Thursday, May 27, 2010

"He Came Out of the Wings with his 345 Blazing..." (Ronny Elliott on Backing Chuck Berry in the Early 1970s)

I've been lucky to have had a chance to "talk" to a number of musicians who play with Chuck Berry and know him well: Robert Lohr, Bob Baldori, Daryl Davis.  Their interviews are on the site somewhere and well worth searching out and reading.  (Use the handy "search" function!) 

But the other day I stumbled across Mr. Ronny Elliott, a talented musician and songwriter who did the deed about ten memorable times when he was the youthful bass player in some of the photos below.  (May favorite picture, included in the Ed Brown piece further down, shows a wary, awestruck, and slightly menaced looking group of musicians on stage half an hour before their first show with Mr. Berry.)  It can be a scary thing.  I've seen it be scary.  I've also seen it be really really good.  In an e-mail Elliott told me: "He's my hero on the good days and the bad ones."  You'll read about both sorts of days here, and see how the good, bad and ugly sometimes all happen at the same time. 

I'll say this:  Chuck Berry's admirers and supporters and collaborators all seem to be eloquent as all get out.  Which isn't a surprise.  Enjoy.

The movie title “Almost Famous” should have been saved for your life story! You’ve got to be one of the industry’s best kept secret legends.

I’m afraid that it’s really more a matter of hanging around for a good, long time. Most people would have had the good sense to quit, move on. I view my situation as something of a Forrest Gump existence. I have no complaints, though, no regrets.

How many records have you put out? Can you even guesstimate?

When I started in the mid-sixties it was all about the 45, the single for radio. In different bands I probably did about ten or twelve records. Some were on local labels like the Outsider and Soul Tripper sides that were on Phil Gernhard’s Knight label. We also did a side or two for Providence, Laurie’s rhythm and blues subsidiary. Finally we did a couple of 45’s for Decca and one for Paramount. When I mentioned to Dick Holler, the great writer who penned “Abraham, Martin and John,” some years back that his old singles on Comet, Herald and Ace were selling for big bucks he refused to believe me. When I showed him in some of the price guides he commented, “Well, it’s based on scarcity, not on quality.” I thought that he was just the most humble guy I had ever known. Today I understand him. By the way, find a copy of his original version of “Double Shot Of My Baby’s Love” and you’ll be ready to argue with him!

Since I’ve been putting out solo records I suppose that there are around a dozen or so and quite a few compilation tracks from Europe as well as the states.

How often have you backed Chuck Berry? And how did that come about the first time?

It was probably fewer than ten times total. First time was a short tour in 1970 I believe it was. I worked with my producer, Phil Gernhard. He hated to pay me for nothing when there was no project for recording so he frequently had me promoting concerts to keep me busy. Worst job in the world. Right after Richard Nader did the first rock’n’roll revival show at Madison Square Garden he offered up packages. I think the one that we did in Tampa was the second one of that series that started it all off. Lots of those folks had not been working at all. Phil asked who I wanted on the bill and without having to give it any thought I replied, “Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Gene Vincent, Bill Haley & the Comets, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and the Coasters.” We got them all except for Screamin’ Jay. He was spending some portion of the year in Hawaii at that time. I suppose that my only regret was that Fats Domino, Little Richard and Ricky Nelson didn’t come to mind.

Phil booked my band, Duckbutter, to be on the bill for that tour so that we could back up Chuck Berry, Gene Vincent and the Coasters.

People often say he’s difficult to work with. What has your experience been?

Sometimes he is. You never know. That first show, we were scheduled to do a sound check at 3:00. The show was at 8:00. Chuck strolled out onto the stage at Curtis Hixon Hall in Tampa around 7:30. I didn’t write this down so the accuracy of the quote might be a little shaky after forty years but this is close:

“I’m Chuck Berry. I’ll tell you what song we’re playing and I’ll tell you the key. If I go like this, (raises his guitar up in a swooping motion), you stop. Don’t anybody play too loud. It’s my show. If you do, I’ll stop. I’ll embarrass you.”

We closed the show with him. He came out of the wings with his 345 blazing with that Nadine riff. We fumbled around for just a second to figure out that we were in F or B flat or some strange key that was certainly not what the record had been recorded in. First time he raised his guitar to start a duckwalk, we stopped. Dirtiest look I’ve ever been given. We didn’t fall for that one again. The only reason that we hadn’t been intimidated to begin with was that we all knew all CB songs. We had grown up on them. Turns out that he doesn’t often play any of them in that way.

Actually, that was a good night. Next night in Orlando I had to grab his shoulder to prevent him from dancing right off the edge of a very high stage. During a guitar solo in Around and Around he backed up to me to ask,”What are we doing?” Funny thing is it was a really good set. Next night in Jacksonville he went into "Rambling Rose" in the middle of the set. He did just a verse or two while we stood with our mouths open and our hands by our sides. He rolled right into "Jamaica Farewell" in Spanish and we hoped for lightning to strike the building. He bounced right back and we closed with a really fine version of "Johnny B. Goode" that pretty much blew the roof off of the Jacksonville Colliseum. That was the first job where I figured out that he showed up late to make sure that he closed the show regardless of where he was on the bill. At that point, Bo Diddley referred to him as “Mr. Berry” and looked the other way when Chuck entered the room. We were all doing this tour on a chartered bus. Chuck flew from town to town.

