Chuck Berry In Concert – 10/22/10 Strathmore Music Center Rockville, MD, by Daryl Davis.
The Strathmore is a top notch operation. The concert hall holds 1,976 and was sold out. People were starting to come in while the musicians were treated to a gourmet dinner in the Green Room. The entire staff from the sound crew, security, backstage attendants to the promoter, Ms. Brown and her assistant Georginia, were absolutely fabulous. The hall itself is a magnificent structure, acoustically designed to perfection and there’s not a bad seat in the house.
The idea for a Chuck Berry concert actually started almost two years ago. The new and beautiful Strathmore Music Center in Rockville , Maryland had not been open very long when almost 2 years ago they hosted my friend Jerry Lee Lewis in performance there. He was the second of the original wave of pioneering Rock’n’Rollers to play that venue. The late, great Bo Diddley was the first just a couple of years prior, shortly after the venue first opened. I had a night off from performing the night Jerry Lee was scheduled to perform and I made it a point to go by the Strathmore to see his show and visit with him. I had known Jerry Lee and all the guys in his band for many years. In fact, one night in Washington , DC , my own band, The Daryl Davis Band, had the pleasure of being Jerry Lee’s backup band for a show when he didn’t bring his band with him.
Jerry Lee’s band arrived at the Strathmore a short time ahead of their boss and proceeded to the stage to do the sound check. Jerry Lee himself, like Chuck Berry, rarely makes a sound check appearance. Much in the fashion that I or Jimmy Marsala, Chuck’s bass player will take a guitar and conduct the sound check, Jerry’s bandleader and primary guitarist, Kenny Lovelace usually sits at the piano and makes sure that the volume and tone is dialed in with the sound tech the way Jerry likes it. Since I was there before Kenny did this, he asked me to play a couple of numbers with the band for the sound check. So I got behind the grand piano and Kenny got on his guitar and the rest of the band took their places and we rocked!!!
When the sound check was over I was heading down the hall to Jerry’s dressing room when I ran into Shelley Brown who was responsible for booking Jerry into the Strathmore. Shelley had been a good friend of mine for many years and had booked me at the Strathmore Mansion as well as the Kennedy Center in Washington , DC . We chatted a bit and I said, “You should bring Chuck Berry here sometime.” She looked at me and said, “You’re absolutely right, I’ll do it, get me his booking contact info.”
Jerry Lee Lewis put on a great show that evening and the following day I gave Shelley the contact information for Chuck’s agent. A lot of performances at the Strathmore, get booked months and even a year in advance. But true to her word, as soon as she had an open date she contacted me in early 2010 and said, “Hey Daryl, I want to book Chuck Berry for October 22nd of this year and I want you and The Daryl Davis Band to open for him.”
I said, “Shelley, I’ve never opened for him. I usually play piano with him when he comes to this area.” She said yes she knew that, but wanted my band and me to open and back him up. I explained that in Chuck’s contract, it clearly states that the backing band cannot perform on stage before playing with Chuck Berry. She asked if I thought he might make an exception and I agreed to find out. Sometime before the date arrived and in time to advertise, I called Chuck on his cell phone and explained what I wanted. Shelley is a wonderful and generous supporter of my music and was very interested in providing me with maximum exposure by wanting to have my band perform before a huge audience. Chuck is equally a wonderful and kind friend who has provided me with numerous opportunities that have elevated my music status and helped me make a living as a musician. Chuck made an exception to his rule and allowed me the opportunity to have Shelley showcase my band and additionally play with him immediately following my own performance.
Now, let me digress for a moment. In 1976, I was a senior in high school in Rockville , MD. Every year, the last edition of the school newspaper is dedicated to the graduating seniors and the student staff will come around to each senior and ask, “What are your future plans when you graduate in two weeks?”
