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chuck berry

January 16, 2022 - 4:08pm
posted by David Reilly in chuck berry, music, arts, entertainment, news.


Everyone who attended college, especially those who went away to school, has at least a couple of good stories. You know, stories that you told your parents years later prefaced with, “It's a good thing you didn't know this back then but...”. Or stories that you told your kids once they were grown to prove that you were cooler or crazier than they thought you were.

One of my stories(I don't have that many) involves a weekend my senior year at St. John Fisher College in Rochester when I met some famous musicians. Unfortunately for me , even though in retrospect they were funny, my interactions proved that I was definitely not cool.

Blues Bonanza
In the spring of my junior year, some friends of mine produced what is still probably the best “Blues” show ever in Rochester. Held at the Nazareth College Auditorium it included the legendary Son House, the iconic Muddy Waters Blues Band, The Electric Flag with Mike Bloomfield and Buddy Miles, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band with Elvin Bishop and David Sanborn, and the Junior Wells Blues Band.

My friendship enabled me to score front row tickets to each of the 2 nights, but I was not involved in any of the production. It was such a great event though that 50 years later 3 of us who were there in 1968 went back to Nazareth on the anniversary to reminisce.

The following autumn the same friends had another big show at Nazareth planned and this time I wanted to be a part of putting it on. I was assigned to “Publicity”. This boiled down to me going around the downtown Rochester area and asking bar owners to put a poster in their windows. Not exactly exciting but a job that had to be done.

Grunt work I guess you'd call it.

As a reward for doing that and probably because I was one of the only ones with a car, my next task was to pick up 2 of the musicians at the airport for the first night's show.

All That Jazz
The group that night was a well-known jazz ensemble -- The Charles Lloyd Quartet. It consisted of leader Charles Lloyd on saxophone, Jack DeJohnette on drums, Ron McClure on bass, and Keith Jarrett on piano.

I knew little or nothing about jazz music then, but over the years I learned that these were some of the biggest names in that genre. Fortunately, now in their 70s and 80s, they are all still playing.

So, on Friday afternoon off to the Monroe County Airport, I went in my cranberry 1961 Chevy Biscayne to transport Ron and Keith to Nazareth for the soundcheck. I felt a little nervous, but not really having any idea of their stature in the jazz world, not too much.

I don't know if they were expecting a limo or some better kind of vehicle, but if so they were kind enough not to say so. We put McClure's upright bass in my trunk and off we went.

Apparently, I was more nervous than I had thought though. On the way there it had been raining. But , as I drove the two musicians the sun had come out. I was trying to make conversation when one of them said, “Hey could you turn off your windshield wipers? It's kind of annoying.” I hadn't even noticed they were on and hoped they didn't notice how beet red my face had turned.

Everybody Hasn't Heard About The Bird
Then at some point during the trip, I don't recall how it came up, but I mentioned the phrase, “...gave him the bird”, the colloquialism for the 1 finger salute given to people you are mad at. Except, neither Keith nor Ron had ever heard it called that. They said, "Gave him the what?” I could almost feel them exchanging odd glances at each other behind my back. But, at least it made for an interesting discussion the rest of the way. Hey, maybe I taught them something.

The concert that night was stellar and I felt good about broadening my horizons to a kind of music with which I had not been familiar . My date was a young lady from Batavia (who I have not seen for 50 years) and I probably tried to impress her by pointing out the two musicians on stage who had been in my car that afternoon. I left out the windshield wiper incident though.

If He Walks Like A Duck
The next night's headliner was the “Father of Rock and Roll” Mr. Chuck Berry. I would have been ecstatic to drive him from the airport, but Chuck had a very unique way of going on the road to perform.

The promoter would pay for his plane ticket and Berry would fly into town by himself bringing only his guitar. He would rent a car at the promoter's expense and drive himself to his hotel and the venue. No tour bus or big production with a trailer and “roadies” for him.

According to his contract, the promoter would be responsible for hiring a capable local band with bass, drummer, and rhythm guitarist to back him up. Chuck would show up for a soundcheck and rehearsal before the show and that was it.

I was fortunate to be able to attend the warm-up at Nazareth that afternoon and it was an experience to see Berry put the band through its paces. It was fairly easy actually. He would say, “ Key of G, 1,2,3 and away we go...”. But he had specific cues to guide them like when he stomped his foot they would pause and when he stomped it again they'd start back up. He had them go through some of his basic songs like Johnny B. Goode or Reelin' And A Rockin', corrected them on a few things, seemed satisfied, and let them go with, “See ya tonight”.

