Friday, July 8, 2016

Johnny B. Interesting: An Interview wtih Johnny Buschardt

Johnny Buschardt got in touch with me recently to ask if I had any old photographs of the exterior of Chuck Berry's old Club Bandstand in St. Louis.  I didn't, but the question got us talking and I quickly realized that I'd encountered someone who was both a true fan and a truly interesting person. Buschardt is a former concert promoter in Texas who worked with Chuck Berry many times (and has even helped him with yard work!  I feel your pain, Doug!)  But in the past few weeks I've also realized he's a great story teller, writer, tourist, friend and dad; n amateur drummer and former stand up comedian; and a big, big fan of Chuck Berry.  I asked him a few questions, (and now have lots more!  Dang!)

You’re a promoter?  What sorts of shows?  What sorts of venues?  What were some of your favorite shows over the years?

Technically, I WAS a promoter. While I still do the occasional show from time to time, it isn’t like it was five or ten years ago, where I would do hundreds of shows in a year. Most of the shows I do now are shows were I am either friends with the artist OR the type of show I know is very low-risk. But I promoted full-time from 1994 until about 2014 or so.

All sorts of shows! I’ve promoted artists ranging from Three Dog Night and Merle Haggard to Jay Leno and Dave Matthews. Kris Kristofferson, Gordon Lightfoot, Kathy Griffin, Anne Murray, Willie Nelson, Sinbad, Dave Chappelle, Foo Fighters, Ronnie Milsap, Alice Cooper, Huey Lewis & the News, BB King, and (of course) Chuck Berry… there aren’t many artists I DIDN’T promote over two decades.

Again, all sorts of venues. While I was promoting, I was also general manager for venues like the Historic Brady Theater (a 2,693 seat theater built in 1914) and the Mabee Center (a 17,000 seat arena built in 1970), both of which are in Tulsa. I’ve done shows in historic venues like the Fox Theater in Bakersfield, CA and in iconic venues such as Red Rocks Amphitheater in Morrison, CO. I primarily focused on the Midwest, in markets like Kansas City, but I spanned out into Texas and California as well.

There are a few favorite shows that stick out:

Luciano Pavarotti’s Farewell Tour was special because he only did three dates in North America for that: Hollywood, Miami, and Tulsa. I had the chance to work with an amazing team (including Sir Harvey Goldsmith, whose iconic resume includes Live Aid and Pink Floyd at the Berlin Wall) and was able to spend the week after our show with Maestro and his team in CA. So that was a special night and it was not only an evening no one would ever forget, but a chance to really shine within the industry as well.

We did a show with Steve Winwood once that was memorable for all of the wrong reasons. His band was stranded in Chicago due to a snowstorm and we were backstage stretching our own creativity for how to pull this show off: do we bring in other musicians, does Steve do a solo set, do we add an opener and hope they make it in time? Luckily, the band arrived literally about the third song into the Steve’s acoustic set and the show was saved.

I remember a Kris Kristofferson show in San Diego once solely because Ace Frehley from KISS showed up and turned out to be a die-hard Kris fan (as well as an exceptionally nice guy). There was the Willie/Merle/Kris show in 2015 when everyone showed up backstage: Jamey Johnson, Randy Travis, Hank Williams Jr… you had to be on your toes, but it was still a great time.

How did you get started in the business?  Tell us about your early days.

I actually started off in stand-up comedy and got to a point where I was opening for comedians like Rodney Dangerfield and Bill Cosby. At one point, walking past the promoter’s office one night during settlement, I saw how much the promoter was making and thought, “Well, man… how hard can it be?!?” My first few shows were artists I knew who let me promote them (Jay Leno, Sinbad, Drew Carey) and then I branched out after that, starting with the basics of classic rock and classic country and then developing a business model that would allow us to try new things.

There are always stories about working with Chuck-- what has it been like for you?

It’s funny – I have never had a single issue with Chuck. I mean, the first time I worked with him (probably in the mid 90’s), I had heard nothing but horror stories. Still, this is Chuck Berry – he’s the reason we’re all here to begin with. Still, I never had an issue with him. I know Chuck likes me – I’ve heard from various agents and other promoters that “he and I get along well” – and I have had more than one promoter call me to defuse a Chuck situation, but I actually never had any issue with him at all.

Do you have any favorite stories about working with him?

I think the funniest thing about Chuck is how quickly his demeanor can change. I mean, if he is in a bad mood and just grouchy as hell, all you have to do in bring some children into the room and – BAM! – sweet old, grandfather Chuck comes out. His smile is infectious as hell and he truly can captivate a room. So I always tell people, if things are starting to go south, get some cute little kids in the room with Chuck. If you ever want to see Chuck Berry is his natural state, see him around a group of children.

