Chuck Berry Rocks Cleveland Tribute Concert


By PATRICK DOYLE "I'm 86 years old," Chuck Berry said after playing a short, raw set at Cleveland's State Theatre late Saturday night. "And I'm happy to be anywhere!"

The crowd was equally ecstatic. Berry traveled to Cleveland for a tribute concert in his honor, which included performers Merle Haggard, Ronnie Hawkins, Darryl "DMC" McDaniels, Joe Bonamassa and Lemmy Kilmister. At the end of the night, Berry accepted the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's American Masters of Music Award, wrapping the Hall of Fame's weeklong celebration of Berry's life. The reclusive Berry seemed to love every minute of his Cleveland stay, spending Saturday afternoon at the Hall of Fame, where he checked out his exhibit with his family and held a rare interview with journalists in a Hall of Fame conference room, praising President Obama and discussing his health.

Chuck Berry Praises Obama, Laments Fading Health

He was in for some surprises. Whether it was DMC retooling "School Days" as a pro-education hip-hop anthem or Haggard putting a twangy spin on "Memphis," the night highlighted just how far Berry's influence reaches. Between performers, classic Berry performance footage was shown on a massive screen and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame President Terry Stewart put the songs in historical context. "[Berry] was a lightning rod," he said. "Rock & roll was still being born and he came out the way he did. Unbelievable."

Setlist-wise, you couldn't go wrong; Berry has one of the greatest catalogs in rock & roll history; vivid, witty storytelling over rollicking rhythm. Seventy-four-year-old Ray Sharpe, who has been recording since the late Fifties, growled a soulful "No Money Down" soaked in Texas twang, backed by the ace house band. Rockabilly revivalist J.D. McPherson howled a loose, chugging "Beautiful Delilah" and bounced across the stage through "Around and Around." "It's ridiculous that I'm here tonight," McPherson said, grinning. The New York Dolls' David Johansen and Earl Slick tore the roof off with a smoky, fuzzed-out take on 1961's "I'm Talking About You" and invited out Ohio's Rick Derringer for a heavy "Back in the U.S.A."

The night rolled on with John Fulbright, who sat at a keyboard and played harmonica on "Downbound Train." Malina Moye played Berry deep cut "Stop and Listen," full of wah-wah and feedback-drenched guitar. The number concluded with Moye by raising her Stratocaster above her head and twirling around in her lengthy dress. It didn't sound anything like Berry, but it made an impression. More fancy fretwork came from Bonamassa, who played a gorgeous, hushed "In the Wee Wee Hours" and a raucous "Oh Carol."

Lemmy Kilmister attacked "Bye Bye Johnny" and "Let It Rock" with his whiskey-soaked growl. Sitting backstage sipping a Jack and Coke in his dressing room, Kilmister said Berry was one of his first heroes. "I liked his attitude. He had that sort of smile on his face and that pencil mustache, sort of a lothario, you know. He's always got that innuendo in the vocals when he's talking about chicks.  He was always a horn dog, basically, and so was I."

At 77, Ronnie Hawkins proved he's still a powerhouse showman with "30 Days" and "Roll Over Beethoven," the Hawk whooping and howling during instrumental breaks. San Antonio rockabilly singer Rosie Flores was one of the most impressive acts of the evening, performing endearing, country-flavored takes on "No Particular Place to Go" and "You Never Can Tell." Flores was also the only performer brave enough to playfully attempt a duck walk.

Next to Berry, Merle Haggard was the biggest legend in the room. His set started rocky due to some technical difficulties; there was a pedal board in front of his microphone. "You guys put something in front of me that's not supposed to be here," he said, pointing to the board. "Can you come to move it?"  The move made Haggard's guitar short out, and he threw up his arms in frustration. He overcame the problems with his classic "Workin' Man Blues," grinning genuinely at his son Benion's tasteful Telecaster mastery. Next, the duo played a raw "Memphis," Haggard rattling off Berry's lyrics with his axe slung across his back.  "It's great to be part of the fanbase of the great Chuck Berry," Haggard said. "Its even better to be asked to play here."

100 Greatest Artists: Chuck Berry

Next, Ernie Isley played a heavy version of "Rock & Roll Music" while McDaniels took one of the night's biggest risks, performing his own version of "School Days" backed by a DJ and the house band. "Chuck Berry's been rapping before rappers been rap!" McDaniels said in a speech; DMC and Ernie Isley soon mashed rock and hip-hop, sampling Berry's vocals in their own take on "Brown Eyed Handsome Man."

