I once saw him arrive at a performance in bad humor. For 20 minutes his performance was cranky and lackluster, but at a certain point professional responsibility kicked in and he got it going, like a master puppeteer, manipulating wires to make his audience laugh and dance and clap for more. It was both kill and charisma at that point—a showman’s knowledge of how to please all of the people some of the time.
I was lucky to see him with good bands. At Lake Tahoe, and later at Monterey, he played for hours—and the shorter shows that were part of the Richard Nader Rock & Roll Revivals were concentrated frenzy. (He’d catch his breath with a blues, or a novelty song.)
Once I got to know his act I watched with a certain tension. There was ritual to it—the big eyes and fish-like mouth he made while he slowly strummed a chord; the way he “began” a show four or five songs into the performance; the response to “My Ding-a-Ling,” shy at first, and then roaring; the hilarious obscenity of “Reelin’ and Rockin’;” the bad French of “Goodnight Sweetheart” as he began to close; the frantic, climactic “Johnny B. Goode;” the way he backed off stage, bowing, holding his guitar like an icon while the band rumbled on; his quick disappearance. I focused my attention on him but watched his effect on the crowd from the corner of my eye. I wasn’t concerned that I would enjoy the show. I would. I did. But I wanted the rest of the crowd to enjoy it, and was never disappointed.
Some 1970s performances are still available. The film Let the Good Times Roll (lost commercially to contract disputes but available if you look) contains footage of Chuck Berry performing as part of a 1972 Richard Nader Rock & Roll Revival—the same basic show I saw twice at the Memorial Auditorium. I remember taking my mother to the movie. “I get it now,” she told me, after the opening number, “School Day.” The best moment in the film is one Berry shares with his buddy Bo Diddley at the finale. Chuck starts a familiar riff, Bo adds an unexpected bit of punctuation, and the two guitars merge into one just as Bo begins a split and Chuck launches his scoot. It is perfect rock, roll and rhythm, perfect timing, perfect comedy, and pure stage magic. I also loved a scene of Berry in his beloved Park, rubbing his hand across the crumbling paint of his old tour bus and reminiscing about days on the road with Johnnie Johnson and Ebby Hardy. That bus, purchased in San Jose, may have made it to my hometown of Sacramento and the Memorial Auditorium in 1957. He played there the day after San Jose.
There are other performances that remind me of the Chuck Berry I saw in Sacramento, Lake Tahoe and Monterey— clips available occasionally on YouTube of concert performances before hordes of long-haired teenagers. I was one of those kids, manipulated by that man running wide-eyed back and forth across the stage, making us jump and sing, then feigning disbelief when we did so. I also saw most of the television specials as they occurred. My timing was superb. I became a fan, and a year later my hero exploded in popularity again.
His best performance on film isn’t the 60th birthday concert that Keith Richards organized. My favorite is a quietly refined show on BBC filmed in 1972, just a month after the live recordings heard on “London Sessions,” just weeks after his famous appearance with John Lennon on The Mike Douglas Show, and a couple of months prior to the show filmed in “Let the Good Times Roll. (He was a busy man in those days.) On the BBC show there’s none of the hoarse shouting you hear in “Let the Good Times Roll,” or in the “London Sessions” concert. It is like a command performance. He is refinement itself. And really, there is no choice. He is in front of a small studio audience. There’s no reason to scream or shout, so he goes cool and elegant, sometimes whispering or growling his lyrics. The backup band, which had been with Chuck for about a week, and which had done what amounts to a dress rehearsal with him on German television just a few days prior, is mostly competent. They stay out of his way. He seems, nonetheless— or perhaps because of this— to enjoy working with them, especially the pianist, who lacked the blues chops of the great Chess pianists you hear on Chuck Berry records. But Chuck is at his best, singing, dancing, and playing sublime licks on the guitar. My favorite performance is “Carol,” where at times the band drops away discretely to leave just Chuck and his guitar. There’s a funny scene in the film Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll where Keith Richards suggests it would be too much for Chuck to play rhythm and lead guitar and sing “Carol” at the same time. “Well, it wasn’t,” says Chuck, dripping innocence and venom— and here is proof. It is perfect, perhaps the single best Chuck Berry performance I have ever seen.
Another amazing performance happened seven years before the BBC show, at the Salle des Fetes outside of Paris. This time he’s with a European pianist who channels Johnnie Johnson. Chuck goes crazy during “Wee Wee Hours,” jumping, shaking his long hair and playing blistering triplets on his guitar, hard blues by a rock and roller.