Why do you think some promotors report having had a bad time working with Chuck Berry?  Have they told you?  Can you see it backstage?  

Like I said, Chuck and I get along well so I have gotten calls from more than one promoter in search of a quick fix. Here’s the deal: the reason most promoters upset Chuck is because they don’t do what they are supposed to do. Usually, they do something they shouldn’t have done with the absolute best of intentions. For example, if Chuck is set to go on at 8:00, he may not arrive at the venue until 7:55… and that is NOT an exaggeration. When he walks in, all Chuck wants is two things: to be handed his payment and to be shown the stage. Most promoters will make the mistake of trying to put food in Chuck’s dressing room, for example. Well, Chuck’s contract doesn’t ask for food… and food is a show expense that is taken out of the receipts before the split is determined – in other words, it’s less money to Chuck. Of course most artists want food in their dressing room – but Chuck isn’t most artists. 

Another issue is the backline (which is the instruments used in the show). Chuck plays with a Fender Dual Showman guitar amp – that is part of his contract. Now, if you (as a promoter) are unable to secure that amp, you have a choice: don’t sign the contract or pay Chuck $2000 in cash before he goes on stage. See, Chuck has the right to demand anything he wants: as an artist, he has a very specific tone and sound that he wants to achieve and he knows how to get it. If you are worth a lick of salt, you should be able to find the amp. Even if you can’t, though, all you have to do is tell Chuck in advance and have the $2000 waiting for him. It is when you DON’T tell Chuck that you can’t get his amp (and he finds out when he appears to play) that he gets upset… and rightfully so.

The reason Chuck is seen as “difficult” is simply because he calls people out on their mistakes. If you don’t provide the amp, Chuck will call the promoter to the stage and have the promoter tell the audience exactly how they messed up… and why the audience isn’t hearing Chuck’s signature sound the way he wants them too.

I always tell people this: do exactly as the contract states and you’ll be fine. If you can’t get the amp, let Chuck know and his cash waiting for him. However, if Chuck gets so angry that he starts referring to himself in the third person… well, at that point, you’re screwed.

Chuck Berry often worked with local musicians.  What’s it like for the band members when they know they are going to back up a legend?

Aside from possibly St. Louis, Chuck never travels with a band. Part of his contract dictates that the promoter must provide a quality backing band. The tough part isn’t finding folks who want to play with Chuck Berry – I mean, who wouldn’t want to? The tough part is finding folks who have the skills and the knowledge of every Chuck Berry song. See, Chuck doesn’t provide a set list to the band – he simply starts playing a song and the band needs to be able to jump in immediately without any heads up or guidance. Remember, Chuck arrives literally five minutes before a show – there is no rehearsal, no sound check, no stage blocking… you just jump right into and do a line check off the first song. I have three or four bands I use exclusively with Chuck – they have worked with him before and can get the job done. Of course, every artist is thrilled to play with Chuck Berry. I mean, the man is the reason we are all there to begin with, so I have yet to meet an artist who didn’t consider it a thrill to play with Chuck Berry.

Do you feel like you got to know Chuck by working with him?  Talk about that some.

LOL! I don’t think ANYONE knows Chuck Berry! Chuck will always be his own man and I don’t think anyone will ever be able to fully figure him out. I mean, maybe Toddy knows him – they have been married for more than 65 years, so she may have some inside scoop. but other than that, I don’t think anyone can claim to know Chuck. Francine may know the man – but I don’t. I just keep it simple: I give him things I know he likes (Indian food, grape soda, etc.) and stick the plan as much as we can. Chuck really likes things like yard work – even when he doesn’t play guitar (and yes, he will go weeks without picking it up), he still likes to work with his hands. Aside from that, though, Chuck is just… Chuck.

If you could ask him one question, what would it be?  (Something he’s not expecting!)

Hmmm… I think most of the questions I would ask I already have asked. I would probably ask him about the night he met Johnnie Johnson. Or maybe about when the Johnnie Johnson Trio became the Chuck Berry Trio. I think those two moments are probably two of the most pivotal in rock and roll history… but I don’t think they have come up specifically. Although, it was always a treat to hear Chuck talk about playing the Cosmo back in the day… man, to have been a fly on that wall!!!

You went through St. Louis recently.  Did you include music in your visit?  Did you hit any of Chuck’s historic sites?  

You know I did!

Johnny at the site of the Cosmopolitan in East St. Louis.

It’s surprising after so much time in the business you are still a fan!

It’s Chuck Berry – how can anyone NOT be a fan?!?!?!