Chuck Berry's 75th birthday
Chuck Berry and Little Richard
Post-Dispatch Pop Music Critic
10/19/2001 10:25 AM
Rock 'n' roll and politics, which have always
shared an uncomfortable history at best,
came together on stage at The Pageant Thursday night when a near sold-out crowd that
included some of Missouri's most visible political heads paid tribute to legendary rocker Chuck Berry.
The occasion marked Berry's 75th birthday, and drew a partying crowd that not only
featured Berry's family and friends, but performers Little Richard
and Duke Robillard and a parade of policy makers including Gov. Bob Holden,
St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt,
University City Mayor Joe Adams, and St. Louis County Executive George ``Buzz'' Westfall.
At least a couple of the politicians drew audibly boos when introduced to comment on Berry.
The booed Gephardt said of Berry: ``This man invented rock 'n' roll in the United States of America,
and during his whole career, he brought people together through his music.''
And this is a time, Gephardt said, when people need such unification.
``Do you know what it means to have a senator come to my rock show?'' Berry asked the crowd
at one point, referring to state representative Gephardt.
Man of the day Berry was greeted with resounding cheers throughout the night, from the moment
he took the stage wearing a red sequined shirt that was as blazing as his guitar playing.
Berry delivered a classic set that most likely thrilled even those who catch his regular monthly gig at
Blueberry Hill's Duck Room, as he performed signature rock tunes like ``Roll Over Beethoven,''
``Sweet Little Sixteen,'' and ``Rock and Roll Music.'' He managed to pull out his duck walk move four
times during the set, each instance drawing huge applause. He also performed ``Johnny B. Goode,''
inspired by his longtime piano player Johnnie Johnson, who was noticeable absent (the two are in the midst of litigation).
Another person who has known Berry forever, his look-alike daughter Ingrid Berry Clay, was on hand to share her
immense vocal and blues harp playing on a few selections.
Little Richard, attempting to show more sequins than Berry, also gave a classic routine that included
his drama queen persona and his dynamite piano playing. He started out on a patriotic vibe with
``Living in the U.S.A.,'' dedicated to Berry though the song was preceded by his comments on how
much he loves this country. ``Good Golly Miss Molly,'' ``Blueberry Hill,'' ``Old Time Rock 'n' Roll,''
``Tutti Frutti,'' and ``I Saw Her Standing There'' were songs of his own and others he performed.
He recruited about two dozen fans to dance during one song, ``Old Time Rock 'n' Roll,'' and a pair of
young men, Laurencin Dunbar and Michael Burks, for another song, ``Lucille.'' Berry joined him briefly
while Little Richard performed Stevie Wonder's version of ``Happy Birthday,'' but Berry and
Little Richard sadly never performed together.
Johnny B. Goode turns 75
A hometown crowd and some political
heavyweights shower Chuck Berry with affection as he
shows them what made him a giant of popular music.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
By King Kaufman
Oct. 19, 2001 | ST. LOUIS --
Five songs into his 75th-birthday show at the gleaming Pageant
nightclub Thursday night, five songs after being introduced by House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt,
who awkwardly hugged him as he played the famous opening riff of "Roll Over Beethoven," Chuck Berry
had a question for the 1,500 people who had come to cheer his every move and shower him
with hometown affection.
"Have we played any blues?" he said.
"No!" answered the crowd.
"Well, are you having a good time?"
"Yeah!" came the answer.
"Then we won't play no blues. We'll play rock 'n' roll."
And with that he launched into another of his
signature tunes, the one with that very title,
"Rock and Roll Music."
Gephardt and others throughout the evening --
Missouri Gov. Bob Holden, and the mayors of St. Louis
and adjacent University City, where Berry plays a monthly show, and the chief executive of St. Louis County
all presented Berry with proclamations -- mentioned that Berry invented rock 'n' roll. It isn't really true,
but it's a fair enough conceit on a happy occasion. And while you could make a very good argument that
rock 'n' roll existed for a solid decade before Berry became popular in the mid-'50s, it's impossible to
imagine rock 'n' roll without him. As both a guitar player and a songwriter he influenced nearly everyone
who came after, and if he's not known as a great singer, it's only because his precise but playful phrasing
has been overshadowed by his other enormous skills.
