By Greg Bowers
The old man dropped his guitar pick.
During a particularly long and winding version of “Johnny B. Goode” Chuck Berry’s guitar pick slipped out of his hand, rolled under the bass drum and was gone. Berry, at age 86, looked lost.
The man who invented rock and roll picked at his guitar strings with his long fingers, but it wasn’t working and he knew it. And his son, who had helped him with dropped picks a couple times earlier that night, hadn’t noticed the problem.
Berry looked at the audience. About 200 people had come down the narrow stairs into the basement room of this St. Louis club. He smiled. And we smiled back.
The show had started with a band of serious young men. They’d answered a last-minute call to open for Chuck Berry and show off their songs to a new crowd. They showed up because it was a smart thing for a young band to do, because it would look good on their resume. They were brothers who had obviously worked hard on their harmony, contorting their faces with the effort.
And then Chuck Berry came on stage withthe screaming guitar introduction to “Roll Over Beethoven.”
This is how you do it.
The 1950s were a heady time in America. Military men had just returned home from World War II and created an economic boom, building homes in the suburbs and buying televisions for their families to watch in their brand-new living rooms.
Technology was changing, too. Transistors created the first truly portable radios and opened a whole new market for music. Suddenly young people could decide what to listen to, as opposed to the larger models controlled by their parents. Meanwhile musicians were experimenting with evolving and suddenly “affordable” electric guitars.
Life was good. And something good was about to happen.
On July 5, 1954 Elvis Presley walked into Sun Records in Memphis and recorded “That’s All Right, Mama,” a song written and first recorded by blues singer Arthur Crudup.
On May 21, 1955, Chuck Berry, from St. Louis, recorded “Maybelline.” It was a song he wrote himself. Rock and Roll’s first steps.
Maybe Chuck Berry didn’t invent rock and roll, but he was in the room when it was invented. Even today, his songs don’t seem so much written as discovered. Was there a time before “Johnny B. Goode” “Roll Over Beethoven” “Rock and Roll Music” “Reelin and Rockin” “Memphis, Tennessee?” We know these songs by heart.
That’s why, when the old man stumbles over his lyrics, the crowd in the basement room of the St. Louis club helps him out.
“Roll over Beethoven. Dig these rhythm and blues” Berry sings.
The crowd sings, “Tell Tchaikovsky the news. “
He can’t make a mistake here.
These days Berry talks more than he sings.
“Hey diddle diddle, I play my fiddle” He points at his guitar. “Ain’t got nothing to lose.”
His band, which includes his son on guitar and his daughter on harmonica, is constantly on edge. This is tense work because the old man switches things up from time to time. It’s a high-wire act. Without warning, he changes songs, changes keys, changes chords, changes position. Chuck Berry sits on a chair with no warning, signaling his piano player to solo. He gets up with no warning, signaling that he’s back in charge.
His son steps front and whispers in his ear.
“It’s great when you’re my age to have a grown-up son who can tell you what to play next,” he says, then laughs.
The crowd laughs with him. The old man can’t make a mistake in this room.
Back in the 1950s when Chuck Berry changed music, he also changed lyrics.
"He was writing good lyrics and intelligent lyrics in the 1950s when people were singing 'Oh baby I love you so,'" John Lennon said during an interview on the old Mike Douglas show. "It was people like him that influenced our generation to try and make sense out of the songs rather than just sing 'Do wah diddy.'"
Later, in a Rolling Stone interview, Lennon clarified. “"He was well advanced of his time lyric-wise. We all owe a lot to him, including Dylan. I’ve loved everything he’s done, ever. He was in a different class from the other performers."
Berry’s best songs are narratives, stories sprinkled with sparkle:
“You know she wiggles like a glow worm, Dances like a spinnin' top.”—Roll Over Beethoven
“You can’t catch me. Cause if you get too close, you know I’m gone like a cool breeze.”—You Can’t Catch Me
“Way down in Louisiana close to New Orleans. Way back up in the woods among the evergreens.There stood a log cabin made of earth and wood. Where lived a country boy named Johnny B. Goode. Who never ever learned to read and write so well. But he could play a guitar like ringing a bell.”—Johnny B. Goode
Did somebody write these songs? Or were they always there, imprinted on your consciousness like the sound of your mother’s voice?
The crowd responds. The old man smiles.
Life is messy sometimes. It doesn’t move in a straight line and when you start there’s no way to tell where you’re going to finish. Even with its bright beginnings, rock and roll meandered more than bee-lined through our lives.
Berry had his problems. Copyright cases (Listen to Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” and the Beach Boys’ “Surfin USA” back to back,) arguments with old friends, run-ins with police. But this is remarkable. Years ago he hooked up with Blueberry Hill, the St. Louis club with the basement music space and he’s been doing a show pretty much every month since then. Berry turns 88 on October 18th. On Oct 15th, he’s scheduled to perform a show at Blueberry Hill. He performed his 200th show at the club in January and before he did, had already scheduled his 201st.
Lonely Planet.com listed the series as the No. 1 rock-and-roll travel destination, ahead of Abbey Road and ahead of Graceland. The legend is holding on in a small club in St. Louis, just like the old days. Elvis is gone. Chuck Berry is here. And even if it’s not always good, it’s good.
And Berry’s show is not always good. He plays a version of the old blues classic “It Hurts Me Too” that ends up being more soliloquy than song.
And then there’s “Johnny B. Goode.” The song lasts some twenty minutes with long musical interludes. In fact, there are points where it becomes unclear whether we were still hearing “Johnny B. Goode.” But it is “Johnny B. Goode. “ And it is Chuck Berry. And that is good.
Then the old man dropped his guitar pick.
It rolled under the bass drum and Chuck Berry couldn’t find it. And his son didn’t see what had happened.
The moment grew long until somebody in the front yelled, “It’s under the drum.” Berry’s son fished it out, mouthed “Thank you” to the fan, and handed the pick back to his father.
But the old man was finished.
“I got to go,” he says. He lifted his large hand and smiled.
And we smiled back while over by the stairs a serious young band sold CDs from a metal folding table and thought about the future.