Some will respond that they will go to University of Maryland , major in chemistry and become a pharmacist, while others might answer, they will take liberal arts, take a semester off and take it easy before attending college, or some will opt not to go to college, but to work in their father’s plumbing company. When the paper was published, the entire senior class was listed alphabetically and by their names were written their responses to the status of their future plans. However, when someone was asked about what their future plans were and they responded, “Duh, I don’t know,” politely next to their name in the paper, was written the word, “Undecided.” The term, “Undecided,” was a polite code word, synonymous with the word, “Stupid.” In other words someone has gone to school for 12 years preparing for this time to graduate and hopefully have some inkling as to what they want to do with their future and if they have no clue, it is commonly thought that they are stupid. The “Undecideds” usually fit into this category and were most often the ones in my school who were always in trouble, in detention or suspended at one time or another for being lazy or doing something stupid.
A group of students from the school newspaper staff approached me and asked the aforementioned question, to which I responded, “I’m going to go to Howard University , major in music and play piano for Chuck Berry.” They went on down the hall laughing. A week later when the paper came out, next to my name was printed the word, “Undecided.” Despite the fact that I often got straight “A”s and was well respected academically, a lot of my fellow schoolmates thought I was a dreamer and a laughing stock when it came to my thinking that one day I would play piano for the legend, the man who invented the whole thing, the King, Chuck Berry. I graduated from high school a week later in June of 1976 and graduated from Howard University in May of 1980 with my Bachelor of Music Degree.
Fast forward to October 22nd, 2010. I am now 52 years of age and in addition to leading my own band, I have been playing many gigs with Chuck Berry for almost 30 years; my first gig with him was in 1981, a year after I graduated from Howard. So in essence, as of now, I’ve played with Chuck Berry for a little more than half my life!!! And I was called a dreamer? Hmm??? Well guess what? My dreams come true.
I headed over to the Strathmore that afternoon and made sure the Fender Dual Showman amps and speakers were placed on stage where Chuck likes them. The Strathmore is a top notch operation. The hall itself is a magnificent structure, acoustically designed to perfection and there’s not a bad seat in the house. All 1,976 seats for that evening’s concert with the creator of Rock’n’Roll were sold out. My band met me there and we conducted a sound check with me at the piano. Once that was done, I took my cherry red Gibson ES-335, which Chuck has played many times when he has broken a string on his, and plugged it into the amps that were rented for him. Then we proceeded to have the sound man set the sound for Chuck Berry while I played the guitar and sang some verses to some of his songs at the microphone he would use that evening.
A little while later Chuck’s bassist, Jimmy Marsala arrived and we exchanged jokes until dinner was ready. Jimmy is has vault full of funny jokes in his head and every time I see him, he has to unlock that vault for me. He is one of the few people I know who can a joke that I haven’t already heard.
In the lobby, throngs of people of all ages were milling about. A friend of mine named Michelle came with her 8-year-old son Daniel who was there to see Chuck Berry for the very first time. Ironically, Daniel and I have something in common. We both like Johnny B. Goode as our all-time favorite song. Michelle would later email me a cute video of Daniel at an open mic, playing guitar on Johnny B. Goode. The conversations of the waiting crowd went from, “This is my first time seeing him,” to, “The first time I saw Chuck was in 1956,” to “I saw him back in the ‘70s,” or “We saw him in the ‘80s and ‘90s,” to “I just saw him a few months ago at the Chesapeake Bay Blues Festival.” It was amazing to think about all those people who were so positively affected by his music over all those decades. My goodness, 1956, the ’70’s, 80’s, and ‘90s? Wasn’t that back in the 20th century? Talk about Back to the Future, this man, Chuck Berry and his music have transcended time!!!
When the doors to the main house opened, people started coming in and taking their seats in the audience while the musicians were treated to an excellent gourmet dinner in the Green Room. The entire staff, from the sound crew, security, backstage attendants to the promoter, Ms. Brown and her assistant Georginia, were absolutely fabulous.
