I had heard how difficult Chuck can be! I was asked to put a rhythm section together for him in 1991. I was also booked to play with the Shirelles opening for Chuck. The agent called me and said Chuck doesn´t allow his players to play with the opening act. Not only that but he has the option of bringing his own bass player! I told the agent that Chuck was putting me in the position of turning him down, I got a call back … Chuck will make an exception.
The gig was in an outdoor amphitheatre at a casino. I showed up early with pianist Andy Bailey and drummer Stan Kipper.¨I had picked these musicians because . not only did they understand the music , but I knew they were mentally secure enough not to let Chuck intimidate them!
No one was sure whether Chuck would rehearse or not. After hanging around for two hours we were ready to leave when Chuck showed up. He put us through his jail house intimidation audition. He told us ¨Chuck Berry plays Chuck Berry´s hits but Chuck is getting old and can´t remember what hits he had any more!¨Then he plays the intro to Johnny B Goode. Andy plays a glissando. Chuck stops him with ¨I don´t want to hear any of that sliding shit ..you hear?¨Chuck plays the intro again Stan hits the snare on one in the middle. Chuck stops him. No you don´t play in the middle of the intro. Then it´s my turn . ¨Bass player! If I play this . what do you play? Chuck plays a typical slow blues intro but fakes me out but going straight to the four chord instead of the one. ¨You see I went to the subdominant and you went to the tonic!¨You need to pay attention!¨Then If I play this, what will you play?¨Chuck plays the intro to ¨Memphis¨. I come in pumping 8th notes on the tonic. Chuck beams at me ¨Now you´ve got it! Now you´ve been paying attention! You´ve been listening!¨
Audition over. Chuck tells us to watch his ¨big size 13 ¨ (foot) and warns us that he can´t always remember what key his songs are in and to watch out for him changing key. ( not surprising as a few of his hits were speeded up on the recording).
He also tells me I should stay simple behind the vocals and break out and do my thing behind the solos.
Drummer Stan Kipper and had discussed whether to take a straight 8th note approach to the rock n roll songs but we decided to swing them in the original 1950´s style. The groove of first song of the first gig a little shaky. On stage in front of a big crowd Chuck turned to Stan and said ¨Drummer, What is wrong with you!¨. Stan said ¨I´ve got one of your speakers each side of me and no drums in the monitors and I can´t hear myself!¨Chuck ¨Don´t you know what you´re playing?¨Stan ( standing)¨Take it easy Chuck!¨Chuck, incredulous gives up on Stan, turns to me. ¨Bass player. Tell the drummer what I want!¨ Me to Stan ¨I think Chuck wants you to lay back a little because Chuck is getting old and likes to pace himself¨ Chuck to Stan¨That´s right!¨. The next tune, a 50´s swing rocker fell right in the pocket.¨In the middle Chuck walks up to Stan ( an African American¨) and says ¨Now this is feeling real good! Now we´re playing like white people! Stan and I nearly fell out laughing. Chuck then did something totally unexpected. He called an Elmore James tune ¨Dust My Broom¨and then Jimmy Reed´s ¨Honest I Do¨. It´s unheard of in my experience for Chuck to play anyone else´s songs and showed that he really trusted us by then,! During one of these he went and edged Andy off the piano stool and played some great blues piano in the key of E!
The casino had a clause in the contract that the artist would get fined $500 for every minute they ran over time. When he got the signal to quit Chuck started another tune and invited everyone to get on stage and dance. When the stage was full of dancers he went backstage and continued to play and left us to bring things to a close. He probably got hit with a $3000 of $4000 fine.
The casino people came backstage and Chuck agreed to pay the fine, Then the casino suit , relieved at Chuck´s cooperation, said¨We have chartered a plane for you tomorrow. The next gig was another casino about 200 miles away. Chuck ¨Is it a jet?¨ Suit ¨No , it´s a prop plane¨. Chuck ¨I don´t fly prop planes, I´ll drive¨. Suit ¨OK. I´ll order a car and driver Chuck ¨No. I drive myself¨ Suit ¨OK . I´ll order a car¨. Chuck ¨And I charge $5000 for driving!¨ So much for the fine. Touche Chuck.
When we saw him the next day he could not have been friendlier!