After some time Chuck began to request that promoters contact me for putting a band together for him. I was always excited but always a little apprehensive of what might happen. Some shows were pure joy and some were taxing in many ways. The last time that I took one was in Miami at the Jailai Fronton on a bill with the James Gang. I attempted to pass on it but the promoter offered too much money to ignore. We played a set that lasted two and a half hours. Chuck was on his knees, reciting poetry, working the young crowd like horny, broke preacher. I was amazed. I have never enjoyed playing more. Backstage I glance at my watch and thought that we had played for an hour and a half. No wonder I was tired. I actually overheard Chuck telling someone else that we had been out for two and a half. He was in a great mood, no sign of exhaustion. Trying to convince us to come visit him at Berry Park, he smirked, “There’s only one cop in Wentzville and I have polaroids of him.” I thought it was a joke for years. The next week he was on the Mike Douglas Show with John and Yoko co-hosting. He boasted that he had just played the longest set in his life the week before, two and one half hours. I’m still proud.

I think the magic of his music is the improvisation. What’s it like playing on the fly like that?

Honestly, he’s so used to worrying about just trying to keep it together at all that there isn’t much space for improvisation. He would certainly be the one if you had the good luck to spend a little time with him.

Where do you think Chuck Berry fits in the world of American music and culture?

I remember reading an interview with him when I was a kid. He gave all credit for all of his work to what Louis Jordan and others had done previously. I thought he was just being kind. He went on to protest that he had only really written four or five songs. I finally understand what he meant. Turns out I’ve only written a handful myself. It just happens that his four or five are the backbone for all of rock’n’roll. Never mind "Roll Over Beethoven," "Rock’n’Roll Music" and "Johnny B. Goode"; no Chuck Berry, no "Surfin’ U.S.A.", no "Come Together". No wonder that it was Chuck Berry music that was blasted into outer space in the space capsule in case we ever make contact with an alien population. Chuck Berry is American culture and American music.

The days of pick up bands backing Chuck Berry are pretty much gone. But if you had a word or two of advice for the garage band that was going to take that job, what would it be?

Get down on you knees and thank your god!

I noticed on line that you have a piece called “Ed Brown Meets Chuck Berry.” Can you tell us about that one?

I just started the tape rolling and asked my pal, Ed Brown, to tell me the story about meeting Chuck Berry in Knoxville in 1957 or so. I had heard the story lots of times but had never bothered to ask for any details. I thought the rest of the world should be in on it. Ed just passed away so it’s a very special piece for me now.

Another song talks about your mom taking you to see Big Joe Turner? True story? And did you know Chuck Berry snuck out to watch him as a teenager?

I did not know that. Makes sense. Yeah, the first real concert that I went to was billed, “The Biggest Rock’n’Roll Show of ’56.” No exaggeration, I’ll tell you. At Fort Homer Hesterly Armory in Tampa, the venue where the Elvis “tonsil” shot was taken, the bill included Big Joe Turner, Bo Diddley, Lavern Baker, the Teen Queens, Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers, Bill Haley & the Comets and the Drifters. Clyde McPhatter was home on leave and joined the Drifters onstage in his uniform. Lavern Baker’s dress was too tight to walk up the stage stairs. She had to stand at the foot and snap her fingers for two musicians to come lift her by the elbows to put her on the stage. Bo came on and the walls shook. What’s a rock’n’roller doing with eyeglasses? How come Bill Haley and Joe Turner are playing the same song? The sacred mystery of rock’n’roll took over my soul and I continue to worship at that same altar. Hail, hail rock’n’roll, huh?

Where can people see you play in the next couple of months?

I’ll be at the Woody Guthrie Festival in Okemah, Oklahoma in the middle of July. It’s the best festival in the world. The spirit of Woody Guthrie is the spirit of rock’n’roll. He would have been a huge rock’n’roll star. He would have denied it.

Note from Peter:  Be sure to use the search unction on this blog to find the Ed Brown pieces, including Ed Brown's brilliantly told story about meeting Chuck Berry. 
Pictures courtesy Ronny Elliott.


Anonymous said...

Thanks so much Peter and a Big Thanks to Ronny Brown for sharing his stories with us!!
CB Forum ID - Busseybootlegger

Anonymous said...

I'm so sorry Ronny Elliot - It was a long day....
CB Forum Member ID - Busseybootlegger

Peter said...

I think he'll forgive you, Doug! I got to say, you know Ronny Elliott is a poet. The LaVerne Baker image he gave us is just SEARED into my brain! Peter