At 75 he still can bring those skills to the
party, though he doles them out carefully. He still plays a mean guitar,
though he often let his son, also a guitar-playing Chuck Berry, have the spotlight. It wasn't until another two
songs had gone by that he first broke into his trademark duck walk, something he would do exactly four times
during the evening. He says it's not hard for him to do it even at his age, though it tires him out more than it
used to. Still, it's more of a hopping step than the squatting walk displayed in film clips from his younger days.
And while that unique, enunciating singing style is still there, he seemed to have trouble remembering lyrics,
and often found himself a little behind the song, improvising a bit to catch up.
But nobody minded, nor should they. "To be
beside a living legend," Gov. Holden said, "you're walking
among one of the giants of music, of rock 'n' roll. He's from Missouri, from St. Louis. He makes us all proud."
And Thursday night the hometown crowd ate him
up. This is not a city long on living legends who
don't play baseball, and even though this legend plays every month right down the street at a smaller
club called Blueberry Hill, an eager crowd turned out to celebrate. They lined up early and filled the
place an hour before the music started, three hours before Berry hit the stage. The demographics
skewed older and the conversations tended toward mortgage rates and pro football, not fast cars and
teenage dances, but they cheered every musician's every move, and by the time Little Richard began his act,
the dance floor, where younger folks congregated, was jumping.
Berry, in a sequined red shirt and black slacks,
made his first appearance after blues guitarist Duke Robillard
opened the show. The politicians spoke briefly, and then the crowd roared when Berry walked out.
He yelled, "Thank you!" and pumped his arms in the air. The crowd kept roaring. Berry has a reputation for
being difficult and diffident, stubborn and moody. These qualities were on display in an excellent
documentary about his 60th birthday shows, "Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll." They were nowhere
to be seen Thursday. Onstage and off he was gracious, friendly, funny. Asked if he'd mellowed in his senior
years, he said, "I'd say yeah right away. I don't know what you mean even, but I'll say yeah," and laughed.
Now, with the crowd roaring, he appeared near tears. "I love you!" he shouted, then retreated backstage.
Little Richard, though six years or nine years
or some other number of years younger than Berry
(there is disagreement about both of their ages among various references), seems older, more of a shadow
of his former self. He moved gingerly and employed a number of showbiz stratagems, such as pulling fans
out of the audience to dance onstage, to buy time between songs, which left him breathing heavily even
when he hadn't done much. For the most part he sang only the choruses of his hits, not the verses,
and he let his crack band take frequent, long solos.
But every few minutes he let loose with one of
his falsetto wails -- "Wooooo!" -- or dug in at the piano for a
few bars, and you'd think, "Oh my goodness, that's Little Richard up there." Without him, too, rock 'n' roll
as we know it would be a very different and much poorer thing.
Backstage, calls came in from celebrity
well-wishers. The rock star cameos you might expect at such an event
didn't materialize Thursday. "Because of the two huge benefits that are being done in D.C. and New York,
a lot of people are committed to that," said Joe Edwards, the owner of the Pageant as well as the Blueberry Hill.
"And a lot of people are being cautious about their travel." The only musician who sat in with Berry's band
Thursday was Daryl Davis, a piano player from Maryland, unknown to the audience, who plays with
Berry on the East Coast.
Gephardt reminisced about going to Southwest
High School in St. Louis. "When I was young, in high school,
we had Ike and Tina Turner here, and we had Chuck Berry," he said. "We were lucky."
Berry took the stage and had some trouble with
the sound, and the band was a bit ragged, but the energy
passing from the crowd to the musicians and back more than made up for it. He peeled off recognizable
licks and improvised solos, throwing in the occasional shimmy and shake, conducting the band with his left leg.
He smiled and mugged as he sang or sometimes just spoke his familiar, deceptively simple lyrics,
conversational rhymes that effortlessly fit the rhythm of the music.
Spending an evening with Berry's music reminds
you what a wonderful writer he was in his prime.
Some of his lyrics -- "Roll over, Beethoven/ Tell Tchaikovsky the news," for example -- are so famous,
so often repeated, that it's hard to appreciate their wit and originality. And sometimes his stories,
teen-themed though they are, are so compelling that the wordplay is easy to miss. Everyone who's heard
"Memphis, Tennessee" remembers the twist, that "Marie is only 6 years old," but it's easy to forget that
at one point Marie has "hurry-home drops on her cheeks." In "Nadine," which Berry sang well Thursday,
the singer, trying to push through a crowd to his girl, "was campaign shouting like a Southern diplomat."
