Chuck Berry is The Man

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The man turned 90 this week.

THE man. Chuck Berry. Maybelline. Johnny Be Good. Roll Over Beethoven.

RocknRoll icon Chuck Berry, the very first man inducted into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame, turned 90 years old without much fanfare, other than to announce that, oh by the way, he has a new album coming out soon — Chuck — his first in 38 years.

38 years? Most artists don’t have careers last that long. Hell, some artists don’t last that long.

In rock and roll years, where many of the influential die at the age of 27 (Bryan Jones, Janis, Jimi, Jim, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, many others), 90 is … unheard of.

How old is 90? He was 20 when David Bowie was born. He pre-dates “classic rock” by a generation. He was apparently too old to play at Oldcella, aka Desert Trip. He turned 18 before Keith Richards was a one year old. Who do you think looks better?

But the way, there would be no Rolling Stones without Chuck Berry. Sure, you can hear his influence in their music — his unique guitar work that combined blues and country to create a signature line of rock and roll.

But if Keith Richards, then a strapping 17 year-old, hadn’t noticed the Chuck Berry record in 18-year-old Mick Jagger’s hand at the train station that day in England, they might not have spoken.

John Lennon once said “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry.’ ”

The New York Times called Berry “probably the most influential rock musician, ever.”

Let me tell you about when I shared a stage with Chuck Berry in concert — at least that’s the way I remember it. It was my very first concert. I was 16 or 17 years old. He was about 50, the Father of Rock n Roll.

I am a father now. Both of my sons have been to their first concert. One saw the Zac Brown Band. One saw a rapper.

But this is a story about the teenage me. And it’s a great story.

And I dare to say, if you exclude people with backstage passes, or people with relatives in the music industry, it could be The Best First Concert Story Ever.

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Chuck Berry in 1997 (Wikipedia)
Chuck Berry in 1997 (Wikipedia)

I will say this up front — when I was 15 or 16, my musical taste was eclectic. My dad liked jazz and comedy albums. My sister liked pop. I was across the board. The first album I bought was Deep Purple’s Machine Head. The second was a Three Dog Night album. The third was comedian Gabe Kaplan’s Holes and Mello-Rolls (the source material for TV’s Welcome Back Kotter.)

And the fourth was Sha-Na-Na, From the Streets of New York. Sha-Na-Na was a tribute band — like Led Zepagain or The Fab Four. But Sha-Na-Na paid homage to, and had fun with, songs from the 50s. They’re certainly the only tribute band to play Woodstock, have its own TV show and continue performing for more than 40 years. Since I found them in the 70s, they were considered to be an ‘oldies’ group — and damned if I didn’t like the oldies. And since so many of the great oldies were performed or inspired by Chuck Berry, I became a fan of his as well.

Living in suburban New Jersey, I had access to lots of great entertainment choices in New York City — theoretically, if I had my parents’ permission. Somewhere around junior year in high school, I got permission to attend my first concert. It was at Madison Square Garden, called “Richard Nader’s Rock N’ Roll Revival.” It was a big deal — at least to me.

I honestly can’t remember who I went with. I know it wasn’t a date — you’ll see why soon. It was probably a classmate — John, or Paul or Dave or Gene. I don’t remember who I went with, or how we got there — but it doesn’t matter.

As the show started, the emcee, a fellow named Dick Clark, would introduce a one-hit wonder band, and they’d come out and play their one hit, maybe one more song, and then leave.

By the way, some of you who thought you had a ‘best first concert ever’ probably just got left behind because I was at the Garden, and Dick Clark was the emcee. But it gets better.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, the Penguins!” As each new act would come out, a few of their devoted fans would rise and scream, and try and rush the stage — but security pushed them back. This continued for each of the acts: their intro, then screams, then rushing, then pushback, all while each act did one or two songs, then onto the next act. (The Penguins, by the way, did their hit “Earth Angel (Will You Be Mine?).”

As I recall, there were maybe five or six acts in the first half of the show, building towards the closing act of the first half, Sonny Til and the Orioles, a big hit with the ladies. They had at least three hits, closing with “Crying In The Chapel.”

We were seated fairly close, so I’d had a good view of the rush to the stage/get pushed back tango that was ongoing — it was amusing to me.

After the intermission, Dick Clark brought up the three big acts to close the show. First was Gene “Duke of Earl” Chandler. The ladies liked him, but of course they were returned to the seats. Then came the smoking hot Ronnie Spector with her group Ronnie and the Ronettes.