They must have been a very capable band because Berry was known to be somewhat difficult with his backups at times, including some famous musicians. There is a 1988 documentary about him titled “Hail! Hail! Rock And Roll!” which shows how hard he could be to work with specifically with Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones.

Before that night's show, a friend and I inhaled a substance that was illegal back then but mostly legal now. It was the first time for me (it never became that big of a deal for me going forward) and let's just say that we were in a “jovial state of mind” for the festivities.

Chuck put on a very entertaining show going through many of his hits and showing why just about every rock guitarist who came after him borrowed his licks and paid him homage by their imitation. He did his patented duck walk move a number of times and had the crowd right in the palm of his talented hand.

Nuns Night Out
Being in a “jovial state of mind” really added to one song that Berry did. He did a humorous double entendre tune called “My Ding A Ling” ( Google the lyrics) which involves an audience sing-along with different parts for the men and ladies.

As this concert was held at the Catholic Nazareth College, a number of the nuns who lived on campus must have decided to have a night out for themselves and attend. There were a bunch of them all sitting together in one row and good sports all they sang along with everyone else.

Well, it was funny enough to see a row of nuns singing, “ I wanna play with my ding a ling'', but our “jovial state of mind” put us over the edge into side-splitting laughter.

After the concert, there was the usual “after show” party. Ours wasn't held in a ritzy club though. It took place in the apartment of some of the students who had worked on the show. It was located above a bar on Monroe Avenue in Rochester known as the Cobbs Hill Grill. Today it's still operating as Jeremiah's, known for their chicken wings which weren't even invented back then.

Party Like It's Almost 1969
So, college student apartment 1968 style: probably minimum furniture of the used variety. A bookshelf made from concrete blocks and boards may be holding Kurt Vonnegut novels, Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet, a book of Lawrence Ferlinghetti poetry, and so on. Hanging beads separate one room from another. Possibly a big wooden spool from a utility company that had once held wire now used a table. On the table would be a Chianti bottle used as a candle holder coated with melted wax and a couple of overflowing ashtrays. A stereo system with good-sized speakers and some Bob Dylan vinyl spinning on the turntable.

People came in from the show in twos and threes. Chatting, smoking one thing or another, drinking beer or wine, talking loudly over the music. Someone said they heard Chuck was coming to the party. “Nah. Chuck Berry here? No way man.”

A group of us were hanging out in the kitchen when there was a knock at the door. Someone yelled out, “It's open!” and in walked Chuck Berry. Our mouths dropped open because 1. it was Chuck Berry and 2. he was accompanied by a Nazareth girl who I bet has a way better story to tell than me.

We were all trying very hard to be cool and nonchalant in Chuck's presence. You know like the guy who pretty much-invented the rock and roll guitar wasn't standing right there.

It's Not The Real Thing
Then out of the blue came one of the greatest uncool moments of all time. Chuck asked, “Hey man, anybody got any coke?”

One of the girls replied, “ There might be some in the refrigerator.” And I in my infinite naivete chimed in, “ Or if not , I'm sure they have some downstairs at the bar.”

Chuck looked at us with a look like, as my mom used to say, we all had 3 heads. “Man”, he scoffed. “ You ain't even in the right ballpark.”

“Oh!”, we all realized together. “That coke!” You could almost see us facepalming ourselves in unison. SMH as we would have commented today by texting.

I don't remember exactly, but I don't think Chuck stayed at our party much longer. All these years later I wish I could find that Nazareth girl( now in her 70's if living) and find out where the rest of the night led them.

Now, since “that coke” wasn't really a big well-known deal until the 70's I guess we could be forgiven for our cluelessness. Also, since I had just finished the third of my 4 summers working for Coca-Cola in Batavia, one could see why the kind that came in a bottle would be fixed in my brain. But still... it was embarrassing.

But, on the positive side, it was in reality a good thing we didn't have what Chuck wanted. And over the years I have told that story many times and never failed to get a laugh out of those who heard it.

Chuck passed away a couple of years ago at the age of 90, but he is still one of my favorites and I listen to his songs all the time. When I hear the lyrics to “Reelin' and a Rockin' that says, “Looked at my watch, it was 10:28, I gotta get my kicks before it gets too late”, that night in 1968 flashes in my mind.


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