Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Chuck Berry in Monterey, 1974 (An old post with a great new comment-- see below!)

I've been lucky enough to see Chuck Berry live 10 different times. Several shows are described here already-- my first, at the Sacramento Memorial Auditorium in about 1970; my second, at a tiny, packed South Lake Tahoe rock hall in about 1971; I saw him once at a Lake Tahoe casino (hardly counts); my eighth and ninth times were at Seattle Paramount and the Experience Music Project; my last time, last January, was at Blueberry Hill in St. Louis. I saw him a couple more times in the early 1970s as part of the Richard Nader Rock and Roll Revivals-- fun shows with a good backup band, a half dozen acts (The Shirelles, Bill Hailey, Gary U.S. Bonds, Bo Diddley), giant crowds, and, it turns out, definite federal tax liabilities. Ah well-- they were good fun for the money, and the only tension I felt at those rock and roll revival shows was whether Chuck would dominate the lineup—especially after Bo Diddley blew the crowd out of control with his routinely incendiary showmanship.

(Enjoy Bo:

I shouldn’t have worried. Chuck Berry always closed the show with a knockout performance.

But also in the mix during this time was an outdoor show in Monterey, California at the fairgrounds where they filmed "Monterey Pop."

Once, years ago, I found that someone wrote about this show in a book about Chuck Berry. (The book used to be at our local library; but, alas, it seems to be gone. Can't cite it here. Can't recommend, pan, cite or review it, because I don't know who wrote it, or what it was called. Help me out, somebody!)

But anyway, whoever wrote that book saw a different show than I did, citing it, mysteriously, as an example of "how far things had fallen" for the mighty Chuck Berry. He complained about the performance. He complained about the backup band. He even complained that in the middle of the show the promoter gave away an old Cadillac-- an act that happened to fill my own young heart with great glee and cheerfulness.*  (Editor's note:  No He Did Not!  See my comment below.  It goes to show you never can tell about my memory cells.  Peter.)

Maybe the author was just having a bad day. (Although I don't think so. I think he had a good time. Because I met a fellow, crazed, well-informed Chuck Berry fan at the foot of the stage that day. I'd bet an old Cadillac it was my man the author.)

So for me, that Monterey show will always be one of the best I got to see-- a long, slow-building, totally enjoyable powerhouse of a show, with a great backup band, great guitar, lots of happy people, and all witnessed by me from the very edge of the stage, just a few short feet from Chuck Berry's big leather bound ones.

I apologize for the bad photos--- they are as faint (and vivid) as my own memories. Damn those instamatics!

As you can see, Chuck came out in a black shirt, bolo tie and the red pants that he writes about in his autobiography. The same pants, in fact, that he wore 15 years later at the Seattle Paramount, and that YOU have probably seen him wear one time or another. They were nearly new at Monterey, purchased, if I recall, for $7 on La Cienega Boulevard in Los Angeles just two years prior.

He was backed by the band that served as a warm up act-- Butch Whacks and the Glass Packs, a Sha Na Na sort of act, and a great choice to back up Mr. Berry. At first Chuck pretty much ignored the crowd. He knelt about three feet from me, behind a big monitor, plugged in a nutmeg Gibson, and riffed on a slow blues number, tuning, picking, tuning, picking— luscious bunches of bent double string notes. I was mesmerized—just like I was at my first live show—but now I knew the riffs, and there was Chuck Berry, three feet away, making them happen.
Butch Whacks and the Glass Packs is evidently still working in the San Francisco Bay Area, and at least one of its members cites this show as a career highlight. (Under fondest memories he writes: "Backing up Chuck Berry for two-and-a-half hours in Monterey , with no set list, no idea what song we're doing next or in what key, and doing a piano solo for 96 bars (I thought Chuck would only want me to do a standard 12 so I went all out, and then he let me go for 12 more, and then another 12 and I was having severe arm fatigue and cramps by bar 72) and then having Chuck invite the crowd on stage only to find out seconds later that he's boogied out of there, and we have to finish and then get our equipment off stage before it's toast.")

