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Standing Behind the Man

Playing in Chuck Berry's pickup band can be a trial by rock and roll fire

Elvis may be the "King" and Little Richard the loudly self-proclaiming "architect" of rock and roll, but it's Chuck Berry who has the firmest claim of paternity on the genre. By blending country and R&B rhythms, a distinctive guitar sound, a clear voice and teen-friendly subjects, tracks like "Johnny B. Goode," "Roll Over Beethoven," "Maybellene," "Rock and Roll Music" and "Sweet Little Sixteen" are the music in its purest form.

"If you tried to give rock and roll another name," John Lennon once said, "you might call it 'Chuck Berry.'" And if you think of rock and roll as a giant oak tree, then the initial seed came from the palm of a certain brown-eyed handsome man.

So when a trio of local musicians out of the Continental Club Mafia of incestuous bands were tapped to back the 79-year-old Berry for a recent Austin show, there was a lot of excitement. "I still have chills thinking about that call, and I totally went into saturation mode on his music," says Allen Hill of the Allen Oldies Band, pegged for bass duties. "To me, it was if I had finally made it – I could call myself a professional drummer," adds El Orbits front man David Beebe, who took to the skins.

Rounding out the trio on piano – the most crucial instrument in Berry songs other than the guitar – was Continental manager and multi-band tinkler Pete Gordon, emulating the recorded performances of the late Johnnie Johnson.

The trio's almost palpable sense of awe at the prospect of playing with their hero is especially remarkable given that they fulfilled similar duties for Berry eight years ago at Mardi Gras in Galveston. Since this wasn't the first time they'd gigged behind Berry, they also knew something of what to expect, but this didn't deter them from hunkering down and studying Berry's old Chess Records tracks like a collegiate final exam. They even played a "warm-up" show of all-Berry material at the Big Top, with local musician Jim Henkel sporting Berry's trademark naval sailor's cap and standing in for the legend. The band was ready, and they headed to Austin.

Chuck Berry is a very meticulous man, and the way he's done concert business for more than 40 years hasn't changed. He flies from his St. Louis home into town, where the promoter must provide a Lincoln Town Car for the musician (and agree to a fine if anything else rolls up).

Berry then drives himself to the gig. He shows up sometimes just minutes before curtain time, carrying only his Gibson ES-345 guitar, and heads straight to the promoter's office, where he collects his entire fee in cash. On stage is a band provided by the promoter with two Fender dual Showman reverb amps for Berry. The show lasts 60 minutes nearly to the second. There is no encore. And by the time the band is winding down the finale (usually "Reelin' and Rockin'"), Berry is out the door, back in the seat of the Lincoln, and off into the night.

Any variations receive an immediate and stern rebuke. When Berry was headlining a Houston Lovin' Feelings oldies review at the Summit in the mid-'80s, he stopped the show cold after noticing that video monitors were projecting the stage action to the cheap seats.

"Turn those things off now! I mean it! I'll leave right now!" Berry yelled as thousands in the audience tensed up. "Turn them off!" Chuck Berry wanted your attention to Chuck Berry in the flesh. Plus, videos could be taped and bootlegged.

The monitors, of course, went dark.

Oh, and the interchangeable back-up bands? They don't even get a set list, much less discussion of keys to play in. Berry will start off playing with twelve bars, and his players are expected to recognize the tune and immediately fall in. It's rock and roll boot camp at its most primal, through which thousands of musicians – including a very young Bruce Springsteen – have passed. And Berry's usual response to a hired gun's nervously asked "What are we playing?":

"We're playing Chuck Berry music."

"Everybody's heard that, and he certainly has a right!" Gordon laughs. "Because if you're a musician and you don't know Chuck Berry songs, you're in the wrong business! You have to know them!"

"He never gives you much prep time, so you have to be quick and react," Hill, tasked with duplicating Willie Dixon's original bass sound, says. "And those 40-, 50-year-old records are your only point of reference, even though Chuck may not even play the songs the same way today."

But Chuck Berry is also known for last-minute surprises – non-negotiable terms which, over the years, have sent many a promoter straight for the extra-strength Tums. In this case, his "advance team," including his son, arrived at the Paramount Theatre several hours before the show to check out the venue. Oh, and by the way, Junior would be playing rhythm guitar, with his sister on backup vocals and harmonica. And the other guy with Junior? Um, Chuck decided to bring in his own bass player.

Hill's heart sank. The member of the trio whom Beebe said did "triple homework" for the gig was out. And that was that.

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