Thursday, December 1, 2011

Daryl Davis on Chuck Berry's Performance at The Chesapeake Bay Blues Festival

I'm re-running this one because of the great comment I just got, below, from a fan who stepped on his blue suede shoes during the show.  No warning required-- check out his reaction when she tracks him down to apologize!

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 clich√© 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.

Looking out from the stage was a sea of people and behind them was the beautiful Chesapeake Bay complete with passing boats. A performer could not have asked for a better setting. I returned to the dressing room and tuned Chuck’s guitar as well as my own which I brought for backup. When it was time, Chuck followed me to the stage and when the MC announced his name, thousands of people rose to their feet clapping and cheering to acknowledge the person who 50 some years ago created a whole new form of music. I handed him his guitar and took my place on the piano. He waved at the audience and then went into the familiar Chuck Berry guitar riff that starts "Roll Over Beethoven" and many other Chuck Berry songs. By the second song, the moist salty air blowing off the Chesapeake Bay had affected the tuning of his guitar. He switched to mine, but it too had been affected. A couple of stage hands were right on top of it and rescued each guitar and quickly re-tuned them.

This being a Blues festival, Chuck mixed in some Blues tunes with his Rock’n’Roll repertoire. He has a number of his own Blues compositions and one of my favorites which I immensely enjoy playing with him is Wee Wee Hours. But he did not pull that one out this particular evening.

There was a slight pause in the show when during one of the songs, Chuck asked a videographer to not videotape. The cameraman didn’t understand and Chuck came to me at the piano and asked me to take care of it. I called over one of the sound techs and informed him that Mr. Berry would not continue the show until the camera was turned off. The tech explained that the video was not being recorded it was simply being used for the closed circuit big screens so the audience far back would be able to see the performance on stage. I advised him to still have it cut off. He did and Chuck continued the show. About halfway into the performance, Chuck motioned to the cameraman who was standing in the wing, that it was now okay to continue filming. I don’t think he understood what Chuck was saying because he had a puzzled look upon his face and didn’t pick up the camera that was sitting at his feet.

Chuck is a master of pacing himself. This comes not just intuitively but through over 50 years of seasoned performance experience. He began to kick the show into high gear. More often than not, he will close his show with Reelin’ & Rockin’ by inviting women on stage to dance. This time, we had about 20 minutes left and he decided to invite the girls from the audience on stage during his performance of "Nadine." Ironically, the great Blues and R&B singer Nadine Rae who had performed earlier that day was backstage watching the show. She came out with some of the other women and shook her stuff to the delight of the audience. The party continued with "Johnny B. Goode" and "Reelin’ & Rockin’."   (read more about Nadine Rae on her website.)

As he will sometimes do when I play with him, Chuck came to the piano and handed me the guitar to play while he took over the roll of pianist. Many people may not know it, but Chuck can play piano. In fact, piano was his first instrument before switching to guitar. While one of his older sisters was being trained in Classical music on the piano, little Chuck taught himself to play some Boogie Woogie by ear.

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.

This guy had not been there in over 50 years but still knew the area and was telling me about what was on which corner and little tidbits of information. Sure enough, when we turned down the street, everything he had said was accurate. He pointed out the rooming house where he would stay because in those days, Blacks couldn’t stay in the White hotels. He had named a bar next door to the Howard where the entertainers would hang out. Sure enough, there it was. It had since changed names but it was still the same bar in the same building.

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

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.


Anonymous said...

I would love to meet Daryl Davis, he truly is "Amazing". Thank You Daryl for taking the time and sharing this great story with us. And Thanks so much Tulane for your CB Blog....
CB Forum Member ID- Busseybootlegger

Anonymous said...

I was one of the people dancing on stage--a moment I will never forget. After his performance I went over to Mr. Berry and gave him a kiss and stepped on his foot (by accident). I'll never forget his response "oh, my foot!" into the microphone. Later when he was leaving in the limo I followed him there and said, "Mr. Berry"--he was gracious enough to say, "yes, what is it?" and I told him I just wanted to apologize for stepping on his foot. He said "that's OK honey--, you just keep on rockin!" What a great memory! WISH I had pictures.

Peter said...

What a GREAT story! I'm moving this story up to the top so that people see it. BTW-- there was someone on Flicker who had LOTS of photos of the Chesapeake show. Good ones.

And PS-- Doug, above, got his wish when Daryl spoke in Iowa.