Monday, May 30, 2011

If You Had to Give St. Louis Another Name You Might Want to Call it Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry Prior to a Show for and by
Inmates at Lompoc 
I was surprised to read there was some controversy in the St. Louis area about putting up a statue of Chuck Berry.  That's crazy.  I only hope the “controversy” is as ineffective as it is silly and misguided.  (You can read the story here.)

When my brother Stevo first told me about Chuck Berry, one of the things he told me was that Chuck Berry had been to prison.  At the time the jail sentences probably enhanced his reputation.    We knew that good people went to jail all the time: civil rights workers went to jail, war protesters went to jail, and people went to jail for silly things like smoking pot.  There was a certain cache to doing time.  And in Chuck Berry's case there was always an understanding that his adult crime-- the conviction under The Mann Act-- was probably a bum rap.  (I'm using all the lingo of the time.)  It added something to the power of his performance-- him up there joking and carrying on and entertaining us after he’d been wrongly prosecuted three times on a bogus charge. 

In his Autobiography he calls it his “naughty-naughties.”  He admits that every 15 or 17 years he gets in trouble.  Once, on Johnny Carson, he accurately predicted it was time for another fall, and then almost fell.  

The only one of his legal problems that ever made me squirm was the the last one-- one that may or may not have had a basis in fact-- a sad story about cameras hidden in the women’s room of the restaurant he once owned.  Who knows if it was actually true?  The charge was brought by former employees who seemed bent on some sort of revenge.  There was a civil suit, but no criminal charges.  The authorities invaded his place in Wentzville looking for other stuff the claimants said would be there and found nothing.  So about the video equipment, who knows?  

If the story is true, it makes me squirm.  First, it’s just embarrassing.  But I remember reading as a teenager a quote from Chuck Berry himself saying that the key is not to infringe on other people.  He used Berry Park as an example.  He said something like “If you are alone in Berry Park, you can do whatever you like.  But if there are other people there, you have to be careful not to infringe on them  The key is not to infringe on others.”  As simple philosophy, I liked that.  “Thou shalt not infringe on others.”  It’s a good start.

But after reasonably careful study (two biographies, and a bit of noodling on the internet) I don’t know what to make of the allegation about cameras in the bathrooms, except that it was never proven, even in court.  (As a lawyer, I say “even in court” with some authority.  Lots of things are “proven” in court that are not necessarily true.  Take Chuck Berry’s conviction under the Mann Act, for example.) People say lots of stuff.  People settle cases for lots of reasons.  So who knows?  

Chuck Berry and his buddies did commit an armed robbery and highjack spree in Kansas City at age 18.  That was pretty bad.  But I know lots of 16-25 year olds who have made mistakes.  (I probably committed a few felonies of my own at that age, and certainly committed some misdemeanors, but they were victimless crimes!)  Chuck Berry admits to the robberies in his Autobiography and tells all about it.  He was stupid, got caught, and he did the time.  If he got out of prison and kept robbing people I’d feel different about him.  But he didn’t and I don't.  

Another crime he admits to in his book is tax evasion.  I know that I benefitted directly from that because I saw Chuck Berry close two great Richard Nader Rock and Roll Revival shows.  I would be willing to bet half of the United States, and virtually every corporation and CEO, is guilty of some measure of of tax evasion.  When Ronald Reagan ran for office one time there was a story that as a rich private citizen he paid something like $604 on hundreds of thousands of dollars in income.  It probably wasn’t a crime, but it was tax evasion.  General Electric had $14 billion in profits last year and paid no taxes.  Did GE’s accountants and CEO go to jail?  No.  GE got a refund, and its CEO got a job at the White House.  Chuck Berry paid the taxes and served his time.  

One thing I admire about Chuck Berry is the way he served time.  He didn’t waste it.  At Lompoc he wrote his Autobiography.  In Missouri, after being convicted under the Mann Act, he studied business and typing, and wrote songs like “Nadine” and “Promised Land."  He must have practiced on the guitar, too; he put on a dynamite show about three weeks after his release that, lucky for us, was recorded.

That Mann Act conviction is the one that sticks in the craw.  It never sounded legitimate.  The first judge was so racist that a reluctant Missouri Supreme Court had to throw out the conviction.  They got him the second time.  

