June 8, 2020
Chuck Berry was one of the first artists I booked at Dooley’s, for two shows in January 1977.
I’ve heard some messed-up stories about him—that he would arrive for a show and tell you he needed more money than he was supposed to get before he would play. He’d tell people to give him another five grand in cash right there or he wouldn’t go on. Depending on how many people were in the crowd you’d either have to suck it up and do it and make five grand less, or tell him to forget it. He’d insist on being paid in advance, and then he’d show up five minutes before he was supposed to go on. Plus, you had to have a backup band there, rehearsed and ready to go. They had to already know all of his stuff, because he wouldn’t carry a band with him. He sometimes even wouldn’t rehearse with them. He’d just go on stage and say, “Follow me.”
After the first show, he said to this kid who was playing in the backup band I hired, “You’re the guitar player, right? You’re fired.”
“You stole too many leads from me.”
Again, this was with no rehearsal. The kid was trying to do his best, and he did a good job but Chuck just up and fired him.
Right after that, Chuck said to Don Reno, the owner, “Hey, can you turn the air down a little bit? It’s really cold up on that stage.”
Don replied, “Well, Chuck, you’re rocking everybody so hard we don’t want to get people too greasy in there.”
Chuck stopped cold, “Greasy? Is that like a racial word? Are you talking about me being black?”
“No. No, Chuck. I’m just saying we want to keep the people comfortable. It gets too hot in here.”
“You want a slow show? I’ll give you a slow show.”
I didn’t know this at the time but Chuck loved to play the blues. So instead of going out and kicking ass for an hour on the second show, Chuck went out and played forty-five minutes of super-slow blues. I’m on the side of the stage, on my knees praying, begging him to pick it up, and I’m trying to mouth to him, “Let’s rock.”
He didn’t care. He laughed at me.
Finally, the last ten minutes of the show, he did a medley of ten of his hits. He played everything but just a verse or a chorus from each of these songs, which really messed with the band—they didn’t know where he was going next. But fortunately, as great as Chuck Berry was, almost all of those songs were more or less the same basic progression in the same key. After the show, Chuck just brushed past me, put his guitar in his case, walked out the back door, threw his guitar in the trunk, and took off. See ya.
I did see him again at shows I would book with him from time to time, questioning my intelligence. Yes, he’sa super legend in the business but I would wonder what was the point, because you didn’t know what you were going to get with Chuck. Many years later, in 2010, he opened a show I was doing with Tom Petty. This time he couldn’t have been nicer. Of course, by then, he was making $50,000 a show instead of $5,000.
Sadly, both Chuck and Tom have passed on recently. Truly a couple of originals, they broke the mold, as they say. I loved them both, they were originals, in their own right.
With Chuck Berry backstage at the US Airways Center in Phoenix after he opened for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers