By Roy Kasten
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In a fairy-tale world, Chuck Berry's 80th birthday bash which took place on Wednesday, October 18, at Blueberry Hill's Duck Room (6504 Delmar Boulevard, University City; 314-727-4444) would have fallen on the same night that the Cardinals clinched a World Series berth. Imagine the festive scene at the venue, with the fanatical baseball faithful mingling in celebration with the crowds who flock to the Duck Room monthly to see the living legend perform.
But it was fortuitous that the Redbirds (or, more precisely, their bats) decided not to show up at Shea Stadium that night. This left the spotlight shining solely on the man who inspired everyone from the Rolling Stones to the Beatles to AC/DC. One can tell countless stories about Berry (including no shortage of tales that are controversial), but what's undeniable is the impact he's had on modern music especially since the three aforementioned groups are arguably the biggest influences on most current bands.
For such a monumental birthday, however, the atmosphere of the concert was rather low-key although the fabulous red-sequined shirt Berry sported was not. There was no cake, no singing of "Happy Birthday," no stage decorations. Heck, even a cameo by Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry for a song or two onstage including "Rock & Roll Music" was as nonchalant as guest spots can get. (Conventional wisdom says this was a classy move by Perry, who didn't wish to steal Berry's spotlight.)
To be honest, this was the first time I'd ever seen Berry perform live, and I wasn't sure what to expect. People had told me varying things about the quality of his live show that it was hit-or-miss, that only a few moments of these gigs musically clicked, that he was showing his age. I sort of thought I'd see a frail old man onstage, barely able to get through his hits.
But Berry, sporting a captain's hat (à la the Skipper from Gilligan's Island), smiling broadly and executing a damn fine duck walk, was nothing like people had described. In fact, journalist that I am, the two adjectives that immediately came to mind were "spry" and "sassy." Berry grasped a guitar and rocked out like he was a third of his age during a bluesy waltz, whose recurrent line of "I'm still feeling fine" resonated.
On another song, some salacious lyrics ("At 11:30, she called me something dirty") devolved into amusement; as Berry sang, "As [the clock] hit twelve...," he and the crowd collapsed in laughter, and the thought went unfinished.
Throughout the show, it was hard not to feel a little electric thrill shimmy down my back. I mean, I was in the Duck Room with 300-odd people, watching Chuck Berry onstage. Chuck Berry! Playing the primitive, scorched-earth rock & roll of "Roll Over Beethoven" and "Johnny B. Goode," which he introduced thusly: "I'm gonna play one of my best songs." (The understatement of the year.) Even today, the revolution-fomenting "School Days" with its seminal chorus of "Hail, hail rock & roll/Deliver me from the days of old/Long live rock & roll" spurred a mass stage-rush by women of all ages and inspired a subsequent dance party.
That proved to be the last song of the night, despite the crowd's protestations when Berry teased the audience with the question, "Do you want us to stop?" Soon after, his son, Charles Edward Berry Jr., introduced the regular Blueberry Hill band bassist Jim Marsala, drummer Keith Robinson and keyboardist Bob Lohr along with his singing sister, Ingrid, and longtime Berry associates Darryl Davis and Bob Baldori, who were sitting in with the band that night. Logic dictated that the last introduction would be Chuck Berry himself, coming back to the forefront to soak up the applause and adoration.
But then the house lights came up, and there was no encore and no Berry. He'd disappeared backstage, low-key to the end, even at the ripe old age of 80.