The real purpose of that arrest and conviction was to crush a bright and rising career and put a handsome, Cadillac driving black man down.  He was arrested on charges of good employment.  

It didn’t work.  More than half a century later he’s still going, still giving St. Louis and Missouri a big reason to be proud.

A statue is a start.  Someday they'll figure that out. 

If you want to read fair summaries of all these legal proceedings try Bruce Pegg's Brown Eyed Handsome Man.  Pegg seems fair and balanced and thorough.  In the meantime, thank you to all the folks who got the statue project started, and have carried it through to completion.  As for the naysayers, lighten up a little.  Play a Chuck Berry song.  And go down to the unveiling.  You might enjoy it.  

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Floats Like a Butterfly, Rings Like a Bell

I was out jogging this morning with my i-pod and heard, in quick succession, a very nice version of a Chuck Berry song by his friend Billy Peek, and then "Too Much Monkey Business" by the man himself.  Peek's version (I'm afraid that I forget which song it was) was well done with a solid sort of rock/country feel, and fitting enough for a man who grew up singing country songs in a honky tonk and then found his hero Chuck.  Chuck Berry himself adapted over time.  Compare the heavy sound of the studio songs from the Chuck Berry London Sessions or the laid back sound of the Elephant's Memory songs from Bio with the skipping, ringing, swinging, light sound of the original "Too Much Monkey Business."  Chuck Berry songs swing.  Rhythmically they have more in common with Charlie Parker than much of the rock and roll that followed.  (I often think rock and roll lost the back beat.)  In "Too Much Monkey Business" (and most of the earliest songs) there's none of the chugga-chugga boogie rhythm guitar that later became his trademark.  In "Too Much Monkey Business" he's strumming.  The chords are simple, but the sound is light and almost jazzy. When he plays lead it literally rings (the opening notes sound like a hand bell the nuns at our school would ring to end recess) and his solo skips lightly like a rock across water.  I saw a kid on "So You Think You Can Dance" doing a sort of hip hop dance from Oakland California.  One of the elements of the style is to glide across rough ground like a dancer on ice.  That's the sound of Chuck Berry.  Kids could dance then.  They could twirl their partners.  Chuck himself could do impossible things while playing-- the duck walk and the scoot.  It was all impossibly light, effortless, rhythmic, like Muhammed Ali skipping backward and sideways while pummeling the competition, making it look easy.  And as with Ali, there was a sting included.  The fed up cat at the filling station.  The 29 or 30 year old rock and roller telling Tchaikovsky the news.  "You can't catch me," he said.  And he knew it was true.

Friday, May 27, 2011

New Video: Chuck Berry at Blueberry Hill 10-20-2010

Suddenly, from nowhere, fuzzy video from the October 20, 2010 performance at Blueberry Hill.  And I was there!

Four nights prior Chuck and crew had played at The Pageant.  THAT show had been sublime with Chuck just feeling it.  He played almost every note perfectly and with great flair.  Here's my review of that spectacular show at The Pageant.

At Blueberry Hill it was rougher, especially during the slow blues "Rock Me Baby" that led to Chuck using the Stratocaster.  The tuning of his big Gibson got totally out of whack for that one song, and you can see him begin to tweak the Strat on this one.  I wrote two pieces about it-- a review HERE and post of pictures HERE.But hey-- it was a fun show, as you can see from these videos!

I love this quiet version of "School Day," a song he strips to the bone.

(When he mentions the Cubs he was pointing to this guy!)

According to my original, flawed notes, (typed in exhaustion after the show that night) the next song he played was "Sweet Little Sixteen," and our beloved videographer caught it.

What my flawed notes don't reflect is that he played "You never Can Tell" when he had the Stratocaster.  I do remember him beginning to tune that guitar, and the meaningful look he got from CBII.  He laughed, stopped tuning, and, with a cue from Ingrid, started singing one of my favorites.

Towards the end he played a song I hadn't heard in my previous two Chuck Berry shows: Johnny B. Goode.

