Saturday, January 9, 2010

More From Daryl Davis

You’ve played with Chuck Berry for a long time now. Can you describe what it’s been like to work with him over such a long span of time?

Never a dull moment. I look forward to each and every time I work with him. As I’ve already indicated, he’s very spontaneous and energetic. This increases your sensitivities and sharpens your intuitions and instincts. When you rise to this challenge, your musicianship is tested and you find yourself learning and applying all simultaneously. It’s a wonderful experience. I’m as excited at age 51 as I was when I first played with him at age 23. I first met him at age 14. A lot of people have their own “Chuck Berry stories,” some of which are exaggerated and negative. I have had nothing but great Chuck Berry stories. I have a ton of them, but here are three.

(1)  When I was 14, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis were coming to Colefield House at Maryland University, which is about 20 minutes from where I live. I was excited as it was going to be my first time seeing Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis in person. To this day, I still have my ticket. Even though the show wasn’t to start until 8:00 p.m., I got a ride up there around noon. At that time of day, there was no backstage security, people were bringing in lights and speakers and setting the stage. So I walked on in like I belonged. The backup band was there waiting for Chuck to show up for the soundcheck and to rehearse them. Little did they know and neither did I, that he doesn’t do that. I was there for the same reason, thinking he would be there early and I wanted to meet him. I kept myself out of everyone’s way, but stayed near the band because that’s where I figured Chuck would go when he arrived and that way I could meet my idol.

The band was very friendly and excited about playing with Chuck Berry. This would be their first time and they had never met him. The day was beginning to wear on and no Chuck Berry. The band was getting nervous. They didn’t know what to do, so they practiced a bunch of Chuck Berry songs for their sound check. It got to be evening time. Security arrived and took their positions. Since I was already backstage and looked like I belonged, no one made me leave. Jerry Lee arrived but still no Chuck Berry. Now the backup band was freaking out and the promoter was getting nervous wondering where Chuck was and if he was going to be a no-show like George Jones or Sly Stone. I got to met Jerry Lee and he was extremely nice.

Jerry Lee went started his set. Back then of course we didn’t have cell phones, so there was no way to track Chuck Berry down. The promoter was trying to figure out what he would tell the crowd to keep them from causing pandemonium and how much money he would lose in refunds if Chuck didn’t show.

About 5 minutes before Jerry Lee finished his set, Chuck walked in the backstage door. He didn’t speak to anyone except to ask someone where the promoter was. I seem to recall that the person he asked was in fact the promoter. They walked off to the promoter’s office. I stayed on the floor on the side of the stage towards the back with the band. Chuck came out of the promoter’s office and went back outside. Within seconds he returned with his guitar. The rumor floating around backstage was that he went outside to his rental car to retrieve his guitar from the car only after the promoter paid him and he not been paid he would have driven off.

He walked toward where I was standing a few feet from the band. As he passed me, I didn’t say a word, I just watched him. He laid the guitar case down on an amp crate and opened it up. The bandleader approached him with the rest of the band and said something to the effect of, “I’m Bruce Springsteen and my band is your backup band. We’re really looking forward to playing with you.” At the time, few people outside of Asbury Park, NJ knew who Bruce Springsteen was. Chuck shook hands and Bruce went on to tell him that they had been going over some of his repertoire earlier and asked what songs he might want to play that evening. Without pausing or missing a beat, Chuck said, “I think I’ll play some Chuck Berry songs,” and walked on stage and plugged in his guitar. It was a great concert. When he came off stage, he packed up his guitar but had forgotten the cord. The audience was screaming for an encore. Chuck walked back onto the stage and the crowd thinking he was going to play another song cheered even louder. He pulled the cord out of the amp waved to the crowd and duckwalked off the stage. He walked right by me again and again, I didn’t say a word. I was just in awe. He went out the door and got in the rental car and drove himself to wherever he was going.

(2)  I played with Chuck on a show at the Warner Theatre in Washington, DC many years later. There was a little girl in a wheelchair in the front row who was just as enthusiastic as everyone else was at this sold out show. When the concert was over and theatre emptied out, I was packing up Chuck’s guitar on stage and one of the sound crew techs approached me and told me that the little wheelchair-bound girl had MS and her guardian who had brought her wanted to know if Chuck would possibly sign an autograph for this young fan. I had done a number of shows with Chuck at this point in time and I made it my policy not to approach him for favors. He gets enough requests from fans without the band asking him for autographs. Not that he is inapproachable, I just wanted to respect his privacy. If I knew in advance that he wanted to sign autographs which he sometimes did, I would direct those people who ask me for such favors where to go to see him. But this little girl had just been so enthusiastic despite her affliction and disability, I wanted to make an exception.

