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By Jonas Weir
The Duck Room, a basement converted into a music club with exposed pipes and red brick walls, is plastered with rustic wooden duck figurines and framed Donald Duck comics. The decorator’s very literal interpretation of the name might seem tacky, but it’s nothing compared to the outfit Chuck Berry shuffles out on stage in—a glimmering blue-sequined shirt, a pair of slacks, and a captain’s hat. But who’s going to tell the eighty-six-year-old father of rock ’n’ roll his clothes look ridiculous? He invented a genre that birthed David Bowie, Björk, and hair metal; he certainly doesn’t care what people think.
“I’m not ashamed; I’ll show you,” Chuck says, gesturing toward his ear after jamming a few slow-walking blues tunes for the 350-person crowd. “I was going to show you my hearing aid,” he says, laughing. It’s understandable a lifetime of rock deteriorated his hearing, but it’s amazing eight decades of life didn’t destroy his wit, sense of humor, or mobility, too.
Time has slowed things down for Chuck Berry, though. The band plays each song a little slower. Each chord change seems like a lifetime. And his picking isn’t what it used to be, exposing influences like T-Bone Walker and Muddy Waters. However, guitar might not have been the iconic instrument of rock if he hadn’t sped it up in the first place.
In the 1950s, most of Chuck’s contemporaries were piano players: Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and Fats Waller. Even those who played guitar didn’t play it quite like Chuck.
He was the first musician to shred, playing a notch below the Ramones.
Even if his music is now lackadaisical, the fans’ excitement is palpable. When asking for a song suggestion, the crowd immediately erupts, shouting a potpourri of titles from “Roll Over Beethoven” to “School Days.”
Among all the clamoring, the legend’s hearing aid picked up one of the best—his first single, “Maybelline,” released in 1955.
Although born in St. Louis, shows like this have made Chuck Berry a St. Louis institution over the past seventeen years. Ironically, however, he’s taken his residency in the basement of a restaurant named after a ’50s hit that he never recorded, Blueberry Hill.
Longtime friend and Blueberry Hill owner Joe Edwards says the legendary musician decided to start playing there monthly because he wanted to play shows somewhere similar in size to the venues he originally played. Today, the intimate concerts draw people from around the world; Joe says people come from as far as Japan to see Chuck.
“I don’t think Missourians realize how greatly revered Chuck Berry still is around the world,” Joe says.
Even greats like the Beatles recognize Chuck’s legacy. The music press is no exception; Rolling Stone has ranked him among the greatest guitarists, greatest singers, and greatest artists of all time. Although he’s most recognized for guitar work, many see Chuck as more than just a great guitar player. John Lennon said in a 1971 interview with Rolling Stone, “Chuck Berry is one of the all-time great poets, a rock poet you could call him.”
Missourians have a chance to see a legend, and some St. Louis residents aren’t letting it pass by. Thirty-three-year-old teacher Erik Harshman has been attending the Blueberry Hill performances monthly for the past twelve years. He credits Chuck with inventing rock.
A fan of death-metal bands like Six Feet Under and Misery Index, it might be a surprise he is so devoted, but he knows his history.
“They grew up with the result of Chuck Berry,” Erik says of metal bands today.
At this point, there’s no telling how long Chuck will keep at it. He turns to his band and asks how much time is left. Forty minutes. He turns back and playfully says, “Forty minutes feels like four days to me.” Then, he immediately plays the song that changed it all: “Johnny B. Goode.” When NASA launched “Johnny B. Goode” into space on the Voyager in 1977, Saturday Night Live joked aliens would say, “Send more Chuck Berry.”
Nearing the end of his set, Chuck invites people on stage. While the stage is congested with fans, he slowly backs out, continuing playing, leaving the stage through a back door.
No good-bye. No “thanks for coming.” He just leaves without a word.
While classic rock bands he inspired are playing sold-out stadium shows with expensive tickets, Chuck Berry plays small, intimate shows at moderate prices in his hometown.
The Rolling Stones have been playing farewell tours since 1982, but Chuck won’t play a farewell tour at enormous amphitheaters across the world. He won’t make a big deal of his departure.
He’ll just quietly exit the way he came in—playing his guitar in St. Louis.