I shouldn't reveal that someone was kind enough to send me a long tape of last number-- "Reelin' and Rockin" and "House Lights."  It's too long to post, and I don't know how to use YouTube.   But I'm really pleased to have these clips-- rougher than at The Pageant, but rough in a beautiful way.

One of the pleasures of the evening was meeting Chuck's friends Karen and Judy for dinner and the show.  Karen and Judy did something special that night, presenting Chuck with a painting of himself by artist Brian Tones.  Read about that (and see the painting) HERE.   Hail! Hail!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Man Worked (Still Does)

When I was lucky enough to meet Chuck Berry for a moment or two he mentioned a job he had as a child in a location directly below The Pageant Theater.  I also read somewhere that before the three night, two city tour that led to his collapse from exhaustion last January he spent a morning pushing a wheelbarrow at Berry Park.  The man worked, and still does.  I've often felt that his 60 year record of professional performances, from 1952 until present, (I leave out the semi-pro stuff he did earlier,) is one of his most outstanding legacies.  He went out night after night, to clubs, stadiums, bars, barns, fairs, fraternities, colleges, casinos, theaters, gyms, television studios, movie studios, festivals—wherever they booked him.  He demanded cash, an amplifier, and a band, and he supplied the rest—in big towns, small towns, in auditoriums all over the world.  One day, thinking about that, it occurred to me that a great tribute might be a list of those performances, etched in stone—a wall where people could come and find the show they saw, and where non-believers could perhaps be moved by the sheer magnitude of the endeavor—thousands of one nighters, spanning more than half a century, in towns and cities across the United States, the Americas, Europe, Asia and beyond.  As a lifetime’s work, even absent the song writing and recording, the carpentry, the family, the property management, it is phenomenal.  The man worked, and still does. 

(And I think he plays tomorrow night at Blueberry Hill!)

Monday, May 23, 2011

Someone Who's Lived It and Seen It (Visionary)

This is such a great, powerful shot that I couldn't help stealing it from Ian's Facebook site.  I don't know who took it, but whoever you are, you obviously got his full attention and his trust.

Lost Posts, Returned

Photo by Alan White (See "Particular Places to Go," Right.)
So who is he really?

On the one hand, he wrote a 300 page book. It’s relatively straight forward. He tells about his childhood, his career, his imprisonments, highlights of his romantic life, a few of his opinions about celebrity. It’s a lot.

And despite protests to the contrary he has given hundreds of interviews over his career, and most are still there. There are long ones in Rolling Stone, and short ones on television.

We know that he is proud of his diction, fond of his family, funny, speaks in a flowery sort of language, is sometimes quick to anger, and is patient with the same old questions over and over.

What I think I like about him is that he is grounded in family, property and place. He knows who he is. He has remained who he is.

On stage, performers like Keith Richards want him to rehearse, to follow a script, to play the same song exactly the same way (while other critics complain that that’s exactly what he’s done on his records). But he wings it every time, recreates it every time, for better or for worse, depending on the quality of the band, his mood, and his fingers or hearing on a particular night.

At home he has property—who knows how much? He bought a simple piece of land in Wentzville with his first earnings and has stayed there. He owns other homes and properties. It’s something tangible, that can’t be taken away.

He mows his own property, at age 84. Imagine driving down Buckner Road and seeing him bumping along on his tractor. Presumably you can.

He has been known to make crop circles.

He wrote some of the wittiest, most intelligent song lyrics known to man and sold them to an unsuspecting world. They are now perceived as words for white kids, but they originally rose highest on the rhythm and blues charts.

He is often credited with inventing rock and roll guitar, and making guitar the lead instrument and symbol of the genre.

He is a great showman, dancer, and clown.

He is often portrayed as a money grubber, someone in it only for the dough—and true, he admits that he wrote his songs commercially, and played music because it paid more than painting, or construction, or hairdressing. Its true, too, that he insists on being paid to perform—paid in advance. It’s true that he fought and fights for his rights as an artist, and by doing so taught others to do the same.

Also true that he performs each month for 350 people at a St. Louis bar/restaurant and that the tickets are cheap and that he can’t be earning much at those shows or doing it for any reason but a little spending money and love.

I don’t know who he really is.

What I know is that he has remained absolutely true.