After jamming for a while, maybe playing one or two more numbers, Chuck jumped into Nadine. It wasn’t an inspired rendition, but it was long and good and the crowd started moving. And then, when it was over, and when I'm thinking "This is pretty good. People like him." Chuck says:

“I think we are warmed up now—so with your permission we will now begin our show!”

And from them on, there followed what seemed like hours of perfect music, great dancing, splits, and guitar wizardry. Chuck Berry’s most exciting guitar bits are the blistering solos on the original records—but during the late 60s and early 70s he was at his peak of virtuosity. If you doubt me, listen to the guitar work on “Back Home” (with, in the words of Michael Lydon, its "bitingly fine quality of etched steel") or the “London Sessions,” or, for an accessible and endlessly entertaining example, this spectacular and refined 1972 version of “Oh Carol."

But back to Monterey. I think I may have wound up on stage at the end of that show, though I’m hoping for dignity’s sake that this is a false memory. I know that I have a photograph of the young cop who stopped us from chasing Chuck Berry after the show. (My brother made it past the cop and watched him drive away in a Cadillac convertible). One girl near the stage got his autograph on a scrap of binder paper. I must have looked envious, because she gave it to me after the show. (I still search my old boxes trying to find that thing.)

By the time of that show the album Bio had come out—and I wanted Chuck Berry to play something newer than his classics. (I still do!) I handed him a note asking for my favorite—“Got it and Gone.” He leaned over, read the note, and laughed. He probably barely remembered recording the song and sure as hell wasn’t going to play it.

Ah, well. It was the second time I got to communicate directly with my idol.

More reading:


Anonymous said...

I was the drummer on that Monterey gig. It certainly wasn't our "usual gig". Up to that point we (Butch Whacks) had played with many well know acts of the day. One of my favorites was Tina Turner, but that's for another day. We pulled double duty that day, as the opening show and then backing up Mr. Berry. When we asked about at least having a set list with song "keys", Mr Berry suggested that if we didn't have all his songs memorized ( everybody knew all his songs, right?)then we shouldn't be his band. Wow! Ok, we get the picture! After we finished our show, we had a chance to change clothes and I had the responsibility of knocking on Mr Berry's dressing room door(the actual rooms were under the stage area)to let him know we had 5 minutes till showtime! The band rushed on stage and waited for Mr Berry to come on stage. We were told to vamp on a chord and he would lead us into the song. He entered stage right, went right to our piano player, Larry and sang into Larry's ear telling him how he wanted him to play. I was next. My drums were on a riser and Berry came up to my left side and told me "exactly" how the kick drum and snare pattern should be played, and under no circumstance should I change it. Every band member get his orders from Mr Berry and away we went for over two hours-non stop!! Funny, I don't remember the Cadillac give away! He went from song to song, key changes everywhere, tempo changes and not a set list in sight! It didn't take long and the band was "in the groove". At one point, and I have no idea why, Mr Berry, right in the middle of a song, strolled over to the drum riser, reach over with his right hand and motioned for my hand and gave me an extended hand shake. All I could do was smile and wonder why. To this day, I have no clue. At the end, he leaned over to me, as we were still playing and said," keep playing for at least 5 minutes after I leave." He then invited the audience on the stage. Now that was scary. One of our roadies had to run up on stage and protect my cymbels from being stolen. The stage was packed with people dancing and Mr. Berry had, without being noticed, slipped out the back of the stage, got in a car and off he went. There are some decent photos on the Butch site of that day. Certainly, a day I wont soon forget.
Michael Patrick Moore,drummer, BWGP 2010

Peter said...

Ha! I've just found that the book I was talking about is the second edition of Howard DeWitt's Chuck Berry: Rock ' N' Roll Music. And although Mr. DeWitt and I have very different memories of the Monterey show, I see that my own memory of his book is faulty. He doesn't say a word about the car giveaway! Ah well-- memory is a funny thing! Peter

Anonymous said...

