March 26, 2009
In my youth I dismissed the talent of Chuck Berry. The reason was his dumb novelty song "My Ding-a-Ling," his only No. 1 hit. Youthful sanctimony overlooked great songs like "Johnny B. Goode," "Maybellene" and "Rock and Roll Music" to bewail the unpardonable musical sin of "My Ding-a-Ling."
Berry's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction statement says he was the first to put all the rock 'n' roll pieces together. Many guitar licks that have become clichés originated with him. Some of his lyrics are rock 'n' roll poetry.
He has earned his legend. Maybe his three prison terms -- one for carjacking, one for violating the Mann Act and one for tax evasion -- are why his face isn't on Cape Girardeau's "Missouri Wall of Fame" mural. Of course, Frank and Jesse James' faces are.
He was born in St. Louis and still lives nearby. For years our friends Frank and Robyn have talked about going to see him play, but his few concerts always sell out immediately.
At 82, he still performs once a month at Blueberry Hill, a restaurant and bar in St. Louis with a basement space called the Duck Room. Occasionally my favorite band, the Melroys, opens for Berry at Blueberry Hill. Last week Mike Enderle, the Melroys' drummer, put us on his guest list for an electrifying evening.
Berry never has paid much attention to playing the right notes, and that's of no concern to him at all these days. But his mojo still works just fine. Dressed in a shimmering turquoise shirt and banging his trademark Gibson guitar, he duck-walked and sang those familiar songs as the crowd of 350 jumped up and whooped.
Through most of his touring career, Berry hired a different band to back him up at each location. The backup band had to guess what song was coming next and in which key. At Blueberry Hill, the band seemed to know the keys, but that was sometimes subject to change in mid-song.
If he wasn't playing all the notes he once did, the audience was there to honor all the notes that came before.
Opening acts for Berry at Blueberry Hill must abide by certain rules: They are not allowed to approach Berry or talk to him unless he talks to them first. It's also forbidden for them to say his name from the stage.
But as the final song began many of the babelicious women younger than 35 were invited onstage to dance as the legend played. Think of Chuck Berry duck-walking in the Duck Room the next time you think you might be getting too old for something.
DC wants me to remind you that 8:30 p.m. Saturday is Earth Hour everywhere on the planet. The lights on the Great Pyramids of Giza will be turned off for an hour. Also going dark will be 2,712 cities and towns in 84 countries. The idea is to call attention to global warming and the many benefits of conserving energy. Spend an hour in the dark or remain in the dark.
Sam Blackwell is a former reporter for the Southeast Missourian.