In the all-but-autobiographical "Johnny B.
Goode," which came near the end of the show, after his daughter,
Ingrid Clay, sang and played harmonica on a blues number, Berry let the audience sing the chorus.
"Go!" they shouted. "Go, Johnny, go!/Go! Go, Johnny, go!" Meaningless words, and yet almost anyone in
the Western world knows them as a cornerstone of late-20th century popular music.
Edwards, the club owner, had introduced the
star of the show by quoting John Lennon's famous line:
"If you tried to give rock 'n' roll another name, you might call it -- Chuck Berry!"
An hour later a dozen or so fans and family
members were onstage dancing as the band vamped away on an
extended version of "Reelin' and Rockin'," the closing number. Chuck Berry, a white towel draped around his
neck along with his red Gibson guitar, dropped to one knee in front of a 2-year-old girl, and with 1,500 people
begging him not to quit just yet, to keep playing just a little longer, he played a solo for her benefit as she
happily danced in place. She knows him only as great-granddad, but if she ever decides to give him another name,
she might call him rock 'n' roll.
Ring, ring goes the bell! Chuck Berry turns 75
Kevin C. Johnson No one expects rock 'n' roll's pioneers, the
music-makers who have been around since the '50s, Berry: "Maybellene" (1955), "School Days"
(1957), "Rock and Roll Music" (1957),
Post-Dispatch Pop Music Critic
to still have a meaningful place on today's scene.
But good health prevailing, they usually do release the obligatory album every now and then to
remind the world they're still around. Surprisingly, St. Louis' premier rock legend, Chuck Berry,
hasn't put out a CD of new material since 1980's "Rock! Rock! Rock 'N' Roll."
That was a long time ago, but Berry has kept busy enough over the years. He performs regularly,
including his monthly gig at Blueberry Hill in the Delmar Loop. On top of that, he has received
nearly every award given to a musician, released "Chuck Berry: The Autobiography" and rode the
wave of renewed popularity that came with the 1987 film "Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll."
He's also been in and out of trouble. Over the past few decades, the headlines on stories about him
have concentrated as much on personal troubles as they have on professional accomplishments.
But fans take note: Berry soon could make headlines again solely because of his music --
and new music at that.
During a recent chat at Blueberry Hill, where the notoriously press-shy Berry met with reporters
to talk about his upcoming 75th birthday celebration, he revealed that he is indeed working on a new CD.
Getting him to talk about it, or any subject, in great detail proved a little futile, perhaps a
result of negative press regarding his personal life (we won't rehash the details, not on his birthday).
Berry said the CD will be a rock and blues release and could be out by the end of the year,
or "as soon as we can get it together. There's a lot of particulars, a lot to work with,"
he said while munching down on a basket of hot wings.
He may collaborate with other artists on the album but says, "I don't know who yet. Whoever's the best.
It doesn't matter who. They can be from Rome as long as they meet the qualities of the song."
The CD's title is undecided but "could be 'Blueberry Hill' for all I know, as long as it fits most of the songs.
But it won't be 'Mothers of Invention' or 'Flying Dictionary.' It will be a name everybody can relate to."
Blueberry Hill owner Joe Edwards, who has heard some of the songs, says, "I'm excited he's doing it.
People will be surprised at how spectacular it is from start to finish. Every song is strong and moving."
That would sum up much of Berry's music, actually.
Berry broke out of St. Louis' club scene - spots such as the Cosmopolitan Club and the Crank Club -
after he struck a national chord with one of his first singles, 1955's "Maybellene" (originally the country tune "Ida Red").
"Maybellene" was a Top 10 hit and was followed by other successes, including "Roll Over Beethoven,"
"Sweet Little Sixteen," "Johnny B. Goode," "School Days" and "Rock and Roll Music."
Berry's not too particular when it comes to his hits.
"They're my creations, and I still think they're all wonderful," he says. "But 'Maybelline' was (especially) exciting
because it was the first. And 'Johnny B. Goode' was exciting because it's the one most appreciated by others.
I think 'Memphis Tennessee' made more money."
The singer-guitarist, who says his favorite song is actually the Beatles' "Yesterday," often mixed country,
blues and rockabilly influences into his music, and his songs became instant rock standards, covered by
artists from various genres. He became one of his generation's most influential songwriters. His one professional
regret, and a surprising one, is that he never got to open for the late comedian George Burns, whom he admired.
