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.

Published October 19, 2001 8:07AM (EDT)

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.

By King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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