[Editor’s note: I read this great piece by Ray Andersen on Facebook and asked for permission to re-post it here. Andersen is a longtime member of the New Jersey rock scene who also performs children’s music under the name Mr. Ray. For information, mrray.com. — Jay Lustig]
Good night, Chuck Berry.
“Johnny B. Goode” was THE FIRST song I ever played live with my band as a 12-year-old. Thank you for inspiring me to have the musical ammunition and instill the excitement and confidence to make me wanna get up in front of a crowd and ROCK.
The following is my actual account of playing an entire
set on keys with the Man himself in the mid-’90s …
In 1997, I had an original band called Blue Van Gogh. Our L.A.-based label, Callner Music (thank you, Dax Callner), contacted us one day to see if we’d be interested in being part of a concert to raise awareness for Native Americans, at the Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation South Dakota, where the senseless Wounded Knee massacre of human life took place.
It was August, and even grasshoppers are jumpin’ everywhere
trying to beat the heat, like those seemingly jelly-filled black bugs that perform their swan song on your windshield while traveling through parts of Florida … only in this part of the country, it’s grasshoppers — jumping everywhere that summer …
We knew He was going to arrive … we just didn’t know when.
Who pulls up in a black Caddy in the dense muggy night but Chuck Berry himself … He drives around back where all we out-of-town musicians anxiously, half-believing and wide-eyed, watch this monolithic demi-god of rock n’ rhythm n’ blues, step out of his car in a clean white pressed shirt & black trousers … right before our eyes … Chuck Berry takes out a huge handkerchief and proceeds to WIPE GRASSHOPPERS OFF OF HIS WINDSHIELD. We all watch like it’s the bottom of the 9th in a World Series game.
Surreal … cut to chase: Chuck’s pick-up band is assembled onstage, and amid the chaos, the stage manager asks us musicians if any of us play keyboards … the guy who was scheduled to play bailed. What?
Chuck Berry needs a keyboard player ASAP!!!
I’m in earshot.
I sheepishly raise my hand … half cocky I can do it, half unsure if I can hold it together for one of my idols.
I’m there … So at one point, it’s me and Chuck at the back of the stage — seriously — no one else around us … we’re going over keys … that is, I’M going over keys.
I ask him what songs we’ll be playing, and he says, “Just follow me, son.” “Ok, sure, Chuck,” I state, nervously, half-believing who I’m talking to AND about to play on stage with.
I go, “What key is ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ in?”
He leers and bites back …”Oh man, you be soundin’ like my bitch, Keith Richards … now, man, don’t you worry!”
That is verbatim exactly how it went down. I’ll never forget him saying I was whining like Keef. What a freakin’ honor!
And we all know that Keef, like the rest of us, bows to the altar of Mr. Berry.
Ok, I can die now — one of my idols just said I sounded like one of my OTHER idols … the set goes on … he’s pullin’ out his classic songs with not so simple keys — “Johnny B. Goode” in Eb? Really? Eb? Ok, I got this … Chuck motions at me to take a solo, then he proceeds to walk over to me, smiles at me, face-to-face, walks back to the center stage mic and goes to the audience — “Is he alright, or what?” Crowd cheers…
I have the entire set on a videocassette, thanks to a fellow label band member named Paul Knowles. Thank you, Paul. I pray to the Lord it’s not decomposed yet. Must get it digitized.
What a dream. A few years back I’m watching Springsteen on TV say how he and the E Street Band once backed up Mr. Berry and it’s something he’ll tell his grandkids, as I have told my daughter.
I know I’m one of THOUSANDS of musicians that have played with the man over the decades, but I will never forget it. Ever.
He was, in my mind, the first musical poet set to a beat. No Beatles, no Stones, no Springsteen … without Chuck Berry.
“If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry.’ ”
— John Lennon
Turn it up!