It was soon time and my band and I waited in the wings of the stage until we were announced. As we walked out, we were greeted with cheers and applause. Having played and lived in this area for a number of years, I was no stranger to many in the sold out crowd. Ironically, a good number of my former high school classmates were there. Many of them contacted each other and came out in full force to support the now grown up kid some of them had called a dreamer so many years ago. Even though I’m originally from Chicago , I’ve been in the Maryland/DC area long enough to also call it home. It was great to know that so many of my hometown people and classmates were there to see Chuck Berry but to also support one of their own and I truly thank them for that.
We played a rockin’ 30-minute set with a Blues thrown in. Anyone who has ever played Rock’n’Roll has been influenced by and owes something to Chuck Berry. He must have taught me well, because the sold out crowd gave my band and me a standing ovation for the set we played.
Chuck arrived by limo and I escorted him to his dressing room. He looked great having turned 84 just 4 days prior to this concert. I sat in his dressing room with him marveling at his youthful spirit and remarkable agility for that age, hoping that I too will be that blessed when I reach that age. They say, “You don’t quit playing music because you grow old; you grow old because you quit playing music.” People like Chuck Berry and 97-year-old Pinetop Perkins have proven that!!!
Jimmy Marsala had already hooked up Chuck’s wireless guitar system earlier. When it was time to go, Jimmy flipped on the switch on the transmitter and he, my drummer and I took our respective places on stage. “Ladies and gentlemen, CHUCK BERRY!!!,” came a voice over the sound system. Then from the wings, but unseen by the audience came the familiar classic Chuck Berry guitar intro. He came strolling onto the stage playing the guitar just like ringin’ a bell. The audience once again leapt to its feet, screaming in glee and excitement as Chuck approached the microphone and started to sing something about wanting to write a letter to his local deejay about a rockin’ little record he wanted his jockey to play.
He continued playing hits from his catalogue of 278 songs. For most of the songs he would only sing a couple of verses, take a guitar solo, give me a solo, end it, or do another verse then end it. Occasionally, when he would cut a song short, he would tell the audience that he didn’t remember the words to the song and apologize. The audience was happy to see him regardless. They knew that he had nothing he had to prove. His legacy has and will always be, cast in stone. They knew they were not going to see Chuck Berry 1956. They were seeing Chuck Berry 2010, a living legend still does his best to please his fans. This was very evident when he did his duckwalk several times. I don’t know too many if any, people who would attempt this feat at the age of 84.
The master of pacing himself, Chuck interspersed his rockers with some Blues numbers including his own Wee Wee Hours, to give himself the opportunity to re-energize. He even pulled out For Sentimental Reasons, which was a hit by his idol, Nat King Cole. The audience was also treated to an original poem by Chuck. They sat in total awe as he vividly described the house he would build. All the amenities such as the fireplace, and his dog came to life has his words flowed effortlessly from his mouth. His oral descriptions were as detailed as a painting by Andrew Wyeth. His innovative guitar playing and fact that he had created a new genre had long ago established his musical genius. But it was moments like this that reminded people of his lyrical genius as well.
On his last number, Reelin’ & Rockin’, Chuck invited some girls from the audience to join us on stage and dance. Out of crowd of girls up there dancing, almost half were my former high school classmates!!! If I had known back then that some of them could shake it like that back in high school, hmm…….. Let’s not go there, I’m married now and so are they!!!. The show ended the same way it started, with a standing ovation and 1,976 screaming fans.
Back in Chuck’s dressing room, I invited him and Jimmy to come over to my house for some more dinner. They agreed. I dismissed his limo driver and told him that I would get Chuck back to the hotel. I drove Chuck and Jimmy to my house where my wife and secretary prepared the food. We made some doggy bags and I took them back to the hotel. The next morning, I picked them up and drove them to the airport. Within hours of their landing in St. Louis, they would be driving to a nearby casino to perform that evening with Chuck’s home based band consisting of my friend and excellent pianist Bob Lohr, Keith Robinson on drums, Chuck’s son Charles Berry, Jr. on guitar. Yes indeed, a [rock’n’] rolling stone gathers no moss. Long live Rock’n’Roll, the spirit is there body and soul!!!!