For me, 99 % of the time, he lives only in my imagination. But even there he is solid.

He could have put on the cape and glitter, but he didn’t.

He could have hidden behind a big band and a choir of backup singers, but he didn’t.

He could have surrounded himself with management, hangers on, body guards and such, but he didn’t.

He could have tried to “update” his sound, but except for a one disk flirtation with the wah-wah and a 20 minute monstrosity that I think was supposed to be psychedelic, he didn’t.

He could have moved to Vegas or Branson, but he didn’t.

He could have quit, but he didn’t.

Instead, at 84, he gets out there, in better shape than his (somewhat) younger audience, and he mesmerizes. And sometimes he absolutely nails it.

Who is he really?

In some ways I have no idea.

But like so many of you, I love him.

Thank you, Chuck Berry.

(What you are, really, is a national, world, treasure.)

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Sad Stuff About Bo

I don't know what caused me to google news about Bo Diddley.  Never did it before.  And sad about what I found-- legal scuffling over his legacy.

Ah well-- his real legacy is the music.  But it shouldn't have had to come down to this.

Read more Here and Here.  Some of the notes and comments are more interesting than the stories.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Blogspot Took My Song!

A song I wrote when I was 18 or 19 and recorded a week or two ago.  It's one of the things blogspot took away.  They said they'd put it back, but they didn't, so I'm putting it back.  It has nothing to do with Chuck Berry, but I like this song.  Pretty smart kid for a kid.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Bypassed Rock Hill

I always figured the song "Promised Land" made more than passing reference to the civil rights struggle.  Here's a great article quoting Howard DeWitt and making the same case.  Remember that the Greyhound bypasses Rock Hill.  Here's a bit of history I didn't know (but that Chuck knew) about the first Freedom Ride.

In 1961 a group of seven black and six white people, including John Lewis, left Washington, D.C. for New Orleans on two buses, a Trailways bus and a Greyhound bus. The group made it through Virginia and North Carolina without incident.

At the Greyhound bus station in Rock Hill, South Carolina, the group encountered violence. A mob of twenty attacked the group, and John Lewis was the first to be hit as he approached the white waiting room. 
Read more about it HERE.

Sunday, May 15, 2011


I threatened to shut down the blog a week or so ago-- then Blogspot shut itself down and stole my most recent posts.  Gone my song.  Gone my farewell.  So maybe it's fate.  I'll leave it up for a while, and try not to think too much about it.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Ah-rested on Charges of Stealing Intros

I didn't know this Dwayne Eddy song until tonight, when I heard "The Quarrymen" do it in a corny John Lennon biopic.  The beginning sounds like a modified intro to Chuck's "Brown Eyed Handsome Man."

(Here's Chuck.)

And here are the Beach Boys, who ripped off both, modifying the stolen intro and tacking it to the stolen melody of "Sweet Little Sixteen!"

But lest we get too self righteous, let us remember what came before Chuck, Dwayne or Brian.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

HIgh Water Everywhere

Chuck Berry and T-Bone Walker inherited a lot of their showmanship from early blues artists like Charlie Patton, famous for spinning his guitar mid song.  And, of course, Wentzville is right up highway 61 from Clarksdale, so the Mississippi is a big part of Chuck Berry's music.  Here's Patton.

Someone kindly put my favorite Chuck Berry Mississippi River song on YouTube.  Here's "Oh Louisiana."  (Slow start, but good sound.)

Monday, May 9, 2011

Put Up the Dang Signs!

The mayor of St. Louis, Francis Slay, has evidently vetoed a plan to honor Chuck Berry and other St. Louis luminaries with street names.  Read about it here.  Evidently the signs would cost a whopping $3000.  I don't know who else was to be honored, except Nelly, but if they can't start honoring Chuck Berry in that town, what's the point of having a town?

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Classic Wax-- a blog.

I've only skimmed it, but you might enjoy this interesting looking blog about LP records.  It starts, interestingly, with Chuck's "Bio" LP.  The covers alone (including a Colonel Sanders Christmas Album) make it worth scrolling through.

More Newport

Dietmar tried to post this as a comment, but it didn't work-- so HERE is how the big spenders can order their own copy of the Newport Jazz Festival performances that didn't make the film.  (I might have to be a big spender myself!)

