One of the amazing things about this blog is the generosity that I find myself benefitting from. I send e-mails to strangers and receive wonderful gifts of history and insight.
I only know Judith Feldworth and Karen Ross long distance, through very occasional e-mails, and from pictures taken by Chuck Berry fans when they attend shows at Blueberry Hill. Karen and Judy are nearly always there, right up front, in those special seats reserved for a few special fans.
But as I say-- something about Chuck Berry inspires incredible generosity. So when I wrote the two of them, asking them for one of our famous "Go Head On" "interviews," they both took time from busy days to give wonderful responses.
These are people with a personal connection to the man most of us admire from a distance. Enjoy.
You’ve been to more Blueberry Hill shows than anyone, I think. How many do you think you’ve seen? How did it start?
Judy: Karen has actually been to more shows than I have. She and I got to know each other as mutual friends of The Lettermen. We discovered we both shared a deep love of music since we were practically toddlers so here we are, years later, discovering new friends in music. Karen had been going to see Chuck in the Elvis Room at BBH for a year or so and asked me to go to a show when Chuck appeared in the new Duck Room. That was in April 1997. I work at Saint Louis University and, at that time, was editing a book for a professor whose wife taught music to the Berry children in grade school. After the show I introduced myself to Charles Berry, Jr., and asked if he remembered this teacher. He and his sisters adored her and asked me to bring her to a show. From that night on, Karen and I slowly came to know many of the Berry family members.
From April 1997, and for nine years thereafter, Karen and I attended the Blueberry Hill show every single month. We developed friendships with three others who also came and we formed a little group that met each month. Now we go every other month for economic reasons (and also Karen drives 130 miles round trip to see Chuck).
Karen: I started seeing Chuck at Blueberry Hill in the mid-90s when he performed down in the Elvis Room, and then in 1997 I started seeing him every month in the Duck Room with Judy. A few years ago we cut back to about every other month, because of the ticket cost and also the long drive for me, but we have never really counted how many times we’ve been there. One of my favorite things that happened was that we got to meet Lance Freed, son of Alan Freed and President of Rondor Music, at the show and he has become a friend of ours. Another memorable night was when Chuck played a song on the drums, probably something we will never see again!
Do you have any favorite memories from Blueberry Hill? How about guest artists?
Karen: I have so many memories that are special to me, but there were two guest artists that really impressed me:
First was Joe Perry of Aerosmith who came to Chuck’s 80th birthday and played a song with him on the stage. He sat only a few seats down from us and, as Chuck was performing, you could tell that Joe was in awe watching him. That was a very cool experience, and my daughter was thrilled to have Joe Perry sitting so close to us!!
Judy: Every time we go. Over the years, we have met people from all over the world. It is a pleasure watching people truly enjoy themselves, particularly when they see a show for the first time. A few special people who share our love for music have become close friends. And there are also times when we act as ambassadors to those visiting for the first time.Tell us about your regular life—where do you live? What do you do?
Karen: We have met people from all over the world at these shows. We’ve seen fans come all the way from Europe or Japan just to sit at Chuck Berry’s feet at that show and then fly home. We have a good friend, Mark Peterson from Maui, who comes here several times a year. We also keep in contact with several Chuck Berry fans from Germany and Sweden on a weekly basis. It’s wonderful how Chuck’s music has brought so many people together.
Karen: I live in a small town in IL about 60 miles from Blueberry Hill. I’ve spent most of my career working for the military at Scott AFB, IL, and retired about two years ago as a Software Test Manager. I’m much too busy to sit around though and am always doing something! At least now I can do whatever I want and that is a good feeling.When did you first start following Chuck Berry? What is it about him, or his music, that got you hooked?
Judy: I work at Saint Louis University. I copyedit books, edit manuscripts, learning to maintain our online websites, and work on special projects. I live in St. Louis, about eight blocks from where I work, which is very convenient.
Judy: I first became acquainted with his music when I was a very young child in grade school. And, in 1956, he and Elvis were THE music icons.I’m assuming you’ve met the man; what’s he like?
Chuck’s songs tell stories. He is a poet. The beat is fabulous. His music pattern is unique, unmistakeable. That is why he is such a huge influence on the performers who came after him.
