Hail Hail Rock ‘n’ Roll!


I got emotional on BBC Radio Merseyside yesterday.

Driving to work, I heard the news that Chuck Berry had died. I don’t know why it affected me so much, I didn’t know him and never met him. I did see him live once though and can only describe the experience as spiritual.

In 1989, I was living in New Zealand and he played at the “Mount Smart Big Top”. That may sound like a prestigious venue but it was just a circus tent, pitched on some tarmac next to Mount Smart Stadium in Auckland.

The gig was a rock ‘n’ roll revival show. The headliner, Jerry Lee Lewis, was supported by Bo Diddley and The Everly Brothers. A few days before the gig it was announced that Chuck Berry would open the show.

There was some real doubt if he’d show up at all. About ten years earlier, he’d been booked to play two dinner shows at 6pm and 9pm on the same night in the Auckland cabaret club, Trillo’s, as a double bill with Bo Diddley. Chuck always insisted on being paid in advance, in cash. So him and Bo Diddley did the first show, then in the interval, he headed to the airport. Bo had to play the second show alone. Chuck had not set foot in New Zealand since that night and there was talk that if he did, the promoter was going to get his money back or even have him arrested.

The Mount Smart show wasn’t very well put together. I don’t remember there being any warm-up music. Chuck walked on in the dark to the sound of his own footsteps. A young local band, who hadn’t rehearsed with him and had only met him minutes before, stood terrified in anticipation not even knowing what songs he was going to play, in what order or what key. We heard later that the only instructions they’d got from Chuck were that they were going to play some Chuck Berry songs and whenever Chuck’s leg went up, get ready because when it goes down again, that’s the signal to stop. This will explain why the drummer never took his eyes off Chuck’s legs for the whole set.

I was worried, I was a fan, what if he was rubbish? Would I ever be able to listen to his music again? Would it feel the same when I sang Chuck Berry songs with my band from then on?

He took his guitar out of it’s case in front of everyone. I started to think that maybe he’d stopped caring, maybe all the showmanship and professionalism had given way to a mercenary approach to performing and he just did it for the money now. Next he plugged in without turning the volume down on his guitar or amp. The Fender Twin made a loud “crack” that was amplified through the PA. Then he started to tuned up in front of everyone. I was embarrassed for him. He was 62 years old, I thought maybe he was past it and I was seeing him a few years too late.

Then he played that unmistakable Chuck Berry riff. The stage lit up and so did his face. He beamed at the crowd. My world changed, he was FANTASTIC!

It didn’t matter that the band only just kept up and were shouting keys at each. It didn’t matter that we were stood on a tarmac surface in a cold circus tent. While he was on stage, NOTHING mattered. He flirted with the girls in the crowd, especially during his very suggestive version of “Reelin’ And Rockin” and then he did the duck walk! I held my wife so tight she could hardly breathe and with tears running down both cheeks I shouted, “It’s Chuck Berry and he’s really good!!!”

He went off to the screams of, “More! More!” I’ve never seen anything like it. He took a cold crowd, warmed them up in the twinkling of an eye and transformed them. When it became obvious that he wasn’t coming back on, all you could hear were the voices of people trying to make sense of what had just happened. It sounded like that murmur you get after a big unexpected bang or when a scary fairground ride stops and you realise you’re all still alive.

We heard later that Chuck walked off the stage, into a car and was at Auckland Airport before Bo Diddley and the Everlys went on and was out of the county before Jerry Lee Lewis closed the show.

Bo Diddley was great, the Everly Brothers were superb and Jerry Lee Lewis put on a solid show, but no one came close to having the effect on that crowd that Chuck Berry did. He totally stole the show. I have never before or since seen any opening act totally obliterate everything that came on later, I still don’t know how he did it.

Yesterday morning, he got to me again.

Craic on!

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