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Standing Behind the Man

Chuck and Pete search in vain for middle C.
Gary Miller

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.

"I handled it in the most professional way imaginable, but yeah, I was shocked. Especially since we had rehearsed as a unit," Hill says. "My heart was lower than the orchestra pit below the stage; it was like I got punched in the face. But if Chuck Berry leaves you at the altar, then at least you've found the right church."

The show, all three agree, went phenomenally well. Berry really seemed to enjoy himself and the crowd, not giving a rote oldies sleepwalking show.

"He did his Duck Walk a couple of times, he was in great voice, and really had it together. He seemed like he was 55 instead of 79," Gordon says. The piano player even got a little on-stage interaction with Berry, who at one point ambled over to the keyboards and asked politely, "Mind if I play this a little?"

The concert featured most of Berry's well-known hits, but the old man still had a few surprises for his band, including a waltz, two songs not played in the Galveston show ("Nadine" and "You Never Can Tell" the "teenage wedding" song in Pulp Fiction), and even a cover of Bob Seger's "Old Time Rock and Roll."

Beebe who earlier had sat backstage next to Berry just before the curtains rose but was too nervous to make small talk finally hit a wall onstage. "The feeling being up there was so awesome, it was like a bookmark in my life. I started to lose it a bit emotionally when it sank in what I was doing. I teared up a bit, but I knew I couldn't lose the beat. That would be the [ruin] of everything we had worked for."

Relegated to watching the show from the side of the stage where Austin blues impresario Clifford Antone brought along 92-year-old former Muddy Waters pianist Pinetop Perkins for a sentimental reunion with Berry Hill reverted to total fan mode. "The place was going nuts, and when a bunch of girls jumped up on stage at the end and started dancing, Chuck just went to the side and had this huge grin. You could tell he really liked that."

But even with the misfortune of having the memory of a lifetime snatched from under him, it was Hill who actually had the most interaction with Chuck Berry. While sitting alone in the band's dressing room, Berry happened to pass by the open door. Hill jumped from his seat, shook his hand, exchanged a few words of pleasantries, and then Chuck was off.

Not much, sure, but the kind of memory that the oldies-obsessed Hill will remember always. His own personal reenactment of Michelangelo's Creation of Adam, in which God touches the finger of the first man. Except in this case, God had a pencil-thin moustache. And he could play a guitar just like a-ringin' a bell.

CRITICAL FATWA

All hail Jurassic 5! They were a breath of fresh air, bringing pleasure and fun back to the type of hip-hop listened to by indie-rock fans. But they did not come alone and the group that came with them, the Black Eyed Peas, has turned from a fun bit of whimsy into the foulest sort of plastic band. We applaud those who make money with their art, but the Black Eyed Peas are one of the few bands to deserve the term "sellout." They added talentless strumpet Fergie to their band in a hope that the addition of well-displayed mammaries would boost their profile. It worked. (One day we will fatwa you all.) You created a string of horrid "tunes" cumulating in "My Humps," a song about Fergie's tits and ass that is about as sexy as an enema from Grandma. But this was not enough for group member will.i.am, who now appears in the Pussycat Dolls' "Beep," a song about the singing strip-o-grams' T&A that is as sexy as Grandma offering a finish-up reach-around. For striving to kill both art and sex, we issue a most serious fatwa.

We do not mind women of no musical, intellectual or spiritual worth succeeding due to the flexibility of their fat-free bodies. This is, after all, the music business. But the Pussycat Dolls were destined to be one-hit wonders, and any efforts to extend their career past that is an offense. Tell us, will.i.am, have you no shame? Does your soul not feel pain anymore? Has your integrity been so marauded that it now flops, truncated and perforated, staining the insides of your jockeys?

 

Fatwa! Some day your half-wit novelty tunes shall fade from the public's mind, and you shall be treated as the used-car salesman of the soul that you truly are. "I used to be somebody," you will weep into your pillow at night, but that will be a lie. It is written. -- The Ayatollah of Rock


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