By: Steve Kostan
Perhaps THEE key player in the phenomenon called Rock & Roll just hit 90 years old. Chuck Berry, along with a big assist from his pianist Johnnie Johnson, found a sound that resonated across America and the Free World. Johnnie was big part of that. In fact Johnson was the band leader at first, but they changed it to ‘Chuck Berry” because in Johnnie’s words, “Chuck was the go-getter”. Many of those song are in odd keys, because the music was laid down by Johnson on the piano first. What Chuck REALLY brought to the party was his lyrics. His songs, and the stories within, captured the imagination and experience of teenaged America. articulate to the max. From day one, Berry was determined to reach beyond black audiences to the much larger white audience. He not only knocked it out of the park, he knocked it out of the country. His songs influenced young John and Paul, Mick and Keith and countless others all over the English speaking world. The movie “Hail, Hail Rock & Roll”, done 30 years ago for Chuck’s 60th, is a great way to get caught up this legendary “cat”.
Here in Detroit he was a big star. From the Walled Lake Casino, to the Birmingham Palladium, Second Chance in Ann Arbor, to Hart Plaza downtown, Chuck rocked Detroit. I emceed his Second Chance Ann Arbor show 1981, but the real kicker for me was Chuck Berry live at Hart Plaza around 1990. There had to be over 15,000 of you there for that free show. Now Chuck had a reputation of being a little ornery occasionally but I saw another side. While I was bringing him on I said something to the crowd about how he had influenced the thousands of white kids that had ever picked up a guitar. Then, “ Don’t take my word for it, ask guys like Johnny Winter, The Beatles or Keith Richards.” I then threw in a variation of Seger’s “Chuck’s Children” line, finished the intro, and headed off stage giving Chuck a really wide berth. He stopped plugging in, walked out to the front of the stage where I was. I’m thinking, “Geez what I did do wrong?” He walked straight towards me and…BOOM out goes that big hand to shake mine and said “Great Intro” ! Stunned, I replied, “Hey Chuck it’s all true. They’re all your yours.” It took him about 15 minutes to click into his “highway gear” but after that the set was really hot. I tried to chat him up after the set but he got in his Caddy and took off quickly, pausing only to to talk briefly with Rob Tyner of the MC 5. So i just chatted up Rob after, which was always cool.
Chuck Berry is releasing his first new album “CHUCK” in 2017. It’s been about 4 decades. Looking forward to it. Here we are in 2016 and all of us Chuck’s Children are grateful. Happy Birthday to the Brown Eyed Handsome Man!