I went to Chuck’s dressing room and asked him if he remembered seeing the little girl in the front row in the wheelchair. He said he did see her. I explained that she would like an autograph. He said it was no problem. I asked him if he wanted to sign a piece of paper for me to take down to her or should I bring her to his dressing room. He asked me to lead him to her. I explained she was still out in the theatre and he said it didn’t matter to him. So I took him back down and through a side door that led out to the seats in the theatre. A big smile as wide as the Mississippi River stretched across this child’s face. Chuck knelt down beside her and talked with her and her guardian for about ten minutes. I then escorted him to his rental car and we went and he and I went to have dinner in Chinatown in Washington, DC.

Many celebrities would never have done such a thing without the press being on hand to capture the moment in the media and take advantage of the kudos it would generate for this celebrity to be seen spending time with a a fan who was afflicted with a disability. Chuck Berry did not even think in those terms. What he did was out of the kindness of his heart and his genuine regard for a fan he had never met before. I was extremely impressed and that tops anyone’s Chuck Berry story. That’s the Chuck Berry I know.

(3)   I had arrived early to an arena to play with Chuck. He had told me that he wasn’t bringing his bassist on this trip and would therefore need mine. So, I knew it was up to me to make sure everything on stage was set the way Chuck liked it. The band and I arrived early and soundchecked and took care of all the preliminary things in preparation for that evening’s concert. Opening the show was Peter Noone from Herman’s Hermits and the great Leslie Gore. They both had come to the arena to participate in their sound check. A gentleman who was hired by the concert promoter to be a signer for anyone in the audience who may be deaf or hearing impaired, stood on the side of the stage doing sign language to the lyrics of each singer’s songs during the sound check and would be doing it in that evening’s performance as well.

When I finished what I had to do on stage the signer ran up to me and said, “Hello Mr. Davis. I am told that you are Chuck Berry’s musical director.” He introduced himself and explained his function and asked if it would be alright if he stood on the side of the stage out of the way and signed to Chuck’s songs. I explained to him that only Mr. Berry would be able to approve that and when he arrived, I would explain and present him with the request or I would direct him to Chuck and he could ask him the same. Because he was told that I was the musical director, he assumed I had Chuck’s set list for that evening. I explained that Chuck didn’t use a set list. He said he knew a lot of Chuck Berry lyrics but it would be helpful if he had an order in which Mr. Berry would perform them. I told him that not even I knew what songs Chuck would play that evening, but he would most certainly do many of his popular ones.

A little while later, Chuck pulled up in a rental car and I greeted him, took his guitar and was walking him to his dressing room. Right as I was explaining what the signer wanted to do, he comes running up to us, shouting, “Mr. Berry, Mr. Berry.” They shake hands and he explains to Chuck what his function as a signer is at the concert and asks if Chuck minded if he stood on the side of the stage and did his signing. Chuck said it was not a problem and he would be welcome to do that.

Then Chuck looked at me and gave me a sly smile. I didn’t know what this was all about. He then put his fingers up to his chin like he was pondering something and said to the guy, “You say you’re a signer?”

“That’s right,” said the guy. “I sign the words to the songs for the deaf and impaired people who may be in the audience this evening. Chuck again told the guy that it was fine for him to be on stage signing and then Chuck snickered and elbowed me in my ribs laughing and we proceeded down the hall to his dressing room. I still didn’t know what was so funny. So I asked him. Chuck said, “That man says he’s a signer and he’s going to sign the words to my songs to the audience.” Still wondering what was so funny about that, I said, “Yes, he is a signer. I saw him doing it with Peter Noone and Leslie Gore during the soundcheck.” Chuck replied, “Yeah, I know, but I wonder how he’s going to sign to My Ding-a-Ling? His wit never ceases to amaze me. Chuck is always thinking and is always one step ahead of everyone else. Pure genius!!!

This is a big question—but can you describe how you think Chuck Berry fits into American and world culture?

There are thousands of great musicians, but every so often a musical genius is born. Such a thing happened on October 26th, 1926. The fruits of his creative genius extended far beyond the invention of Rock’n’Roll. They also played a major role of social impact in our society which is even felt today.