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Johnny B. Questionable

But use the phony drums in your computer and at least the beat works better!  The bass, guitars, "piano" and singing can't be helped.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Amazing Daryl Davis, Volume One!

(Here's an oldie, but a goodie that's worth repeating.  Daryl contributed enough for two other segments that you can find by searching.)  Late last year my brother in New York thought he might go to B. B. King’s to see Chuck Berry on New Year’s Eve. I posted a query on to see if Mr. Berry’s St. Louis band would accompany him. CBII responded that only Jimmy Marsala would go, and that “the Amazing Daryl Davis” would be on keyboards.

That night I looked up Daryl Davis on the internet and youtube, and there he was, playing boogie woogie and rock and roll and teaching a little musical history on the sly.  (Check it out HERE.)

Well, I’ve had good luck so far with Chuck Berry’s keyboardists. First Bob Lohr gave a dynamite interview. Then Bob Baldori did the same.

So I wrote a few questions for Daryl Davis.

And you thought piano playing lawyers could expound!  This is only Volume One!

You backed up Chuck Berry at B. B. King’s on New Year’s Eve. I’ve seen video clips of the performance, and he seemed to be in great form. Can you tell us about the show?

Chuck is in GREAT form. He is 83 years of age and doing things of which most people that age only have distant memories. Getting older is inevitable. It is not a choice, unless of course you choose the alternative. However, maintaining your physical fitness is a choice and one that Chuck Berry has always wisely made. Thus, his ability to look and prance around like he was a couple of decades younger. He eats right, doesn’t drink, gave up cigarettes and never did drugs. He is the antithesis of the lifestyle most often associated with the genre of music he created. For the longest time, up until recent years, people would remark on how decades later, Dick Clark still looked about as young as he did on American Bandstand. Chuck’s got him beat by decades!!!

I reside in Silver Spring, MD, just 15 minutes from our nation’s capital, Washington, DC. Normally, I’ll drive up to New York to play with my band, The Daryl Davis Band or Chuck Berry, or another artist. But I figured it would be too crazy to try to drive in Manhattan, let alone Times Square on NYE. Knowing that equipment was being supplied by the club, I didn’t have to bring a keyboard and my drummer Adolph Wright, didn’t have to bring drums. So we rode the train up to NYC. Chuck’s regular bass player, the great Jimmy Marsala, was coming with Chuck, so my bass player stayed behind this time. We got off at Penn Station and walked a few blocks to B.B. King’s. You could feel the energy all through the air as people were hustling to Times Square to stake out their spots to watch the ball drop.

We got to the club about a half hour ahead of our scheduled sound check. Chuck was not there yet and I didn’t expect him to be. Usually, when my drummer and bassist are on the gig, we take care of sound checking for him and making sure his Fender Dual Showman amps and speakers are correctly placed on the stage and all the dials are set to where he likes them. Then I’ll check his microphone and monitor levels and run a few songs. If his bass player Jimmy is on the gig, he takes care of all that.

When the sound crew was ready for my drummer and me, I sat down at the piano and played Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie, then went into the Blues song After Hours while they adjusted the monitor and house speaker levels. When I finished, I heard one of the sound crew people behind me applauding my playing. I turned around to thank him, only to see that it was Chuck Berry clapping his hands for me. We both started laughing and greeted each other. I had spoken with Chuck on the phone a couple of days prior and played with him a couple of months back when his St. Louis based pianist Bob Lohr was kind enough to let me sit in and play some piano with Chuck when I dropped in on their gig Blueberry Hill in St. Louis back in October.

Jimmy tuned up Chuck’s guitar and Chuck actually strapped it on and did the sound check with us. That’s a rarity!!!. But that’s also one of the many things I love about Chuck Berry. He has his routines but, don’t ever try to predict him. That’s when he’ll do the unexpected. Always expect the unexpected, and I mean that in a good way. He likes to be spontaneous and try different things on the fly. He will definitely improve your musicianship. I love it, I love it, I love it!!!! He asked me if I knew the melody to Auld Lang Syne. I said I did. He chose a key and we rehearsed it.

