Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Chuck Berry proves ageless

82-year-old Chuck Berry showed he could still
rock and roll during a concert at the Oneida Casino
in Green Bay on May 31.


When Green Bay's Oneida Casino announced a concert appearance by guitarist and singer Chuck Berry, my wife Sue and I jumped at the chance to go.

With Berry now 82 years old, we didn't want to miss an opportunity to see the man who virtually invented rock 'n' roll.

Still, prior to the show at the 3 Clans Ballroom on May 31, we didn't know what to expect from the veteran rocker.

Sue and I saw Berry open and close the concert for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1995, and I had witnessed an outdoors Berry show back in 1972 when I was a student at Central Michigan University.

Berry has performed countless times since "Maybellene," became his first hit in the fall of 1955.

He not only sang and played guitar on his records, he wrote the songs, too. And they were terrific songs about girls, cars and school, subjects on every teenage boy's mind.

While Berry was racking up his hits, I was busy being a kid. By the time I started paying attention as a teen, Berry's glorious decade atop the pop charts was ending.

If U. S. fans were inexplicably losing interest in Berry, the British Invasion groups were using his songs to capture the hearts, minds and dollars of American teens.

The Beatles had hits with "Roll Over Beethoven" and "Rock and Roll Music." The Rolling Stones added "Little Queenie," "Carol" and 11 other Berry originals. More artists followed suit.

American groups didn't stay silent. Johnny Rivers made "Memphis" into a No. 2 smash and followed with "Maybellene." The Beach Boys' Brian Wilson copped the music to "Sweet Little Sixteen" for "Surfin' USA" and didn't credit Berry until he sued.

Dozens of groups used the Chuck Berry songbook to further their careers.

For his part, Berry kept touring. With his hits so well known, the songwriter often traveled by himself, using pick-up bands during shows. He knew any self-respecting musicians would know his songs. Consequently, some Berry shows were better than others.

Just a day before the Green Bay date, Berry was in New Orleans to perform at "The Domino Effect." Named after rhythm and blues giant Fats Domino, the event raises funds to help rebuild schools and playgrounds damaged by Hurricane Katrina. B. B. King and Little Richard were among the performers.

Following a 45-minute set by rockabilly sensation Li'l Gizzelle, Berry strolled on the Wisconsin stage with "Roll Over Beethoven."

Dressed in a sparkly red shirt and sailor cap, Berry was impressive on his Gibson guitar which unfortunately needed to be tuned several times during the show.

With the sound a little ragged, the rock 'n' roll icon followed with "School Days" and "Sweet Little Sixteen," the audience singing along.

"Do you remember this one?" Berry asked as he introduced "My Ding-A-Ling," his only chart-topping song. The novelty hit brought back memories of my college days when I saw Berry perform live for the first time.

Berry combined "Carol" and "Little Queenie," ending the medley saying, "That's it."

"You name it and we'll play it," Berry announced before launching into "Rock And Roll Music."

The St. Louis native forgot some of the lyrics but made up for it with a rousing rendition of "Johnny B. Goode," his Top Ten smash from 1958.

Berry sang about some of life's hardships with his version of the classic "Everyday I Have the Blues." He followed with "Reelin' & Rockin'," a B-side released in 1957.

The Rock And Roll Hall of Fame member enjoyed a strong year in 1964, despite the arrival of the Beatles, Rolling Stones and other British beat groups. For the Green Bay show, Berry performed three of his hits from that year: "Nadine," "No Particular Place To Go," and his self-described ballad, "You Never Can Tell."

"Brown-Eyed Handsome Man," with its autobiographical lyrics, also found a place in Berry's program. The rock 'n' roll pioneer played his composition, "Memphis," after asking the audience, "What are the first three words?" The song was a hit for both Lonnie Mack and Johnny Rivers.

Of course, no show would be complete without "Maybellene." As Berry played his first hit, he dramatically got down on one knee and back up again without missing a lick on his guitar.

For a concert-closing instrumental jam, Berry invited a dozen women on stage to dance. He even demonstrated his famous "duck walk," jumping on one leg while moving the other in a back and forth motion, not a bad feat for a man who turns 83 on Oct. 18.

Berry clearly had fun performing, telling the crowd he'd be "back within six months" and predicting he'd live to be 106.

The casino audience clearly loved Berry, and demonstrated the fact with plenty of cheering and applause. Nobody seemed to mind some forgotten lyrics and abbreviated songs.

Sure, the 75-minute show was a little sloppy, but fans seemed happy Berry was still willing to entertain them when he could just as easily be collecting royalty checks at home.

Berry's influence stretches far and wide.

Rolling Stone included six of his songs on the magazine's "500 Greatest Songs of All Time" list in 2004: "Johnny Be Goode" (7), "Maybellene" (18), "Roll Over Beethoven" (97), "Rock And Roll Music" (128), "Sweet Little Sixteen" (272) and "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man" (374).

Musical acts as diverse as the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, AC/DC, Elvis Presley, Bruce Springsteen, Judas Priest owe a debt of gratitude to the man from Wentzville, Missouri.

So do all the fans who've loved his music for more than half a century.

Thanks, Chuck, for showing us how to rock, and for reminding us we don't have to stop.

1 comment:

Snow Ogre said...

Nice review. Glad you had a good time and to hear that Chuck Berry is still entertaining at 82. Nice photo, too.