers band plays Johnny B. Goode in ‘A’, the original is actually in ‘Bb’ for instance). But by the same token, it speaks to how common his songs are to play for local bands that he could always find three or four guys, in every town, who knew so many of his songs.
In Rock and Roll Never Forgets, Bob Seger sings about “all of Chuck’s children are out there, playing his licks.” This is what he’s talking about, so many musicians over the years cut their teeth, earned their money playing Chuck Berry’s songs. And occasionally, if you were lucky, Chuck’s children got to step on stage and actually play with him. Lucky, that is, if he didn’t fire you in front of everybody.
Chuck Berry passed away on March 18 at 90-years old. He was one of the truly great performers, and he left a legacy that may be unmatched in rock and roll. May he rest in peace. And if there’s a rock and roll heaven, NO PLAYING DURING THE BREAK!
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