Friday, July 30, 2010
Got a Chance-- Had to Take It! (A Super Fan Connects With Chuck Berry)
The guy in the blue shirt look pretty satisfied with life, doesn't he?
Well-- ever dream you could meet Chuck Berry? Maybe have dinner with him? Or just a chat?
Ever fantasize that you could play guitar with Chuck Berry? Not on stage-- just for fun? A little bit of blues?
Carmelo Genovese, an Italian author, journalist and musician has done all those things-- and has pictures to prove it. He sent some photos to me after reading something on this website-- and I had to learn more about them. Carmelo also sent an article he wrote describing Chuck Berry's performance at a private party at London's 100 Club. The best part: a rare, surprise appearance by Mr. Berry at the soundcheck, not unlike the one Daryl Davis described at B. B. King's .
In this interview he tells about a whole bunch of shows; about meeting Mr. Berry the first time through the driver's window of his rental car; about getting a volunteer position on one of Berry's European tours and about racing across Milan in a Lancia (Berry), a Ford Escort (Genovese), and an SUV (road raged Italian Flattop). He tells about how he got a last minute bear hug from his hero at the end of a long day; and he tells about taking the chance playing the blues with Chuck Berry backstage. Dang! Bravo, Carmelo!
But we started at the very beginning.
What is it about Chuck Berry’s music that got you “hooked?”
When I was a child I was always captivated by the boogie which I heard sometimes on tv. In fact I didn’t know yet it was named “boogie” but I surely recognized that walking bass and I loved it. In 1977, while in France for my summer holidays, I listened to my cousin Talì who played guitar and sang Johnny Halliday and Eddie Mitchell songs. So the first time I consciously listened to Chuck’s music was through the French versions of “Johnny B. Goode,” “Bye Bye Johnny,” “Carol” and “Promised Land.” When he saw how fascinated I was with rock and roll - I started to play guitar that summer just because I wanted to learn the intro of Johnny B. Goode - he gave me a 45 (the wonderful Arthur Smith’s “Guitar Boogie”) and a Chuck Berry double album (“La Terre Promise”) which, when I went back to Sanremo, became my greatest treasures. Almost all my friends were into progressive music – they were crazy for Genesis, Yes, ELP, Camel, Caravan - but I couldn’t stand those long long suites. The first record I bought was Jimi Hendrix’s Axis: Bold As Love (but I wasn’t prepared yet for it, so it remained on the shelf for a couple of years…) and Elvis’ Sun Sessions, which gave me the other main part of the rock and roll equation.
How many times have you met the man? Where? How?
In fact I’ve always been lucky: the first time I met Chuck was the first time that I went to see him live. It was the end of August, 1983, at Il Covo di Nord-Est-- a well known nightclub in Santa Margherita Ligure, near Genoa. I went there with my great friend Paolo “Beba” Bellucci and we had the chance to see Chuck when he arrived at the Club: he was parking a long green BMW 730 and we stood firmly at the side of his door with a notepad in hand for the autograph. He looked at us and with a sardonic smile he closed the dark window glass, remaining inside the car for few long seconds. We were thrilled and nervous. When he came out of the car he was kind and signed us an autograph. Later we had the chance to meet him at the bar and he was very kind. I told him I knew all his songs by heart and he asked me with a smile to show him how true this it was: I started to sing “Johnny B. Goode” (man, I must have been so boring…) and after the first verse he shook my hand vigorously with a big smile.
He played a great show (there were Jim Marsala, Ingrid Berry and also Billy Peek on guitar) which was later broadcast on national RAI television. Chuck argued with the promoter because it was not stated on the contract about the tv deal, so he probably asked for more money. That night, attending the show, there was the famous Italian journalist Gianni Minà and the singer songwriter Edoardo Bennato (who played and loved rock and roll ; here's a link) and who, at the time, was one of the best selling artists in Italy. He asked Chuck to sing “Nadine” and, after the show, I heard him telling his friends about it and he was so happy Chuck had sang it.
Then I saw him several more times - Rome (a great show in 1987 with Johnnie Johnson), Pistoia Blues (an unforgettable show with Buddy Guy & Junior Wells and Albert King on the same bill), Juan Les Pins, Salon En Provence – before meeting him again.
You’ve lived the dream! How on earth did you get into Chuck Berry’s dressing room and play guitar with him?!?! Tell us about the experience, and how it came to be.
It was February 1997, Chuck was due to come to Italy for a couple of shows (Milan and Campione d’Italia – which is a small town at the border with Switzerland) and I was lucky and smart enough to find me the chance to help the tour manager. The previous year I had become a pen-friend with Jean Pierre Ravelli (a real long-time friend of Chuck) and when I met Chuck at the Milano-Linate airport I told him about the “Ravelli Connection”: he suddenly treated me as the only one to trust in the promoter’s crew.
