By 1960, rock and roll was a fad long passed. It took a couple dozen spotty kids from England to relight the flame. Chuck might have been a footnote in pop history, rather than the unwitting godfather of a musical form that changed the world.
A package tour came through Australia in 1989, featuring Mary Wilson, Lesley Gore, Everly Bros, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis, hosted by Col Joye. There was a revolving stage in place, so no breaks between the 20 minute sets. The first three acts were part one, Pop, and all sang beautifully. (This writer must confess that at 23 he was not as attuned to classic pop as he would later be.)
No-one I knew was interested in going, so I was by myself, sitting next to a bloke about Dad’s age who slept thru much of it. But he was dancing sitting down when Col hit the stage. I was cringing.
With that lineup, Col says, in classic nasal Australianese “Now here’s a tribute to all those rockers that aren’t with us any more” and went on to sing a, ah, medley, as it were, that ran something like “Peggysueohpeggysue, bebopalulasummertimeblues, sincemybabyleftmelabamba” and dropped his guitar on the edge of the stage so that the neck stopped the stage from fully revolving properly. What a professional! It took the stage crew an inordinate amount of time to figure that out.
Bo Diddley, caught him at the Graphic Arts club in ’85, I left after 150 minutes of one chord chuggling that showed no sign of stopping. 20 minutes was perfect, it was fun.
Chuck always used local pickup bands. “If we’re playing when I bring my foot down, stop. If we’re not playing when I bring my foot down, start.” Then he’d play in whatever key suited him and devil take the hindmost.
Chuck and co revolve onstage and he starts playing his expected hits. The band wasn’t gelling, not at all. There was a drummer, bassplayer, pianist and it sounded like they were playing in different rooms with zero foldback.
A shambolic take on ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’, or whichever, collapsed into a heap at the command of Chuck’s foot and… he must have sensed something. He started playing Jimmy Reed’s ‘Honest I Do’, a smooth, swinging blues and the band dropped into the groove, spot on.
This was about 20 minutes in, but Chuck wasn’t about to stop now. He swung like a god through another few numbers and finished with a ten minute version of ‘Around And Around’, his guitar playing was extraordinary! Every couple of bars was a complete song, Chuck and the band rocked and rolled, it was a great show.
Jerry Lee finished – no-one follows the Killer – and he was one seriously pissed off Jerry Lee. His set was perfunctory, dashed off like an admin letter. Couple weeks later the Melbourne show, two nights later, was on teev and Jerry Lee played up a storm, while Chuck was going thru the motions. (Check utoob)
It was a truly awesome show, it turned me on to 1950s rock and roll. I already had a bunch of albums but hearing it live made all the difference.
Elvis had the looks and the voice, Little Richard the weirdness, Jerry Lee the fire and brimstone, Chuck had the sound and the words. Every one of his classic songs is a perfect snapshot poem of life. Check out ‘You Never Can Tell’, the coolerator was crammed with TV dinners and ginger ale, ‘The Promised Land’, the hound broke down and left us all stranded in downtown Birmingham.
‘The Promised Land’ is a brilliant, knowing tale of a black man travelling thru the South. It’s in the Top Ten of my ‘100 by 100’ list. It’s a marvel.
Without Chuck, no Rolling Stones. Without Rolling Stones, no – – – no anything that has made my life worth living.
Onya Chuck. Much thanx.