When the sound check was over I went outside to people-watch for a little while. When I came back in, Chuck was sitting on my seat on stage, playing the keyboard. For those of you who don’t know, Chuck Berry can Boogie Woogie on the piano. After all, Boogie Woogie is what influenced him to create Rock’n’Roll. I bent over beside him and took over the left hand while he soloed with his right hand. The doors to the club were about to open to let the public in, so we ended our duet and retreated back to the dressing room.

We were scheduled to perform two shows; 8:00 p.m. and 11:15 p.m. A few minutes before show time, I peeped out from behind the curtain that shields the audience from the backstage area. The place was packed and the people were ready to party and there was a strong vibrant energy in the air.

Moments later, Jimmy, Adolph and I, took our respective places on stage. From the sound booth about halfway back in the audience, the sound man made some general announcements and when he saw that we were ready and his voice filled the air, “Ladies and gentlemen, CHUCK BERRY!!!”

The crowd roared and hidden in the wings unseen by the audience the guitar resonated that familiar intro just like ringin’ a bell, “Bah doo dah, dee, dee, dee, dee, dee,……..” Chuck teased the audience by continuing to play for about 4 bars before emerging onto the stage and into the audience’s sight. When he appeared, the decibels of the roar rose as did many of the crowd who stood up and cheered as he continued the most famous guitar riff in the world. They were all his. All his children, Black, White and everything else, all ages who grew up listening to his music or came to know it through their parents or grandparents. The spell had been cast and he had them in the palm of his hand.

Chuck has an uncanny ability that comes with years of experience in the art of pacing himself. He would mix some Blues songs and slower numbers in between some of the uptempo rockers so that no matter how many fast songs he played, he could still burn a solo without it sounding tired or lackluster. The audience would call out Chuck Berry song titles and he would accommodate them.

Time flies when you’re having fun. It seemed like we had just started because the excited roar of the crowd never wore down, but it was an hour later and time to close that show. Even though I’ve played countless dates with the man for almost 30 years, I could still feel the energy he generated, vibrating inside me as I walked off the stage wondering, “How does this 83-year-old man do this? I’m 51 now. Will I be able to do this when I’m 83?”

Two hours and 15 minutes later it was time for the next show. I once again peeped out from behind the curtain at the audience. Even though they had turned the house and it was a whole new audience, it was like déjà vu. The house was packed and the people were ready. That strong vibrant energy was abound. The energy level was cranked up a bit because we were now 45 minutes away from 2010!!! Again we all took our places on stage and Chuck began the show once again from the wings, driving the crowd into a frenzy with that guitar riff that says, “This is Rock’n’Roll!!!” With the energy he put out, no one would have known he had already played a one-hour high energy show two hours prior. I’m still trying to figure that one out. The only answer I can come up with is that it’s all in how he paces himself and takes good care of his health.

Chuck’s spontaneity usually displays itself in his choice of songs. He doesn’t use a set list. He just plays whatever song he decides on the spot to play when he finishes the one he’s playing. During this particular set, Chuck’s spontaneity displayed itself in his choice of instruments. During one of his songs, he walked over to me and motioned, “Let’s switch instruments.” I stood up and took his guitar and began playing Chuck Berry licks. He sat at the keyboard and played it. The crowd loved it.

Then, like the first show, it didn’t seem like any time had passed at all, but we were doing the countdown. At the precise moment, Chuck looked at me and we went into Auld Lang Syne. We closed this show as we did with the first, by having women come on stage to dance. Chuck jammed on an extended version of Reelin’ & Rockin’, trading fours with me and then Adolph. He exited the stage the same way he appeared, playing the guitar as he went out of view of the audience. He soloed for a few verses backstage while we accompanied him and about 30 girls danced on stage. Then he ended the song and 2010 was ready to begin.

I hung out with Chuck and Jimmy for while before he departed to his hotel. We wished each other a Happy New Year and Adolph and I walked those few blocks, making our way through all the drunks on the street, back to Penn Station to catch the train home in the wee wee hours.

None of the original Rock’n’Rollers still living, had played this New Year’s Eve except for Chuck Berry. Fats Domino, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, did not perform anywhere this New Year’s Eve. On the train ride home, it hit me, “I just played the last real original Rock’n’Roll concert of 2009!!!!”

