“It’s a mean ol’ world. We’ve all got to live our lives. There’s one thing certain: Ain’t none of us gonna get away from here alive,” sang rock and roll legend Chuck Berry on Feb. 13. “While I’m here, I’m goin’ to keep pickin’ my tunes. Because I love what I’m doin’, and I hope it don’t end too soon.”
An appreciative audience, made up of men and women of all ages, cheered.
Berry, 81, was performing — as he does regularly — to a couple hundred people crammed into the Duck Room in the basement at Blueberry Hill (blueberryhill.com), a St. Louis restaurant and bar.
I was there at the invitation of my son Brendan, who lives in nearby St. Charles. He wanted me to see a live performance of this rock icon, a 1986 inductee into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, before it’s too late.
No one person is credited as the inventor of rock and roll music, but Berry (chuckberry.com) is referred to by many as the “Father of Rock and Roll.”
The Hall of Fame says “Berry laid the groundwork for not only a rock and roll sound but a rock and roll stance.”
Charles Edward Berry was born Oct. 18, 1926, to a middle class family in St. Louis.
A beautician by day in the early ’50s, Berry, whose idol was Nat King Cole, led a popular blues trio at night. He befriended Muddy Waters, who sent him to meet the head of Chicago-based Chess Records.
Berry’s first single, “Maybellene,” was released Aug. 20, 1955. It sailed to number 5 on the Billboard chart.
He later wrote and performed “Johnny B. Goode,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Roll Over Beethoven” and scores of other hit songs.
Oddly enough, though, the only Berry tune to ever hit number 1 was his novelty song, “My Ding-a-Ling,” in 1972. It knocked Michael Jackson’s “Ben” out of the top spot.
Accompanied by his small band, Berry, who in 1985 was given a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammy Awards as “one of the most influential and creative innovators in the history of American popular music,” sang many of his hits at Blueberry Hill.
Dressed in a red sequin shirt that sparkled in the spotlights, dark dress slacks, a bolo tie and a mariner’s cap covering white hair, Berry entertained for about an hour. He even did his trademark duck walk at one point for old times’ sake. Those of us who stood just 10 or 15 feet away from him knew we were in the presence of a legend.
During the instrumental portion of many of those tunes, Berry would chat with the audience.
“Where’s my lawyer?” he asked during one tune. Then he pointed to a man up front and introduced him as his attorney.
“Give him a big round,” said Berry, who’s had some well-documented legal problems over the years, including a five-month sentence for income tax evasion just a month after entertaining President Jimmy Carter on June 1, 1979, at the White House.
“If you ever get in trouble, he’ll put you right where I am,” said Berry of his smiling barrister.
Then, having forgotten which of his many songs he’d been singing at the time, Berry asked of his audience, “Why don’t you all tell me what I was singin’?”
Folks shouted out the answer and he was back in action, never missing a lick on his guitar.
Berry took requests and sang one hit after another that cold February night, sometimes making small talk between the songs: “Are we going to be able to put our Rams in the Super Bowl?” and “Isn’t the boy doin’ good? The young boy. I’m talking about Barack Obama.”
Despite being an octogenarian, Berry performs monthly at Blueberry Hill. Why?
“When I play here, I feel like I’m home,” he said at one point. The crowd roared in approval.
“We love you!” someone shouted.
Will Chuck Berry be slowing down anytime soon? I don’t think so. According to his Website, he should have just concluded a multi-city European tour.
Copyright March 31,2008. This “Everyday People” columned appeared in The North Scott Press, Eldridge, Iowa.