Sunday, January 31, 2010


When I first discovered Chuck Berry he was not exactly at the peak of his success, but he was hanging in there, as usual. I first saw him in 1969 or 1970 on The Mike Douglas Show. I think I saw him at least three or four times on that show, and I respect Douglas a lot for actually sitting down and talking to the man. (Some “talk shows” treat musicians like idiots—they let them play but not talk. I want both.)

Then, of course, I saw him live, probably the same year, at the Sacramento Memorial Auditorium. If you’re a Chuck Berry fan you’ve probably seen the poster floating round on the internet for Chuck Berry and Louis Jordan at the same auditorium in 1957. I bet that show was thrilling. It certainly wasn’t one of the 45 minute shows people sometimes stupidly complain about—the poster says it’ll go on till 1:00 am, way past Sacramento’s bedtime. And it had to be one of Sacramento’s most diverse events ever—at least during the city’s first 150 years. (These days Sacramento’s population makes you proud to be an American—every shade and nationality of person). It had to be dazzling. Which would go a long way to explaining the blueful look on Chuck Berry’s face as he sang to four or five hundred people scattered through the same hall 13 years later. We all loved him, but there weren’t very many of us.

Chuck Berry was still well known among people a little older than me. I was the youngest of seven children. My oldest brothers and sisters grew up with his hits. I was born after Maybellene and the first Chuck Berry songs I knew well were Beatle songs. (Live and learn). I was always pleased when my brother Stevo told me that “No Particular Place to Go” had been a hit when my mother packed six of us into a 1963 Chevrolet Impala station wagon and drove us 2500 miles to see the seventh (or first, depending on your perspective.) Being youngest (yes, definitely the seventh son) I spent all 5000 miles in the rear facing third row seat half mile or so from the single dashboard speaker rattling around the front of the car. If I ever heard “No Particular Place to Go,” or “Nadine” or “Promised Land” when they were hits it was subliminal.

(The real wonder is that we were driving 2500 miles from the promised land of California to Warrenton, Missouri, a town about ten miles from Wentzville and Berry Park. We passed through Wentzville on the way to see the Arch in St. Louis.)

So I am from a younger generation than the original Chuck Berry fans, and when I became obsessed myself I was alone in my age group—at least among my small circle of friends and acquaintances.

But then two things happened. First (I think) Chuck Berry was invited by John Lennon to appear on the Mike Douglas show. By then I was a “long time” fan of at least two years (15% of my life!”) I was thrilled to see a Beatle fawning over my idol.

And then The London Sessions—a mammoth hit that made everyone my age know who Chuck Berry was. Suddenly my weird obsession was mainstream.

The amazing thing about Chuck Berry’s career is that it has just kept going and going. Sometimes the records sell, sometimes not so well, but he keeps putting it out there at pretty much the same level for all comers. True, the first 30 or so songs were at a level of quality that’s pretty much unsustainable. But every song has been a good one, and just about every album has had a least a couple of songs as good as the first 30.

And he’s been out there playing the whole time—putting on a live show of real music that is becoming increasingly rare.


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