Reviews 2001 - 2002

Associated Press / Oct 19, 2001:

Chuck Berry celebrates 75th birthday

Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Duke Robillard etc

The Pageant / St. Louis / Mo

Oct 18 / 2001

By Jim Suhr

ST. LOUIS (AP) - Chuck Berry, the guitar-slinging man considered one of rock'n'roll's most important architects celebrated his 75th birthday, at a blowout that was one-part patriotism, a dozen parts old-school rock'n'roll-and heaping helpings of an American music legend.

With ease belying his age, Berry scooted across the stage in his famous one-legged hop at The Pageant, a club in his hometown of St. Louis. Screaming guitar in hand, his duck walk wasn't far behind.

"In his whole career, he brought people together through his music". House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri said in introducing Berry. "We're in a day where we need America to be unified. Chuck Berry unifies America".

Berry worked the stage and crowd of about 1.500, at times kneeling while letting loose with the same screeching guitar riffs that made him famous in the days of sock hops and soda shops.

"You name it, we'll play it", he told the crowd warmed up by a piano-pounding performance by pal Little Richard, whose 40-minute performance included "Good Golly Miss Molly" and praise for a troubled nation.

"I love this country", he said. "This is God's country. Ain't nothing like America". And to fans, there's nothing like Berry, whose dozen-song set began with "Roll Over Beethoven". "Sweet Little Sixteen", "Johnny B. Goode" and "Rock and Roll Music" soon followed. "Is everybody happy?", he asked along the way.

The throng screamed ecstatically, some hooted and many whistled. All cheered a hometown hero. "We ain't playing no blues", Berry said. "We're playing rock'n'roll".

Berry pioneered a musical revolution decades ago, with guitar-driven hits like "Maybellene", "No Particular Place To Go" and the other classics he revisited Thursday night.

He helped inspire Elvis and the Beatles, was inducted into both the Rock and Roll and Songwriters Halls of Fame and last year got one of the nation's highest awards as a Kennedy Center Honor recipient.

Though Berry hasn't made an album in nearly two decades and now plays small venues, many music notables spanning generations, genres and genders hold him in high regard. In written kudos for his milestone birthday, they made that known.

"You are most certainly the inspiration for all of today's rock'n'roll guitarists", wrote Motown legend Smokey Robinson. "Your music is timeless". Other regards poured in from James Brown, Ray Charles, Leon Russell, David Bowie, George Thorogood, Bo Diddley and Aretha Franklin.

Anthony Kiedis of the modern-day Red Hot Chili Peppers called Berry "a musical scientist who discovered a cure for the blues". Rocker Joan Jett cast Berry as "the epitome of what it is to be a rock'n'roll guitar player, songwriter and singer".

Stevie Wonder summed it up this way: "There's only one true king of rock'n'roll", Wonder wrote. "His name is Chuck Berry". / Oct 19, 2001:

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.

Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Duke Robillard etc

The Pageant / St. Louis / Mo

Oct 18 / 2001

By King Kaufman

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.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch / Oct 19, 2001:

Chuck Berry and Little Richard

Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Duke Robillard etc

The Pageant / St. Louis / Mo

Oct 18 / 2001

By Kevin C. Johnson

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 USA", 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.

Now Dig This / 2002:

The Empire rocks back

Chuck Berry

Shepherds Bush Empire / London / England

June 9 / 2002

By Fred Rothwell

It is hard to believe but Chuck Berry has not had a studio recorded release issued since the Atco album "Rockit" came out in 1979. There have, of course, been numerous live recordings of his concerts in the intervening years, most of them of a dubious provenance, and one very weird duet with Jamaican "rude boy", Shabba Ranks which needs to be heard to be believed. He has, however, kept active; a regular level of one-night stands played with pick-up bands has kept his chops on form. Berry's contractual stipulation for the band is "they must be professional musicians who know Chuck Berry music" – no problem there then as the terms "guitarists", "rock and roll" and "Chuck Berry" are synonymous. He also plays a regular monthly club date at the Blueberry Hill in his hometown of St. Louis to great acclaim and this gig at the relatively small Shepherds Bush Empire is about as close as we are likely to get to a club atmosphere this side of the pond. To add to the anticipation, Chuck has a whole CD's worth of new compositions in the can and waiting to be released. Titles such as "Lady B. Goode", "Jamaica Moon" and "Hell Bound Train" don't perhaps need much second guessing as to how they will sound but one's called "Dutchman", "The Big Boys" and "Loco Joe" are more than intriguing. So, would we be treated to some new stuff or would we get the tired old retreads from those bygone days of old?

