When Chuck Berry passed away Saturday at the age of 90, it dawned on me that I actually knew who he was.
For the most part, I don’t pay much attention to the passing of famous people. Even though I was in high school in the mid-1950s and in college in the early ’60s (and graduated in ’61), I wasn’t listening to popular (can you say “current”?) music. I was still buying every big-band record I could find along with classical and Broadway musicals.
I didn’t even like Elvis Presley, although today I love listening to his recordings of the old gospel tunes. It is interesting he never won a Grammy for rock ’n’ roll but did for his gospel albums.
Berry’s death reminded of a time when I sat down with the rock ’n’ roller on an empty stage at the California Youth Authority Boys’ School in 1980. Berry played there as part of the 1,000 hours of community service he was required to perform as a result of a 1979 conviction for tax evasion, according to a Tribune article at the time. He also performed at the Veterans Memorial Building in San Luis Obispo the same day.
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I was given the wrong time to be at the school’s small theater to cover Berry’s concert. So when he arrived, it was just him and me for almost an hour. We spent the hour talking about all sorts of things, including music. Berry wasn’t real fond of giving interviews, I learned. So our encounter was a fluke that went well.
I guess I heard my first Chuck Berry song in the mid-’60s. His hit tune, “Roll Over Beethoven” took me by surprise at how much I liked it. Others like “Maybellene,” and “Sweet Little Sixteen” were equally enjoyable for me.
I admit the tunes were all very similar, which is true of many performers. My wife complained that every Benny Goodman tune sounded the same. All of Jerry Lee Lewis numbers sound about the same. I think it is Lewis’ piano prowess that captivates me so.
As his backup band began arriving, signaling our hour together was coming to a close, I recognized them as local musicians. Berry talked with them for a little while and then suggested they “just follow me and I’ll give you the key changes” where needed. That’s how simple the music was. They rehearsed for maybe 45 minutes before they were ready to perform.
And what would a Chuck Berry performance be without that famous duck walk across the stage? I don’t think the young inmates were that thrilled, but the adult staff went crazy.
“Ya gotta have a gimmick,” someone once said. For Berry it was that duck walk, which he said began when he slipped and fell during a performance. So he just put it in the act.
Lon Allan’s column is special to The Tribune. He has lived in Atascadero for five decades and his column appears here every week. Reach Allan at 466-8529 or firstname.lastname@example.org.