Chuck Berry - a flawed genius

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Chuck Berry - a flawed genius thumbnailTHE late Chuck Berry.

NEWS of the death of Chuck Berry at the weekend was greeted with great sadness.

One of his biggest fans was former Newry Democrat Sports Editor, Tony Bagnall. Tony, who still regularly contributes to the Democrat, recalls seeing his idol in Belfast and tells us why he loved listening to Chuck.


CHUCK Berry is dead. Rock 'n Roll music is dead.

The legendary singer/guitarist/songwriter, the man who created Rock 'n Roll, passed away in St Louis on Saturday aged 90.

Chuck was surely one of the all-time great rock 'n rollers; his guitar-playing influenced millions and his songs will live for ever.

I was one of his biggest fans (and in fact have Johnny B Goode as a ring-tone on my phone) and attended his last two concerts in Northern Ireland - in Belfast's Maysfield Leisure Centre on March 12, 1996 and over 10 years later at the Waterfront Hall - January 18, 2007.

Chuck's guitar-playing influenced many, many musicians and groups - from John Lennon who said: "If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry," to Joe Perry of Aerosmith, Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Smokey Robinson, Bob Seger, Keith Richards etc.

But Chuck was by no means perfect. He had a reputation for being grumpy. And I saw that at first hand at that concert at Maysfield in 1996. Chuck came on stage to tumultuous applause. He acknowledged his fans with a cursory wave, before beginning to moodily play a guitar riff as a warm-up. He obviously wasn't satisfied with the sound and impatiently rearranged his amplifier and speakers. After five minutes he grudgingly accepted the sound was a good as it was going to be and launched into a disjointed "Roll over Beethhoven."

However, his act did get better and I, in company with the middle-aged crowd, really enjoyed the show, in stark contrast to his three-piece pick-up band who looked so uncomfortable throughout the performance.

One of the highlights of his show was the old blues standard "It Hurts Me Too" but Chuck spoiled it by abruptly cutting out the climax, muttering "Ya too slow," and launching into rock 'n roll music.

When he sang Johnny B Goode I knew his act was almost over but for the final 15 minutes he stayed on the stage to play out his obviously contracted one hour. Chuck sang "Put the lights on now" to the hall management for three minutes and invited people dancing at the front of the hall up onto the stage. He then faded into the background while all the time playing meaningless guitar riffs.

When his time was up Berry edged off the stage and quickly vanished. An encore? No chance.

Afterwards I had a talk with his superb piano player, Dublin man Bob Hyland who told me that Chuck hadn't spoken to the band at all and most certainly never rehearsed with them. Evidently he expected them to be telepathic and know just what he was going to play.

Fast forward almost 11 years to the Waterfront Hall: There it was an almost totally different Chuck Berry. He was charming to the audience and smiled a lot. Unfortunately the music from the King of Rock 'n Roll wasn't vintage. But after all he was 80-years-old.

At times there were a lot of discordant notes emanating from his famous cherry-red Gibson guitar. Sometimes he forgot the words and at one stage he even had to turn to his son Charles Edwards Berry Junior, who was playing in his backing band, and ask: "What song am I playing?"

In fact when he performed Johnny B Goode, in my humble opinion the greatest rock and roll song ever written, he got the introduction wrong to one of the most easily recognised guitar riffs in popular music.

Though there were short spells when his genius shone through - his exquisite phrasing, his melodic voice and especially his mellow guitar-playing.

Chuck began his act with his self-penned Roll Over Beethoven, a song adopted by the Beatles, and after that he zipped through many of his famous numbers including Maybellene, Reelin' and Rocking, School Days, Let It Rock, Sweet Little Sixteen, Memphis, You Never Can Tell, My Ding-A-Ling, Little Queenie, Rock 'n Roll Music, Oh Carol etc - and of course Johnny B Goode.

But having said all that it was a real privilege to see Chuck Berry in person. The man was an absolute genius and has written a host of pop classics. Catchy words, strong melodies all imbedded with his unique 'ringing like a bell' guitar sound.

Also it was a pleasure to hear classic pop songs performed by the man who wrote them. And on a personal note I got to take pictures and shake the hand of my all-time idol.

The king may be dead but his music will live forever. Chuck 'Johnny B Goode' Berry was the original, and best, rock 'n roll star.


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