Along the way to becoming a legend, Berry even trademarked his Duck Walk move, a step he figures he has done
more than 4,000 times.
"I usually do the Duck Walk in every show, sometimes three or four times," he says. "It's not harder to do now,
but I think it's more tiring because I'm much older."
He'll surely give the Duck Walk a workout tonight. He's mum on details about the special concert, saying only that
he will "have some guests coming in, some affiliates. And I'll have my family there. But I don't want to say anything else.
Little Richard is supposed to come and, other than that, I don't know who."
The Duke Robillard Band also is on the bill, and Missouri Gov. Bob Holden and St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay
will issue proclamations.
One performer who probably won't be in the house is Berry's former piano player, Johnnie Johnson,
who performed with Berry during his heyday and beyond. Johnson has sued Berry, claiming that
Johnson is owed royalties for songs they co-wrote long ago, more than 50 songs that are rock 'n' roll classics.
Johnson's claim of copyright infringement was dismissed in July, and the suit now revolves around allegations of fraud.
"I know it isn't him pushing this," Berry contends of their legal issues. "I've known the man for 40 years,
and it's not him. It's somebody else who wants to make a few dollars.
Johnnie is the same person he was when I first met him."
Now, he says, their paths rarely cross.
"When I do see him, it's like we don't even know there's a lawsuit going on,"
Berry says. "We get along just fine."
Berry says he didn't call Johnson to participate in the birthday gig but says,
"I'd play with one of the devil's disciples if he plays good."
But tonight, it will be about the party, not behind-the-scenes ill will.
Berry says, "There's still things I've got to do and that I have to do. I hope to have 25 more years.
I'm going out of here at 100."
Chuck Berry's 75th Birthday Celebration
Who: Berry, Little Richard and the Duke Robillard Band
Where: The Pageant, 6161 Delmar Boulevard
When: 8 tonight
How much: $45
More info: 314-726-6161
No. 1 singles
Berry: "My Ding-A-Ling" (1972).
Little Richard: None.
Top 10 singles
"Sweet Little Sixteen" (1958), "Johnny B. Goode" (1958), "No Particular Place to Go" (1964),
"My Ding-A-Ling" (1972).
Little Richard: "Keep A Knockin" (1957) and "Good Golly Miss Molly" (1958).
Gold and platinum records
Berry: "The London Chuck Berry Sessions," gold album (1972), and "My Ding-A-Ling," gold single (1972).
"School Days" (1957) and "Sweet Little Sixteen" (1958) are said to have sold more than a million copies apiece,
though they're not listed with the Recording Industry Association of America, which has kept such data since 1958.
Little Richard: None, according to the R.I.A.A., though "Tutti Frutti" (1956) is said to have sold
more than three million copies.
Berry: Special Award of Merit at the American Music Awards (1981); Lifetime Achievement
Award at the Grammy Awards (1985); inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1986);
inducted into the Songwriters' Hall of Fame (1986); awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (1987);
"Maybellene" inducted into the National Academy Of Recording Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame (1988);
inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame (1989); "Roll Over Beethoven" inducted into the
NARAS Hall of Fame (1990); "Chuck Berry - The Chess Box" wins a Grammy for Best Historical Album;
Kennedy Center Lifetime Achievement Award (2000); "Johnny B. Goode" is No. 15 on VH1's poll of
the 100 greatest rock songs (2000).
Little Richard: Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1986); a Georgia state representative
introduces a bill to make "Tutti Frutti" the state's official song (1989); awarded a star on the
Hollywood Walk of Fame (1990); honored with the first Lupus Foundation of America Platinum
Star Award (1992); awarded the Rhythm and Blues Foundation's Ray Charles Lifetime Achievement
Award (1994); honored with Award of Merit at the American Music Awards (1997); "Good Golly Miss Molly"
is No. 74 on VH1's poll of the 100 greatest rock songs (2000).
- Source: Rock Stars Encyclopedia
Published in Everyday Magazine on Thursday, October 18, 2001.
No one expects rock 'n' roll's pioneers, the
music-makers who have been around since the '50s,
Berry: "Maybellene" (1955), "School Days"
(1957), "Rock and Roll Music" (1957),