Karen: I’ve always liked his music and went to Chuck’s 60th birthday taping of “Hail! Hail! Rock & Roll” at the Fox Theater in 1986. That was fun and quite an experience! After that I tried to see him whenever I could.
Karen: Chuck enjoys working in his yard, is very articulate, speaks several languages, is a good father, and comes from a really nice family.He sometimes has the reputation of being a grouch; but when I see him happily surrounded by his own family, his own musicians, and his fans, he seems like anything BUT a grouch.
Judy: Astute. Fun. Sharpwitted. On a personal level, if you have spoken with him, or read his books, you know he is an extremely intelligent man who expresses himself eloquently in speech, in his writing, and in his music. His mother was a teacher and she must have instilled in him a hunger for learning that I believe he has carried out throughout his life. Chuck is a Renaissance man who rocks! What is better than that?
Judy: He is fun and very nice. Yes, he can be moody at times, but usually there is a reason for that. I have found that, if you respect him and his word, he will respect you, in turn. Chuck has made mistakes in his life, just as we all have, and he has paid for them, in some instances, very, very dearly. Only he and his peers can tell you what it was like trying to survive through the many years of emotional pain and racial disparity. And that experience molds a man's character. You either fold up under the pressure or you forge on and surpass life's many difficulties.
I would like to see his body of work acknowledged much more than it has been. Musicians know. But he is truly underappreciated by the general public. There is only one Chuck Berry. And there will never be another like him again.
Karen: Things were really rough for a black man in the music business when he first started out, and he was treated very badly at times. He doesn’t trust people easily but, if you are fair and treat him with respect, he will do the same for you.Who are some other musicians that you follow?
Karen: I really enjoy music and travel to shows whenever I can so have gotten to know a few people in the music business - Marty Stuart, BJ Thomas, The Oak Ridge Boys, Trace Adkins, The Lettermen, The Diamonds, Paul Revere & The Raiders, Bill Medley, Wanda Jackson, and Marti Brom.(Editor’s note: These two women are clearly soul mates!)
Judy: In addition to Chuck, his son Charles and daughter Ingrid, The Lettermen, The Diamonds, BJ Thomas, Billy Joe Royal, the Oak Ridge Boys, Marty Stuart, Paul Revere and the Raiders, and Bill Medley are among those we have gotten to know, most of whom are very close friends.
I noticed on Facebook that both of you were pushing hard for one of the contestants on America’s Got Talent. Tell us about him, and tell us what happened.
Judy: Michael Grimm. Pure raw talent. If you put the collective "soul" displayed by his blues forefathers Elvis, Bill Medley, Michael Bolton, BJ Thomas, and Tom Jones together, you have the up and coming Michael Grimm. He tears it up. AND he can write. AND he plays a mean guitar. McKenna Medley and Bill Medley's band members know him well. He is sweet, honest, very humble. And, again, inordinately talented.I admit some self interest here: but what are some things people should do, see, eat or drink when they come to your fair city?
Karen: We have some mutual friends and feel like we already know this young man. Michael was raised by his grandparents in a very poor area of MS. He writes music, plays guitar, and has one of the best soulful voices that has come along in quite a while. Everyone speaks very highly of him, and his main goal in winning is to give his grandparents a better life. He has made it to one of the four final contestants now and next week the winner will be decided by votes from the viewers, so we are trying to support him as much as we can!
Karen: In addition to seeing Chuck Berry, I would say go to the Arch and the riverfront, and maybe the Brewery. Also go to the University City loop area and visit the Moonrise Hotel, shops, and see the street car. Have a hamburger or toasted ravioli at Blueberry Hill, and check out Vintage Vinyl and the Walk of Fame. Hope we get a chance to meet you!
Judy: Target the obvious places - the Arch, Forest Park Zoo and Art Museum - visit Laclede's Landing, the Central West End, and especially The University City Loop - where you will find the blues, all types of music at the Pageant and Blueberry Hill, the St. Louis Walk of Fame, vintage records, books, and great varieties of food in the many ethnic restaurants. And there are great blues bars, Brandt's, for one. And go to Blueberry Hill for the food, music, darts, and rock and roll memorabilia. And, of course, Chuck Berry!