I spent two days with him and it was an incredible experience. At first, when the tour manager told him “we are expected to be at the sound check at 4.30 pm” he replied “this is not written in the contract.” After a few minutes he said that the car they provided him (a grey Lancia K) was not the Mercedes he expected to find and that he wanted that specific car “as stated in the contract.” (In Milano it’s difficult to find a Mercedes to rent because they usually only rent them with a driver). When he saw that it obviously was a difficult task, he asked if there was another airport in Milan (the Milano-Malpensa airport was 40 miles from there) and asked to go there to search for the car.
The tour manager was nervous because he still hoped to go for the sound check. Going to Malpensa airport and then back to central Milano to the hotel was really fun. I couldn’t believe it: I was driving with my Ford Escort and Chuck was following me driving the Lancia! During the trip he argued with a guy who was driving a big SUV and flashing his lights because he wanted to pass the Lancia: at one point Chuck gave him the impression to approach to the right leaving him the way on the fast lane but, suddenly, he cut across on the left blocking him from passing. The guy went mad and started hooting and screaming. Chuck accelerated and overtook me with the guy almost pushing him a foot from his bumper.
We were driving at more than 100 mph. I was very worried but, at the same time, so excited: it was like finding myself inside “Maybellene” or “You Can’t Catch Me.”
When we arrived at the hotel I met Jean Pierre Ravelli and his lovely wife who where just arrived from Paris. That night the first show was at the Palalido with the band Cherrie Pye as backup band. They were not “swing” enough (they played a robust 70’s rock-blues) and the show was really bad. After the end, Chuck understood people felt cheated, so he came back on stage for an encore and sat at the piano. He started to play but the sound man had already cut off the power…Chuck stayed at the piano for a long minute waiting but nothing happened so he gave up while people were booing to the organization.
After the dinner he called the young promoter in the dressing room and for around 10 minutes had a dispute over a few “business details” of their deal. It was very instructive to witness the way he was treating the deal.
I was in rock and roll heaven!
The show was better than the night before and the back up band did the best they could do to keep things going. Around 2 a.m. we were at the hotel, we shook hands and he went into the elevator to go to his room. But there was room for another surprise: when I said "goodbye," another time, waving my hand, he came out of the elevator, said “we say 'goodbye' the Russian way” (before coming to Milan he had just played in Moscow), and gave me a strong hug. I was really deeply touched and told him “Take care Chuck”. He replied “take care…man.” He didn’t recall my name but, at this point, this had really no meaning for me. The next day I wrote 16 pages, full of details and impression, which I carefully keep as a treasure of life.
After this time I met him again in Nice (1998 - La Grand Parade du Jazz), Montecarlo (2002 - at the Sporting), Bellinzona (2003 - Piazza in Blues), Milano (2005 - Teatro Smeraldo) and London (2008 - 100 Club). Every time we had the chance to go and say hello in the dressing room and one time we took a couple of really nice pictures.
In Milano (it was my birthday) I also spent all evening backstage and after the show I had dinner at the hotel with him and the band (CBII, Ingrid, James). What can I say? There are no words to describe how it has been to find myself living this experiences after 20 years in which I had played and listened to his music almost daily. I know I have been a really lucky guy and I will never thank Jean Pierre Ravelli enough for the way he helped me to fulfill this dream.
I see you went to Wentzville and Berry Park—tell us about that trip.
In 1996 I finally went to the USA. A coast to coast trip from L.A. and San Francisco to Texas, Louisiana, Tennessee, Missouri, and then to Philadelphia and New York. Elena and I went to Wentzville but there are no particular anecdotes to tell. We tried to go in, thinking that it was possible to visit, but they told people were not allowed to go in. We just took a picture in front of Berry Park.
How on earth did you get that pair of pants?!?!
Do you plan to make the trip to Senigallia to see him perform this summer?
I obviously would like it but I don’t know yet if I will be able to go.
Tell us about your book. Is it still in print?
At the end of the 90’s I started to write for some magazines and at one point they asked me to write a book about Chuck. I also have written books about New Orleans and Louisiana music, Elvis Presley, and the birth of rock and roll (LINK). They are out of print but you could still find them in various shops. Writing for Jam Magazine (http://www.jamonline.it/pages/) I also had the chance to interview Jerry Lee Lewis (phone call while he was in his Nesbit Ranch in Mississippi) and it was a really thrilling experience. Now I write a few articles and I have a lot of fun with my band (The Boogie Ramblers): we play a lot of Chuck Berry songs, you know….
And so they do... And be sure to hang on to the end to hear Carmelo absolutely nail the guitar solo!