At the contracted time of 9.30 to little fanfare but a tremendous cheer, Chuck appeared on stage followed by just three musicians, piano, bass and drums - no rhythm guitarist so he was going to have to double up on his trusty Gibson. He did, however, have the assurance of his long-time bassist and European travelling companion Jim Marsala. Without any introduction Chuck cranked out the well-worn guitar intro to "Roll Over Beethoven" and we were up and rockin'. No matter how familiar the introduction, or how many times you might have heard it, to see those enormous hand slide effortlessly up the fret-board and hear those notes ring out is nothing short of magical. "Beethoven" was followed in quick succession by "School Day" - "that song is forty years old you know" - "Sweet Little Sixteen" and "Nadine", all performed almost by rote as though he wanted to get them done and out of the way. The audience didn't notice or care, they were surfing on a nostalgia wave, singing Chuck's songs for him. Chuck pretended to be surprised, but he looked genuinely pleased and it seemed to spur him on.

At his time of life Chuck needs to pace his shows so, thank you god for the blues, which he judiciously interspersed between his rockers. And what a great selection of blues to choose, Elmore James' "It Hurts Me Too", Jimmy Reed's "Honest I Do" and his very own "No Money Down" all got an airing, albeit the last song was chopped short with the comment, "I don't want to play no more blues".

By the time the "Carol / Little Queenie" combo hit the stage he was all limbered up and raring to rock, his guitar firing on all strings and ringing like the veritable bell. "Let It Rock" has always been a highlight of Berry concerts and here it came again, the train hurtling down on the railroad workers who, no matter how many times you hear it, always scramble out of it's way! Chuck was really up for it on this song and he was inspired sufficiently to attempt his show-stopping duckwalk. It wasn't so long or so low as of old, but it was a recognisable waddle nonetheless and was greeted by an enormous roar from the enthusiastic throng.

During the usual "you name it, we play it" request spot, after a brief discussion with Jim Marsala, he performed a short version of "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" with the comment that he hadn't sung that in fourteen years. The treat of the treats, for me however, was his lilting version of Ray Charles' countrified waltz "3/4 Time", in which he sings of making love in 3/4 time, or 6/4 time or even 12/8 time, in fact any old time!

It was then back to the classics with "Rock And Roll Music" but sung here with some new lyrics reflecting on a life well spent in rock and roll. "Sometimes it's loud and gets out of control / Can't even understand the story told / But if you love it, you ain't never too old / To cut the mustard with rock and roll!" and again later on, "Some people say rock and roll is dead / It's forty years since that remark was made / I'm here to show it's live and well / And all-American like ringing a bell".

His contract was for one hour and by now the time was drawing nigh, but Chuck doesn't need no watch to tell him this, he's been at it so long it's second nature to him now. The final coupling then was a surprising "Around And Around" followed by the usual extended closer, "Reeling And Rocking" complete with risqué lyrics and riskier female dancers on the stage to assist Chuck with an easy exit, guitar held outstretched, bowing and backing off stage left.

And there he was, gone: probably away in his Mercedes limo before the cheering and foot-stamping subsided; no encore (the word is not in Chuck Berry's vocabulary), no "Johnny B. Goode", and no new songs. At this stage in the game, should we expect more? Despite my hopes for some new material, I think not. To attend a Chuck Berry concert is to witness a rock and roll ritual, in which both performer and audience know what is wanted and what is expected and I do believe both parties left the theatre with satisfied minds.

Chuck Berry's reputation precedes him. How many times have you read about Chuck Berry the jailbird before Chuck Berry the rock and roll legend, or Chuck Berry, Mr Ding-a-ling instead of Chuck Berry, rock and roll poet supreme? How many people have been short-changed by his lack lustre performances in the past? Well, if you passed up on this gig because of his past misdemeanours, you missed a treat. Chuck Berry is an old man, in October 2002 he will be 76 year old, but for a man of his age he is still remarkable fit and, on the basis of this gig, can still rock the socks off young pretenders half his age. His paunch may have grown a little, his thinning hair is now hidden beneath a seafarers cap, and his long legs are not as "crazy" as they used to be. But, believe me, he still has that ingredient, vital to all good rock and roll - the ability to instil excitement into an audience through his wonderful music, which will never, ever grow old.

Ps. Fred Rothwell is the author of "Long Distance Information – Chuck Berry's Recorded Legacy" (Music Mentor Books 2001).