Chuck Berry is 90 years old today. Many fêtes to you, sir.
John Lennon, a wise man about much, suggested once that, if we needed another name for rock and roll, or rock'n'roll, we could just call it "Chuck Berry." I could write about Berry and all his mega-hits, enduring on the radio rock stations when I was a child and introducing me to the world of the first music I learned after nursery rhymes and folk songs. I could write about the musicians he has influenced — all who came after him, that is. I could fill this column with praises of Berry and his music, and guitar playing, by many famous people in all walks of life. But this column is meant to be about live music I've heard, and I have indeed been so lucky as to hear Chuck, live and in person.
The year was 2011. The place: a little palace called the State Theatre in Easton, Pennsylvania. It was built in 1925, and is almost exactly the same age as Chuck. Its gilded curves and Italian frescoes shone even in the near-dark, as Berry and his band came onstage. The 85-year-old Chuck was resplendent in a red sequinned shirt, white captain's cap and dancing shoes. With a little shuffle that turned into a hop, a skip, he led the band into "Roll Over, Beethoven." I knew this one because of the Beatles, and, like so many of Berry's songs, I couldn't remember a time when I didn't know all the words to it. Everyone in the theater sang along, to every single song.
"Maybellene" was spectacular. Berry played and sang with energy and joy, rolling out what remains my favorite rhyme in all of rock'n'roll, perfect in its Americanness, elegance, simplicity, and creation of a gorgeous verb: As I was motivatin' over the hill / I saw Maybellene in a Coupe de Ville. When I was a girl, I used Maybelline cosmetics, in part because they were inexpensive and you could get them at the drugstore — but mostly because they had the same name (give or take a vowel) as Chuck's song, and that girl who pushed both him and the Cadillac to their limits and beyond.
Chuck was tired after "Maybellene." Fair play — we were all tired after "Maybellene." He detached himself from his guitar and sat comfortably on an amp, while his excellent band played. Part of the audience as well as the show, he grinned and kept time with one foot for awhile. Then he stood and reached for the mic. Looking up and around him at the ornate theater, he began a long riff, a rap, a poem, about being a young rajah in Venice, the canals, jeweled palaces and gondolas. Rhymes filled the lines; I was breathtaken. He broke off laughing, and picked up his guitar again.
At concert's end, he did a reprise of "Johnny B. Goode," which the band had already done one and a half times that night. He invited "all you lovely ladies" to come up on stage and join him. A stampede ensued; I was two ladies from the cutoff, and had to watch from the front of the stage instead of dancing on it. Berry pranced his way down the line, hugging, smiling, offering his mic so everyone could sing a "go, Johnny, go." At one point, an extremely large lady gave him an effusive hug, which he returned, but from her grasp he rolled his eyes at the audience in a burlesque move and called, "help me! Help me!" The lady laughed loudest of all, and gave Chuck a kiss as he moved on through the crowd. No one wanted the song to end, and that's always a possibility with the repeated refrains. Finally, Berry approached the piano to give the player a hand, returned to the front of the stage for a few more "go, Johnny, gos," and then, so help me, broke into a perfect duckwalk. We screamed and cheered. Thank heavens there's a fragment of this available to conclude here, as the show concluded that night.
Happy, happy birthday, sir, and thank you for rock and roll. We're looking forward to your new record, CHUCK, set for release in 2017.