I was pleased to see him play “Brown Eyed Handsome Man.” I don’t think I’ve ever seen him play that song. Does he ever pull out some of the less common songs when you’re with him? Ballads, or newer material?

Actually, I’ve played Brown-Eyed Handsome Man with him a lot of times over the years. He may not do it every gig, but it hasn’t been all that rare when I’m on the gig. One song that he did the other night on New Year’s Eve that I’ve only played maybe 2 or 3 times with him was No Particular Place To Go. A lady in the audience shouted it out and boom, he went right into it.

Two other songs he didn’t do the other night and he rarely does in my experiences are Back In The USA and Too Much Monkey Business, but I have played them on a couple of occasions with him.

Every so often, he will pull out songs with me that he doesn’t normally do. When he is comfortable with his backing musicians knowing they can follow, he is at ease to stretch out from the stock of I-IV-V 12-bar songs, once he’s given the audience what they’ve come to hear.

I read that you began playing piano at age 17. How long after that did you do your first job backing up Chuck Berry?
Yes, I started out a little late. They say 17 is rather old to be starting out in music. So I had to learn to play fast. That’s why I play Boogie Woogie. It’s fast.

I graduated from high school the next year in 1976 at age 18 and graduated from Howard University with my degree in music 4 years later at age 22. My first gig with Chuck was the following year in 1981.

First of all, how is that even possible?!?! And what was it like for you?

I knew that Chuck relied on the promoters of his shows to supply him with a backup band. I had seen Chuck perform a number of times before I ever played with him. In fact, I’d seen him perform before I could even play myself. I studied him religiously, not just on record but also on stage. I was well aware that he did not always play his classic Chuck Berry songs “just like the record.” He liked the freedom to play them like the record or to deviate and improvise upon them, and he should have that right. After all, he wrote them.

The mistake that many of the backup bands make who I’ve seen work with him, is that they have only studied his Greatest Hits records and expect him to play it “just like the record.” Boy, are they in for a surprise!!!

What gives musicians like Jimmy Marsala, Bob Lohr, Bob Baldori and myself the advantage, is our understanding of Chuck’s need to not be restricted to conforming to playing something the same way he played it back in the 1950s. Chuck Berry will improve your musicianship 100% if you take the time to understand that Rock’n’Roll is no different than Jazz or Blues in the sense that it is a spontaneous feeling upon which one may improvise and interpret differently each time the same song is performed, unlike Beethoven’s Fur Elise, which is restricted to only Beethoven’s interpretation and any improvisation is strictly forbidden.

Use the Chuck Berry records as a basic template to understand the song progressions and Johnnie Johnson’s phenomenal piano lacings in and around Chuck’s vocals and guitar riffs. Watch the live shows to know that he doesn’t like a walking bass line on most of his songs. He prefers only the root note of each chord played in a specific rhythm on the bass. His cues are made with his legs. When he raises his leg and kicks it down to the floor, if you are playing, then stop. If you’re not, then start. Certain things he does in the way he holds the guitar, indicate that he wants you to solo on your instrument. These and other little things are all things you can’t get off a record or CD or out of a book. It comes with experience and the ability to tune into the psyche of the artist whom you are backing.

I love working with Chuck Berry. He’s one of my all time favorites. He’s my idol, my mentor and my friend. Johnny B. Goode is my all time favorite song and to play it on stage with the man who wrote it, is a euphoric feeling that cannot be put into words.

Funny story. When I was a little kid, my favorite song was Memphis, by Johnny Rivers. I heard it when it first came out and loved it. It was always being played on the radio by Johnny Rivers. Later, I discovered Chuck Berry when I saw him on TV. I had heard his music on the radio before but never retained his name before seeing him. He became my favorite performing artist. So my favorite song was by a guy named Johnny Rivers and my favorite artist was this guy named Chuck Berry. I was blown away when I found out shortly thereafter that my favorite artist was the one who actually wrote and first recorded my favorite song. Last year I played with Chuck Berry out on Long Island, NY and guess who the opening act was? Johnny Rivers!!!