CHUCK BERRY & KEITH RICHARD
Yet another iconic figure that towers over the birth of rock and roll is the guitar legend Chuck Berry. His influence over a legion of musicians and famous bands is well documented. He literally created the “Chuck Berry” sound which was pure rock and roll. Chuck was another of my idols as a young music producer. However, this show which I produced after I officially left the Paramount to become an independent producer in 1985, took a very bizarre twist which almost ended in a no show by Chuck.
But first, I want to tell you something about Chuck’s rider where he lays out his desires for ground transportation, hotel, air, deposits, lighting, sound, band gear, and support musicians and so on. It is one of the shortest riders I have ever seen – maybe 2-3 pages. Most acts have a 2-3 page rider just for their catering needs. Chuck buys his own air ticket, rents his own car, books his own modest hotel and travels with no one. The promoter provides a four piece backup band, paid for by the promoter, which he rehearses for 20 minutes in the dressing room right before the show. Any musician worth his weight knows every Chuck Berry song cold – or he had better know it. Chuck doesn’t suffer fools.
There is, however, an unusual request in his rider regarding his guitar amp. I had to provide a Dual Fender guitar amp that was made in the 1950’s. His manger made it clear that he would not perform without that specific amp. And, he wouldn’t refund his fee which had to be prepaid 100% before he left St. Louis!
So, I started researching where to find it. Finally, I contacted a backline company in LA (music speak for band gear). When I asked them if they had this particular amp, they said, “Are you producing Chuck Berry”? There was only 1 in the entire country! When it arrived, it looked like a beat up box used by a punk band for 50 years. My sound sub had to literally re-solder the electrical wires to the speakers just to get it to work. I will say this. Chuck knew what he was doing and how to get that special sound he famously created. It was perfect. It’s like a Hammond B3 organ. Nothing sounds like it. They are hard as hell to find any more. The amps are in demand by many of the biggest band on the planet.
It’s funny, but I never thought much about Chuck as a guitarist. I knew all the tunes and loved the groove and the lyrics, particularly. About half way in to the performance, though, he stood against the downstage right speaker mains and wailed on that guitar like Stevie Ray Vaughan but without movement save for his fingers flying over the frets. He was smokin’ hot and it really blew me away.
But that’s not the story. I had hired Bo Diddley to open the show for Chuck to make it a powerful 1-2 punch in order to sell tickets. Bo was $2500 in 1985. Late in the afternoon the day of show I got a call from his Bo’s manager. Bo was in jail in Florida for not paying alimony to his ex-wife. I thought he was kidding. My stomach went in to convulsions. Chuck Berry was not known for being magnanimous about any departure from his contract. I knew I was screwed and would have to refund all the ticket money and eat Chuck’s $30,000 fee.
I went with my hat in my hand to see Chuck who was already in the dressing room below the stage. I told him about Bo. He looked at me for a minute and then asked “What’s the manager’s name”? I can’t remember it now but I knew it then. He was clocking me to see if I was telling the truth. Then he asked for the manager’s number. He called the manager and got the straight scoop on Bo. Bo really was in jail. Now, on this night, Bo and Chuck were to perform 2 shows. We had to do that in many cases because the Paramount only had 1300 seats – not enough to pay for expensive acts based on 1 show. Most of the acts were good about it and didn’t charge us a premium to turn a 1300 seat hall into a 2600 seat theatre. It gets better.
Chuck then asked me how much I was paying Bo. I said $2500 a show. He said “Get the money”. I went to the safe and pulled out $5,000 in cash which I summarily took to Chuck. He told me to go onstage, tell people that Bo couldn’t make it (but not the reason why). Once onstage, I delivered the bad news to a chorus of throaty boos and rankled fans. Chuck also told me to tell them that “Chuck was going to take care of it”. I had no idea what that meant. So, I introduced Chuck, the lights went down, I left the stage and Chuck entered to wild applause. He then proceeded to do something he had never done in his life. He played a Bo Diddley set of all of Bo’s music in the same style Bo would have played them in! My jaw hit the ground. It was dead on perfect. The place went ballistic. He closed the set, left the stage and took a break for 20 minutes. Then, I re-introduced him for the second set which was the standard but brilliant Chuck Berry show – “duck walking” and all. He tore through his hits like a 4 year old with a flamethrower. You just can’t believe how powerful Chuck Berry is coupled with the wonder of those songs that started the rock and roll revolution, worldwide.
Now, you need to know something else about Chuck. Two things! First, as I mentioned earlier, he gets 100% of his money in advance before he leaves St. Louis. I’d never done that before. Second, he will not play a show over 60 minutes no matter what. And I mean 60 minutes on the dot. He had already played a thirty minute Bo Diddley set so I was on borrowed time. During the Chuck Berry set, he started looking at his watch on stage and then looking at me in the wings, backstage, while he kept playing. It was his way of tweaking me that time was running out 30 minutes in to his set! Yikes! But he kept on playing with everything he had, hit after hit after hit. He must have looked at his watch and at me in the wings a half dozen times. I’m sure no one in the audience knew what he was doing. He did 2 shows that night at about 90 minutes each – something he probably had never done for a promoter in his career. He saved my ass – pure and simple.
I wrote him a long letter and sent it to his home in St. Louis telling him how grateful I was for what he did for me, the Paramount and Bo. I will never forget it or him.
That show went on to become known as, in theatre lore, the “Bo-Berry” show. What a mind blower.
Chuck had a reputation for eating promoters alive if they missed one item on the rider or had a misstep along the way. He ate out Keith Richards in a documentary like a nun disciplining a sixth grader. He totally gutted Keith. So I was already nervous about whether or not he would explode for whatever reason. You can imagine – with that in mind – how I felt going backstage to tell him Bo wasn’t coming. Chuck was a total gentleman the entire day and night. Maybe it was a fluke or maybe we just did it right. I’ve told this story to many people in my industry and they are to a man, shocked. So much for unfounded rumors about the King of Rock and Roll! There will never be another Chuck Berry. We are lucky to have had him in our hearts and memories. “Oh, Maybelline”! God Bless Chuck Berry!
See Chuck’s discography at http://www.chuckberry.com/music/songs.htm