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Chuck Berry - Crawley, March 1995

Last night I went to Crawley to hear Chuck Berry sing
I said "Chuck please do your duck walk, not that smutty thing
Sing ‘Sweet Little 16’, don’t play ‘Ding-a-ling’"

I hadn’t wanted to go. He has such a rotten reputation as a ‘live’ act – treating his bands badly, sloppy playing on a set timed at one hour precisely. I preferred to nourish the feelings which his recordings still arouse but there comes a time when we all have to let go. For most people, this occurs when they’re about 20 and they move on to important things like gym and foreign holidays. It was clearly time for me to move on, but first my teenage son Nat told me I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see the legend on my doorstep in Crawley. Nat clearly felt the sense of occasion - who was I to argue? But, please, I didn’t want the lasting memory of this one-off event to be that ill-begotten number one.

We sit in the barn which is Crawley Leisure Centre, on the badminton courts, with the seats placed strangely in diagonal formation across the hall, facing a corner stage. After a worthy support spot by a rockabilly band with an over-amplified slap bass which palled a little with time, it’s 9 o’clock. The lights dim and Chuck Berry is announced. The band come on, sit at piano and drums, pick up bass and remain motionless. After a minute or so the bass player seems to sway a little. Some wag shouts a request for them to turn it up a bit. There are a few more good-natured calls and the odd whistle. Just before our anticipation dies completely, Chuck comes on. Looking fit and lean and taller than I imagined, as ever, his clothes are old-fashioned in an uncool way and lack colour co-ordination. Low-key, carrying his cherry-red Gibson and a cup of beverage he approaches the microphone non-assertively. ‘Is that the time?’ he asks feigning surprise, ‘they didn’t tell me’. Nobody believes him, but what the hell? Not a good start, but at least he’s here. Chuck tells us he’s going to play some Church Berry songs (cheers). He plays an unmemorable instrumental which shows his band to be good musicians, tight with a well-balanced sound. Then it’s non-stop. ‘Roll over Beethoven’ and I recall the Beatles’ version with pleasure too. ‘Schooldays’ and we’re with him as one as we all shout ‘Hail hail rock’n’roll’ and mean it. ‘Sweet little 16’ he’s needlessly updated the words to include ‘mini skirts’ instead of ‘tight dresses’ but it’s great to hear it ‘live’. It takes me back to the first time I saw him in the film ‘Jazz on a Summer’s day’ (now on DVD), performing this song. I’d barely tolerated the film until he came on - I was waiting for the main feature Jailhouse Rock.

Chuck carries on with 'Memphis' and I remember the dent he’d made to the Mersey domination of early 60s charts with this plaintive song. Keep it going Chuck, this is better than I expected. He’s not just going to play Chuck Berry. He gives us Little Walter’s blues classic ‘Mean old World’ with some nice guitar work. Then it’s ‘Carol’ (memories of the Rolling Stones’ cover on their first album), followed by ‘Little Queenie’. In your enthusiasm, you tend to forget how audience-friendly are the great refrains he wrote. We’re with him all the way. He treats us to another of my favourites, ‘You never can tell’, which like ‘Sweet little 16’, features a spine-tingling piano solo. This is a very good band and next they deliver Chuck’s ‘Rock ‘n’ roll music’ with panache.

We get a bit of patter. Chuck tells us he’s played here before (no one believes him and he hasn’t). Oh yes, he remembers Croydon, all right, he says. We indulge him. Then he slows the tempo briefly with a fine version of Jimmy Reed’s ‘Honest I do’ (memories of The Stones’ cover again). Then it’s what we thought we expected – ‘Johnny B Goode’ (except that we expected all his previous songs too, really). No longer young at 69, Chuck does his one duck walk of the evening during this number. He does it well and brings a great cheer.

He’s brought with him a bunch of ageing Teds with quiffs and sideburns and beer-bellies and their partners with 50’s sticky-out skirts. He invites them onstage to dance. One couple have a daughter, Nadine, named after his song which he now performs. It’s quite a long version and I begin to feel sorry for the lady dancers whom the blokes are spinning remorselessly. But they all manage to keep going to the end of the song and we cheer them.

He’s been on stage just short of one hour. After a bit of diatribe about Mary Whitehouse who wanted the song banned, the moment arrives which I’ve been dreading. I made a note, but I don’t know why, that next he played a C chord. He launches into ‘Ding-a-ling’. I feel as if I’m in church and they’re playing a hymn with banal words which I don’t want to join in. The audience sing along half-heartedly and self consciously – even the refrain is nowhere near as singable as those we’ve sung previously.

But it’s not over. He gets the dancers back up for ‘Reeling and rocking’. It seems churlish to say that I find this and ‘Too much monkey business’ (which he doesn’t play) a bit repetitive lyrically and less successful than the others we’ve joined in. But, hey, he’s been on stage for over an hour and this is a bonus. At this point it’s all good.

And, while the band still plays and the dancers still jive, at one hour and ten minutes he backs off the stage with a wave and is gone. It was a good evening, much better than I’d expected. The band played well, the selection of songs was good and the wretched ‘Ding’ didn’t eat into the precious hour which Chuck normally gives. I’m glad Nat persuaded me to go. We went to see if Chuck had dropped a plectrum, but he hadn’t. While we stood there at the front of the stage, someone managed to nick his sweaty towel.

 

Copyright © John Scott Cree 2003

First published in Leisure, April 2003, 26-27

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