In the world of rock’n’roll, probably no performer has made a bigger contribution to the cause than Chuck Berry. The stories about him are legion. And here’s where the Moscow connection comes in ………
In 1997 Berry made his first appearance in Moscow. There was a huge crowd to see him. Playing the keyboards and supporting him on stage that evening was Denis Mazhukov. Regular readers of this column will remember my article on Denis earlier this year; he’s a real rock’n’roll icon here in Russia. And he will freely tell you the 2 biggest musical influences on him have been Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry. You can see that 1997 concert on youtube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sBTLfxVoesA
And on 23rd November we organised a Chuck Berry tribute concert, which included Denis Mazhukov performing on stage. The 23/11/13 show took place at the Esse Jazz Café in Moscow. After a few words from yours truly introducing the event, it began with a film of Chuck followed by some of his music. As usual at such events, I ran a jive dance class and all the music tracks I used were Chuck Berry classics. Then Denis Mazhukov came on stage, with his band. In my previous article on Denis, I focused on his keyboard skills. But he is also an accomplished guitarist and played many Berry songs with his guitar that night; here’s just a few he did –
Sweet little rock’n’roller, Roll over Beethoven, Promised Land, Johnny B Goode, Sweet little sixteen and Schooldays.
A great night ! And it was a privilege to have Denis playing for us in addition to him being the link to Berry, as the one who played with him at that 1997 concert.
Since his first Moscow concert 16 years ago, Berry has returned to Moscow more than once. His second last concert in Moscow was in February of this year. But gotta be honest, Chuck is really showing his age now and it was clear at the February event he’s a shadow of his former self. For someone born in 1926, some would say he’s to be congratulated for still being able to do what he does; but more of that later.
My own personal memories of Berry centre on the 1970s, when I saw him perform. The London rock’n’roll show in 1972, where he topped the bill, was unforgettable. I still remember the electrical power to the sound system conking out half way through his act. He didn’t blink an eye. When the power was restored, he continued to wow us all with his rock’n’roll classics. I also remember a great concert at Hammersmith Odeon in London in the mid-70s that I hugely enjoyed: Wearing a flowery shirt, he once again gave full value for money !
Berry was a pioneer in the 1950s, along with Little Richard, in helping to bridge the racial divide with his rock’n’roll success. Although he wasn’t overtly political, he is to be congratulated for his contribution in this area.
And for me, the lyrics in some of the songs he wrote rise to the level of great and wonderful poetry. For example, take time to have a look at the words to “Promised land” or “Roll over Beethoven” – you can keep your Wordsworth or Coleridge, for me Berry’s poetry is the business !
As many people know, Chuck does have a mean side. His obsession with making money and arguing over the terms of concert contracts is legendary. Knowing this, it was very funny to see the February 2013 concert begin in Moscow with him arguing on stage about a written contract with the promoter, in front of a huge audience, before a song had been sung ! It’s on youtube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rWhXhh9tdDk
He returned to Moscow again to play a concert on 20th October this year. But I took a conscious decision not to go. I had no wish to see a frail 87 year old man showing his age and clouding my truly wonderful memories, of when I saw him many years ago when he was still a sight and sound to behold. But the man’s insatiable desire for dosh will no doubt keep him performing, I guess for as long as he is still able to stand up unaided. This is a shame, because at 87 he cannot “do it” any more. For example at the February 2013 concert in Moscow his performance was just embarrassing to watch.
And there’s a side to him that is downright unsavoury. The most infamous case was his conviction in 1962 for transporting an under-age girl across state lines for immoral purposes. In 1979 he was again imprisoned, predictably to do with money – tax fraud. These 2 cases were not the only times he went to prison; his first period behind bars was while he was still a high school student in the 1940s (on this occasion it was for armed robbery).
But like some other rock’n’roll icons who lived a less than perfect life, Chuck should be remembered with real affection by all of us to whom he has given so much musical pleasure and great memories. As a performer and songwriter he is unique. So here’s to the “Motorvator” – there’ll never be another like him !Richard Hume