Eight years earlier, they had opened for the Beatles on a 14-city tour. In 2007, they would be inducted into the Hall of Fame — inducted by (there he is again) Keith Richards!

But that night, they were sizzling on stage at MSG… and this high school junior enjoyed the hell out of them. When they closed withBe My Baby,” bells were ringing and I was singing along.

Then Dick Clark then brought out the headliner: “The man you’ve been waiting for … Chuck Berry!”

Maybe it was intuition, maybe it was the sultry voice of Ronnie Spector still ringing in my ears, but something told me that it was time for me to rush the stage. Fortunately, a couple of hundred other people all thought that at the same time. And like beach Frisbee players staring at a tsunami, the security staff took one look at the oncoming crowd, and turned and ran.

And so there I was, my first concert ever, elbows on the stage at Madison Square Garden, Dick Clark scurrying past my hands trying to get off the stage, and Chuck Berry jamming on “Rock and Roll Music!”

Just let me hear some of that Rock and Roll Music,

any old way you choose it …

It was pretty amazing — but the best was yet to come.

Second song over, and the crowd goes nuts. I realize I’ve lost whoever I was at the concert with, and I don’t care. Because when I looked to my left, right beside me is … a heart-stopper. A pretty girl in a pretty blue sweater, with brown hair and brown eyes (which I later would learn is ‘my type’). And she’s looking right at me. And smiles. And says, “Can you believe this?!” And she owned me right then.

All over St Loo-ey, and down in New Orleans,
All the cats want to dance with, Sweet Little Sixteen

By then Chuck was on his third song, and said something about ‘get close to someone,’ and the next thing I knew, I was hugging that girl, and she was hugging me, and then I was kissing her and she was kissing me. Full on teenage making out.

Can you beat that? My first concert, leaning on the stage at MSG, kissing a stranger while Chuck Berry played.

It gets better.

Through the heat we were creating stageside, I barely heard Chuck say to the crowd, “I need two dancers.” By the time I realized what he said, there were 20 people on stage. We broke from our lip-lock in time to see him impishly look down right at us and say … “I need two more.”

I can not tell you how we got on stage, whether we found steps, or threw ourselves up there, but 30 seconds later, we’re onstage at Madison Square Garden, WITH Chuck Berry, blasting through “Reelin’ and Rocking.”

Well I looked at my watch it was 9:32

There’s nothing I’d rather do than dance with you
and we rolled, Reelin’ and a rocking …

One song later, he played “Johnny B. Goode,” doing his trademark duck walk, shuffling on one foot while playing. Several members of the dance crowd now onstage also tried it. Unfortunately, a couple of them kicked out a plug, then an amp, and suddenly all you could hear was the drums, as the whole sound system went out.

Overhead security lights came on, and security showed up to clear the stage. A huge sense of disappointment swept through the arena.

But just as we were about to leave, you could hear an electric guitar chord play, and Chuck yelled out, “I ain’t done yet!” The lights went down, the sound was on, and he launched into “You Never Can Tell,” which would be reintroduced years later in the dance scene of Pulp Fiction.

It was a teenage wedding, and the old folks wished them well
You could see that Pierre did truly love the mademoiselle …

We danced some more, then it was time to leave — at least that’s what the security guy pulling at our pants leg said. We got down, she leaned in and kissed me again, then ran off to find her friends.

And as I watched her go, Chuck Berry wrapped up his set.

Since then, I’ve had some pretty good concert experiences. I saw a young Springsteen run through the crowd at a 2,000 seat room and watch as someone ripped Bruce’s ski cap from his head, and then yelled at the guy to give it back (he did); I’ve caught Frisbees from Elton John when the power went out at Nassau Coliseum, I’ve had Harry Chapin pose for me in the middle of a song so I could take his picture, and I’ve lead a quartet singing Happy Birthday to Tony Bennett outside the Artist’s entrance to the Hollywood Bowl, moments after he sang a show for 18,000.

But none of that tops making out with a stranger, and dancing on stage with Chuck Berry at Madison Square Garden for a first concert. That’s why it’s the Best First Concert Ever, right?

Happy Birthday Chuck. You can bet I’ll be buying the new album. And if you go on tour, I’ll be rushing the stage again … though probably a bit slower than the last time.

Hail, Hail Rock N Roll!