Thursday, December 1, 2011
Daryl Davis on Chuck Berry's Performance at The Chesapeake Bay Blues Festival
A long time ago I asked the amazing Daryl Davis if he'd consider writing a "review" of Chuck Berry's performance at The Chesapeake Bay Blues Festival from his rather unique position on stage. He agreed to do so once he'd completed a bunch of other projects that included recording sessions, performances, and a performance with his buddy and mentor Pinetop Perkins. I was pretty excited. But as usual, what we got from Daryl Davis is bigger than what you might hope for. Everything not in italics comes straight from Mr. Davis.
The Chesapeake Bay Blues Festival started in 1998 and is still going strong and growing in popularity, due to the wonderful insight, professionalism and dedication of its founder and visionary, Don Hooker and his staff. This festival is very unique in that apart from the performing talent, all the producers, stage hands and other festival workers, are volunteers. All the proceeds are distributed to charities. There’s an old saying that I normally live by; “You get what you pay for.” It is been my experience on a number of gigs that if the promoter tries to cut corners and go cheap by not paying for quality and professionalism, then you don’t get it. This festival proves that old cliché can be wrong. I have played festivals all across the country and I can tell you that many with paid professional staffing will find this one very hard to beat.
The 2010 musical lineup for the 2-day weekend Chesapeake Bay Blues Festival included Tinsley Ellis, The Yardbirds, Shemekia Copeland and Buddy Guy on Saturday. The entertainment culminated on Sunday with the talents of among others, Joe Louis Walker, Jimmy Vaughan, and Chuck Berry who closed out this year’s festival.
I arrived at the airport and met a great guy named Jay from the festival staff who was there to pick up Chuck Berry. While we waited, Jay briefed me on the background and history of this particular festival. He was very passionate about his work with the festival, considering the fact that he wasn’t being paid for it. He does this one weekend every year just for the festival. I was soon to learn that everyone I met, including the producer/promoter Don Hooker was equally as passionate, dedicated and nice to work with at the festival. This certainly translates well to the performers who come to do the show. They are treated extremely well with genuine respect and it immediately puts them at ease.
Chuck arrived and Jay took him to the hotel to get checked in. From there, I took Chuck to the festival. It had been calling for bad weather in the area for that day. While the stage is covered, the audience is not and would get wet should it rain. As I drove Chuck to the venue, we rode through cloud bursts of rain which would alternate with sunshine. I crossed my fingers in hopes that the bad weather would hold off and festival goers would not be deterred from attending. Amazingly, my finger-crossing trick worked!!! We arrived to beautiful weather. No expense was spared. Very nice mobile trailers served as dressing rooms, not the tents that one sees at some of the other festivals.
I got Chuck situated in his dressing room and went to listen to some of Jimmy Vaughan’s set. When Jimmy’s set was over, I went up on stage and assisted the stage hands with the correct placement and electronic knob settings of the two Fender Dual Showman amps and speaker cabinets that had been specially rented for Chuck Berry.
Chuck is as fond of harmonies as he is of melodies. When one hears his guitar licks and solos, many of them are what are known in the guitar world as double stops. It means he is playing two strings at once. These notes harmonize with each other. He plays the piano much in the same fashion by playing two notes at once in harmony. Chuck has often mentioned T-Bone Walker as one of his influences. If one were to strip away the harmony note and leave just the melody note to some of Chuck’s leads, one would easily see the influence as T-Bone played similarly but less syncopated and using a single note line instead of the double stop approach.
The performance concluded with the aforementioned "Reelin’ & Rockin’" and Chuck made his way back to the dressing room. I packed up Chuck’s and my guitars. Don Hooker who makes this festival possible every year is an affable, hands-on person who enjoys the performances and enjoys mingling out front with the audience. He is very respectful of the talent he brings and their privacy. At this point he had not even met Chuck. I introduced him and some of the other charitable workers to Chuck who had already read up on the great work that Mr. Hooker was doing and was pleased to meet him.
We said our goodbyes to the wonderful festival people and Chuck signed some autographs for fans, before getting in my car for me to drive him to his hotel. Along the way, we stopped to get something to eat and as we drove through Washington, DC that evening, Chuck reminisced about playing there in the 1950s. He mentioned the Howard Theatre. Having graduated from Howard University, I knew exactly where it was. I also knew he would be stunned and disappointed to know how run down it had become. I made a detour and under the cover of darkness drove Chuck his old stomping ground.
As I suspected, when he saw the now decrepit Howard Theatre, his excitement turned somber and he shook his head. I explained there has been a lot of talk about refurbishing the Howard and that while there is hope, so far it’s been nothing but talk. The neighborhood is now very crime- and drug-ridden. As we drove around the building and through the backstage alley, he pointed out the backstage door he used to use. I could tell these were bittersweet memories; the good times he had there, countered by the racism he would have to face off stage at hotels and restaurants to coming back 50 years later and reliving the fun times in his mind of this once thriving area, only to face the reality of the run down neighborhood and it’s decrepit landmark. While the neighborhood has new faces, there are still people who reside there from back in the day and would remember seeing Chuck Berry at the theatre across the street from their homes. I couldn’t help but wonder what they would have thought had they been able to see through my tinted windows on my car and seen their idol from their youth, fifty years later sitting in front of the Howard. (For more about the Howard Theater, see http://www.howardtheatre.org/home.html)
He continued to tell me more stories about playing in DC and some of the places where he performed. I drove him by these places as well. Then it was on to the hotel to get him some well-deserved rest before his early morning flight. I drove back to my home with my life that much more enriched from not only playing with him but from receiving an historical education from him as well.
- Daryl Davis
(Daryl Davis will be coming to my cold, gray neck of the woods in August to teach and play at the Centrum Blues workshops and festival in Port Townsend, Washington. Read about it here. Find his website here.