Just minutes after the above picture was taken, Chuck Berry came out onto that stage and began one of the most memorable nights I’ve had in my near 31 years. This was back in 2010 and also happened to be Berry’s 84th birthday. I expected the legend to come out, play a few songs, tell a few stories, and then wrap it up. After all, he turned 84 that day and surely he wouldn’t be the same duck-walking, riff playing, non-stop performer like I’d seen in so many documentaries and old YouTube clips. I was never happier to be wrong. Berry came out in a shiny bright red shirt and signature captain’s hat and spent over an hour on stage putting on a show I’ll never forget.
Whether you know it or not, you are a Chuck Berry fan. I don’t say that as a means to force fandom on you, but if you like any of the most popular groups/artists from the last 60 years then you are, at least indirectly, a Chuck Berry fan. Berry is widely known as the “Father of Rock and Roll” and for good reason. Berry was widely cited as an influence for artists such as Elvis, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Aerosmith, and so many more. Quite frankly, had Chuck Berry never laid down his signature riffs or told so many great stories in his songs then there’s no telling how the course of rock and roll would’ve been altered.
In addition to his impact on music he also left a huge mark on visual media as well. His music has been in iconic moments in film, most notably through Marty McFly’s performance in Back to the Future and the dance scene from Pulp Fiction. I’d be remiss if I also didn’t mention the appearance of his song “School Day” on the classic album The Simpsons Sing the Blues. The use of his music was appropriate not only because Berry’s songs were catchy, but his songs told great stories. “Johnny B. Goode” and “You Never Can Tell” were the two songs in the mentioned movies, respectively, and are perfect examples of superb story telling through music. My personal favorite Berry track is the song “Nadine” which tells the story of a guy pursuing his love interest, Nadine. As he winds through the lyrics he paints such a strong visual image it takes little imagination to see the events as they unfold in the song.
When Berry took the Duck Room stage that night in 2010 I was pumped, but also mildly disappointed because my phone died shortly after I took that picture of the stage. I wanted to document the experience so I could revisit that night whenever I looked at the pictures. That night was when I became a fervent believer that a live show should be experienced in the moment and not through a camera lens. The Duck Room was filled to capacity that night, with a whopping 340 people. The room was small and the intimate setting was perfect as Berry interacted with the crowd, sharing stories and taking requests. He even cracked jokes with a Chicago Cubs superfan (the Duck Room is in the Blueberry Hill restaurant in St. Louis by the way).
The pinnacle of the night was seeing him play. As he launched into his set list he turned the clock back and I was transported to another time. When he started “Johnny B. Goode” I felt like I was at the Enchantment under the Sea dance in 1955. He broke into a modified duck-walk and the crowd feeling it. He continued to play song after song touching on many of his hits including “My Ding-a-ling” which I’m sure Ryan Lemond would’ve loudly sang along with the rest of us.
Chuck Berry won’t go down as the greatest guitarist of all time and he may not be the greatest writer of all time, though there is a strong case to be made for this. I also know that Berry wasn’t a saint. He was the father of rock and roll so of course he wasn’t a saint. Regardless, there will never be another Chuck Berry. A very brief look at his accomplishments include: first ever inductee into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame, inspiration for Elvis and The Beatles (among others), and had his music sent into space on the 1977 launch of the Voyager spacecraft. For me though, I’ll always remember the swagger he had when he was on that stage in St. Louis. As he prepared to play his final song he invited every female in the crowd to join him on stage. Every woman that could get on that stage from age 18-75 was singing and dancing while Chuck played. Chuck Berry didn’t put on a concert that night, he threw a party and I got to go. The Duck Room won’t be quite the same without you, but I have no doubt that Heaven is reelin’ and rockin’ now. Thanks Chuck.