Chuck Berry turns 87 today. It's impossible to measure his contribution to popular to music. He influenced The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, The Beach Boys and generations of musicians and fans. He's become part of the American soul today with songs like Johnny B Goode and Roll Over Beethoven a part of our national songbook. He changed how rock and roll songs were written, telling stories like a folk singer while sending his guitar into overdrive. He's still out there on the road doing what he does best in front of a live audience. He's a performer who is electrified when he plays in front of an audience. He changed the way rock guitar was played in the 50's and beyond. Only a few have succeeded in influencing the way the instrument is played for a genre. Guitarists today still refer his simple and clear and joyful style.
When I was 18, I saw Chuck for the first time. It was 1973 at the Hollywood Palladium. His band was Carl Radle on bass, Jim Gordon on drums and Ian Stewart on piano. For a while, Keith Richards shared the stage until the audience frenzy became more about the Stone and less about Chuck. Mick Jagger came out and smiled and shook his hips a bit.
But the evening was all about Chuck. I have never seen a more energetic and enthusiastic crowd. Chuck sang, duck walked, sweat and smiled. On Johnny B Goode, he stopped singing as the audience over powered him..not only on the familiar "Go Johnny Go" but also on the verses, as though they were singing "America the Beautiful or something. We all knew this was something special. An appearance of a founding father of the music that had changed our lives.
Words that had been engraved in our memories. "School Days" rang real and true and the on the call back verses, "Hail, Hail Rock and Roll," I shouted myself hoarse. I was an 18 year old die-hard music kid with shoulder-length red hair, old blue jeans and a sweaty t-shirt and I was dancing, hopping, singing and sweating along with Chuck until I nearly dropped..not from exhaustion, but just pure joy. It was the only time I've heard seen a lighting technician literally hanging from the rafters overlooking Chuck.
After that night, I followed Chuck to every concert he played in the L.A. area. I even saw his one and only performance at Disneyland where he was blacklisted after singing his only #1 hit song, "Ding A Ling." The results were always the same....I came home hoarse and exhausted and ready to go again.
I didn't realize it then, but now, with some historic perspective, this was Chuck Berry in his prime. At 47, he was still hungry to play and had the energy to give everything that he had mined all of those years of playing the deep South and recording at Chess Records. He never wrote much of note after the 60's, but he didn't need to. He had pretty much defined rock and roll by that time. By the time I saw him in the early 70's, he was ready to set the stage on fire and introduce a new generation to the music that inspired the bands we all loved. He succeeded. I can only say today, "Happy Birthday, Chuck! Long may you reign!"