Here's a story on possibly the biggest regret of my life in the music industry.
A few years back, I read some wonderful news. I read that Chuck Berry still maintained a performance residency at Blueberry Hill, one of his favorite nightclubs in St. Louis. Since 1996, Chuck played there once a month, every single month. For almost two decades, the man most people credit with being the father of rock ‘n’ roll was right there at that club playing music for people. Imagine being able to stroll into a club and seeing Chuck Berry play, “Roll Over Beethoven” or “No Particular Place to Go."
Anyone could walk into a club once a month and watch Chuck Berry play “Johnny B. Goode!” Doesn’t that blow your mind just a little bit?
Well, it blew my mind. I sat back and thought about Chuck. This guy, along with a few others, started it all. They started everything. If Chuck Berry never existed there wouldn't be a Beatles or a Rolling Stones. The fact that he, at the time, was still with us alongside Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Fats Domino was crazy to think about. To be alive the same time as them has been a special thing. Well, most of their years.
His impact on guitar playing and performance is bigger than anyone else’s. He was the first true, up front guitar player. He had the sass and the strut and the cheekiness like those before him (Louis Prima and Louis Jordan). Berry took inspiration to another level and created something brand new. Although he was influenced by Jordan’s music, especially his guitarist Carl Hogan, Berry broke out from the shadows of a big band setting. He was the center of attraction. He was the show, up front and for all to see. The songs, the often overlooked fantastic lyrics, his vocal tempo, the rumbling sound, the moves on stage, those devious wandering eyes as he played his songs; how could all of this talent be contained within one person back in the early ‘50s? He rattled the cage and let the animal out, and we’re all the better for it.
So, after reading about this great access to Chuck Berry, I told myself surely I'd go and see him. I would fly to St. Louis, stay in town for a couple of days, see Chuck Berry play music and just maybe be able to wave to him or even yell out, “thank you” from a distance. As I was feeling more and more confident about my decision I realized, I’ll probably never see a more important music performance the rest of my life. I had the fire in my belly to make the journey.
But as with too many things in my life, I dragged on my plans. Some months slipped by, and the next thing I knew Chuck wasn’t feeling well. Then for the first time in almost two decades, he stepped away from his monthly residency. I hoped he might return, but at that time — at 87 years old — it wasn't likely. Soon all hope to see him was lost. Every concert I’ve been to since then just hasn’t been good enough, you know? Knowing what I could have seen if I picked out a seat on Jet Blue quicker; I’m at a loss forever now and it’s only my fault.
When the world lost Chuck last week, it made me think that we should honor these few creators of rock ‘n’ roll while they’re still alive. I’ve mentioned it to friends before; how do the Grammys, The RnR Hall of Fame or the music industry as a whole not have an event to let these people shine on all they’ve created, one last time. Sure, we’ll make plenty of space to honor people who’ve been in the game for five minutes though and give Bruno Mars a lifetime achievement award, but what about the pioneers who crafted the modern music scene? Thanks to their work they also brought a divided country together under the airwaves and concert venues. The social ramifications of what they did changed life forever. They created the blueprint for rock ‘n’ roll while easing racial tensions; probably something worth celebrating, all the time.
We should let these folks enjoy the warmth of more focused beams of adoring light onto them, their accomplishments and the chances they took. I think of the generation of music now and I wonder what will we celebrate and honor in 60 years? Twerking? A lack of true instrumentation? A trending post from Snapchat? We’re getting farther and farther away from music and the good things about music these days. Losing Chuck Berry and watching those other folks reach their finish line in life is a wake-up call in many ways.
I had a couple friends from the rockabilly and old school rock ‘n’ roll world share their thoughts on Chuck and the lasting impression he left on the world.
Sean Mencher (musician)
Chuck Berry's guitar playing/singing/songwriting and duckwalking established rock n'roll music! Chuck with the Chess Records band featuring Willie Dixon (bass), Johnnie Johnson (piano) and Fred Below (drums), defined the big beat sound of rock 'n' roll music! Give yourself a gift and go listen to Chuck Berry: The Great Twenty-Eight! There are two types of music, BCB (Before Chuck Berry) and ACB (After Chuck Berry)!
Thank you, Chuck Berry!
Bill O’Neil (Bill O’Neil’s House of Rock and Roll and radio DJ)
Numerous people tried to emulate Elvis, but nobody could really copy Chuck. Over the years you would hear knock-offs of who was popular at the time. Many would cover Chuck Berry songs. They were incredible timeless songs, but no one did them like him.
Mark Curdo is the director of lifestyle & entertainment branding for Shipyard Brewing Company and longtime host of the Spinout radio show now on Sunday nights from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. on 94.3 WCYY.