I was the piano player for Butch Whacks and Chuck Berry that Sunday in Monterey. If it matters, I don't remember a car giveaway either. What I do remember was a fun, memorable, totally unpredictable show.
Butch Whacks was in Canada when our agent called and asked if we would be interested in backing up Chuck Berry. We, of course, said yes! and immediately asked him to get a set list and the song keys.
Very quickly came the response from Chuck's people -- "Buy his double album."
We did and we learned every lick, every guitar run, and all the keys of his many, many hits. But this all became moot that Sunday.
Like Mike, I too had knocked on Chuck's dressing room door before our set, seeking a set list for the show. I had also done it before our own set and before the opening act -- a local band called Cannery Roll. But Chuck was apparently pre-occupied with an opening act of his own -- unless the young, attractive blonde he was with might have been a personal trainer of sorts.
But soon enough Chuck did appear and we followed him on stage -- no set list, no conversation, no fear. He started playing a very repetitive riff and like Mike said, went over to each musician and gave us all specific instructions -- all basically along the same lines as "forget that shit you practiced, just do it like this!"
As we were doing the riff he started singing one of his hit songs. Then after awhile he brought the guitar neck down and started playing another very recognizable intro riff -- albeit in a different key -- different from the previous song, and different from the key we practiced. More than once I frantically pecked at a couple hopeful chords and then yelled to my bandmates "He's in D!" or "He's in A!"
This routine of repetitive riff, hit song sung to repetitive riff, break, new song intro and sudden panic went on for almost two hours but Chuck had the audience eating out of hand.
Finally, when some tired parent tried to place their little boy on the edge of the stage, security rushed over to deal with this breach of etiquette. But Chuck interrupted their heavy-handed ways by improvising "Let the Boy on the stage!" Soon the audience joined in, the security not only backed down, but it seemed half the audience was soon on the stage.
I had no idea if Chuck ever talked to Mike about his departure because I couldn't see anything through the crowd. Since we were near the end of another progression I stood on the piano and tried to lead the band into a playoff. Whether they followed me or Mike or we all had the same idea at the same time, we finished the song and then rushed to pack up our equipment before the crowd trashed our equipment.
That was the last time I saw Chuck Berry. I heard the Cadillac was gone by the time we got off stage.
As Mike said, it was a day I won't forget.
Larry Strawther, BWGP, Los Alamitos, 2011.

Peter said...

Larry-- Amazing! I have an awful feeling I was one of the people on stage-- but it was a GREAT Chuck Berry show. Thanks for adding your memories. Peter

Anonymous said...

I loved the show but it was typical of Chuck Berry in the 1970s. He didn't like his audience. I followed chuck and Bo Diddley through California's Central Valley in the 1970s with Bo renting the Cadillac and Chuck paying for the food and motel. They stayed at Motel 6's and ate at Sambo's, yes that was a restaurant, Chuck told Bo he could have the $1.99 breakfast special and the$3.99 dinner special.They had separate motel rooms and Bo caught Chuck cooking in his room because they spent so little on food. Bo told me it was typical Chuck Berry. Never spend a nickel and get through with the show as quickly as possible. Yet, i Loved the shows. Berry is a contradiction, a brilliant one, Howard A. DeWitt

Peter said...

Howard DeWitt! Thanks for checking in. I've reworked this into a "chapter," so keep coming back.

Unknown said...

Hey! I was at that concert and must have been standing next to you. I was one of the "usherette" at the concert and went back to Chuck Berry's dressing room to see his guitar,.... really, just saw his guitar; nothing more. I was 17 with short curly hair, cute and oh so young.
Well...nice to have read your blog. Remember, it's always about the music :D Chrissy

Peter said...

Chrissy-- amazing, again. You're the third person from that show to find this and leave comments. You didn't give anyone an autograph that day, did you? That would have been me. We were standing directly below Chuck's feet.

BTW-- as I write this, Chuck has just finished his-- what? 9000th show?--- in Curtiba, Brazil.

John said...

I too have fond memories of that day, well one anyway. The band I was with, CL Frost (I think we played after Cannery Roll; short set) was doing our sound check when from my right enters Chuck and says do you boys mind if I play one with you. He started playing Johnny Be Good and doing his famous strut across the stage. We finished the tune, he thanked us and off he went......