As you are aware, our country has a vile history of racism. The subject is often considered taboo to talk about, but I believe in telling it like it is, applauding our country’s achievements but also condemning and correcting their detriments.

Back in the day, music venues like most places were segregated by color. That’s if they allowed Blacks in there at all. Some places did not allow Black patrons. Those that did, only allowed them in certain sections of the venue. There would be ropes running along the seating sections with signs hanging which read, “Colored Seating Only” or “Seating For Whites Only.” When you went to see a concert in the 1940s, for example say Frank Sinatra, you sat in the section as designated by the color of your skin. You did not “cross sit” (that is to sit in the other skin color section) or you would be arrested. That was the law. People pretty much for the most part, obeyed the law.

That law was still enforced in the 1950s. However, with the advent of Rock’n’Roll, White kids and Black kids could not sit still and ended up bouncing out of their seats, knocking over the rope barriers and dancing in the aisles together. That Boogie Woogie rhythm with that heavy backbeat that Chuck put in there was just that infectious enough to cause that kind of race mixing with blatant and wanton disregard for the law. Little White girls were dancing with Black guys. Oh my goodness, the world was coming to an end!!! This genre was to be called Rock’n’Roll was being called anything but. Jungle music, race music and nigger bop, were the most common names assigned to the genre by its detractors. Mayors and other city officials began banning Rock’n’Roll concerts from their towns to prevent this lewd, lascivious behavior that would lead to miscegenation. At concerts that were permitted to take place, police were instructed to arrest any youth engaged in not only cross sitting but cross dancing as well. The rule of the day was “Don’t Cross The Line,” the color line.

It wasn’t Chuck Berry’s lyrics to his songs. It wasn’t that he got on the microphone and encouraged this behavior. It was his music that compelled these actions that the kids did with impunity and without compunction!!!

At the same time while soon to be great and legendary Civil Rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., were trying to accomplish the bringing of Black and White adults together through speeches, sit-ins, boycotts and marches, Chuck Berry and his contemporaries were achieving it naturally through his music. It was the beat of that music that caused all the trouble. Like he says in his song, Rock’n’Roll Music, “It’s got a backbeat, you can’t lose it, if you wanna dance with me.” Chuck had provided a venue for the youth of the day with differing pigmentation, to come together and experience each other and come to the realization that it wasn’t cancerous. Getting this information to minds of the young people of that era was a major brick in the cornerstone of the progress that was yet to come. Chuck had succeeded in performing would also be called crossover music, appreciated by young members of both races.

Chuck Berry and his contemporaries playing that music and influencing the attitudes of youth of that era who would later be voting adults, laid a major piece of groundwork at the time that would pave the way for someone like Barack Obama to become President of the United States.

Chuck’s musical contributions are well-known and well-documented, so I don’t think I need to list them here. I feel it’s equally important to point out the positive societal and racial impact his music had by the rebellion it caused with America’s youth. You asked about his role fitting in to this country and world culture. His songs have become national and internationally recognized anthems, recorded by artists all over the world and in every style of music. You left out one thing. Not only is Chuck recognized in this country and the rest of the world, he has now become galatic due to his song Johnny B. Goode being sent into space in a time capsule from Earth on both Voyager I and Voyager II, for any aliens traveling the universe to learn about music from planet Earth.

How do you think he sees his own role?

First of all, I could never pretend or even portend to speak for him. Therefore I cannot speculate with any confirmed accuracy as to how he sees his own role. In my own personal opinion from my experiences with him I can tell you this. He is a very humble man. He does not come across like many egotistical people do once they reach celebrity status. Chuck treats everyone with genuine respect and like any of us, enjoys his life at work and would like to enjoy his life outside of work. By this, I mean, when he’s not performing on stage, he likes to be like anyone else and go about his business without being under the constant microscope that comes with the celebrity persona. Like any of us when we get off our job, we like to enjoy our privacy without bringing our work home with us. I believe that he knows his songs have become anthems for many people around the world. He is amazed to see people who were not even born singing every word to his lyrics at his concerts and other artists still recording his songs 50 years after they were first recorded by him. Given all of this, he knows he has played a role in shaping musical history, but he is also humble enough to quickly point out that he was influenced by certain artists who preceded him and give credit where credit is due, unlike many others who have not given him the credit that he was due.

(You can see some great footage of Daryl playing piano with Chuck Berry on Davis's webiste.  Click Here!)

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