At the end of the night, Stewart announced "the man of the hour" and the curtain rose, as Berry stood onstage with his band to a massive standing ovation. He kicked straight into "Johnny B. Goode" before getting lost for a moment, while his daughter Ingrid sang the lyrics. He soon joined back in and the song picked up steam. "What's the second song?" he asked the band afterward. He kicked into "Reeling and Rockin'" to huge applause, but soon raised his hand and stopped the song, then eased into it again with the rhythm a little slower. Berry was full of energy, hitting stellar double-string licks, duck-walking and holding his Gibson high in the air above the piano with a twinkle in his eyes.

The night finished up when Berry graciously accepted the Hall of Fame's award, and, in a rare move, invited his wife onstage. "Ladies and gentlemen, Themetta Berry, my wife of 62 years," he said. "It's going to be 63 in June!" Most of the night's performers returned to the stage for "Rock & Roll Music," a fun mess that was led by Isley as Berry returned to the stage halfway through the song, playing rhythm next to Lemmy Kilmister and high-fiving the Motörhead singer. Earlier in the day, Berry told Rolling Stone that his singing days have passed. But, true to character, he's still full of surprises.

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Rolling Stones: 100 GREATEST ARTISTS


Like a lot of guitarists of my generation, I first heard Chuck Berry because of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. I was so blown away by the way those bands were playing these hardcore rock & roll songs like "Roll Over Beethoven" and "Around and Around." I'd looked at the labels, under the song titles. I'd seen the name "Chuck Berry." But I was fortunate enough, again like a lot of guys from my generation, to have a friend who had an older brother, who had the original records: "If you like the Stones, wait until you hear this!" I heard Chuck Berry Is On Top — and I really freaked out! That feeling of excitement in the pit of my stomach, in the hair on the back of my neck: I got more of it from Chuck Berry than from anybody else. It's not so much what he played — it's what he didn't play. His music is very economical. His guitar leads drove the rhythm, as opposed to laying over the top. The economy of his licks and his leads — they pushed the song along. And he would build his solos so there was a nice little statement taking the song to a new place, so you're ready for the next verse.

As a songwriter, Chuck Berry is like the Ernest Hemingway of rock & roll. He gets right to the point. He tells a story in short sentences. You get a great picture in your mind of what's going on, in a very short amount of space, in well-picked words. He was also very smart: He knew that if he was going to break into the mainstream, he had to appeal to white teenagers. Which he did. Everything in those songs is about teenagers. I think he knew he could have had his own success on the R&B charts, but he wanted to get out of there and go big time.

He was also celebrating the music and lifestyle of rock & roll in songs like "Johnny B. Goode" and "School Days" — how anybody could make a guitar sound like the ring of a bell. Anytime you put the words "rock & roll" in a lyric, you have to be careful. But he did it perfectly. "Johnny B. Goode" is probably the most covered song ever. Bar bands, garage bands — everybody plays it. And so many bands play it badly. As much fun as it is to play, it's also easy to destroy it. But it was probably the first Chuck Berry song I learned. It hits people on all levels: lyric, melody, tempo, riff.

It's funny — when my son, Roman, was 12, he came back from his guitar lesson one day and I said, "What song were you learning today?" He said, "We're learning 'Johnny B. Goode.'" That's the essence of the appeal of Chuck Berry. When you're a young guitar player now, you're confronted by all these guys: Eric Clapton, Eddie Van Halen, Jimmy Page. But you can sit down and get your guitar to sound like Chuck Berry in a very short amount of time.

The other thing is, Chuck Berry was a showman: playing the guitar behind his head and between his legs, doing the duckwalk. It's not like you could close your eyes and hear his playing suffer because of it. He was able to do all that stuff and make it look like it was so easy and natural.

I still listen to Chuck Berry Is On Top. The whole thing just rocks out. That's why I love it — for the same reason I love AC/DC records. They just don't stop. That was another thing he did: He stayed in that groove. He could have done one or two of those "Johnny B. Goode"-type songs, or a couple like "Maybellene," then gone off and done whatever. But he stayed in that place, that groove, and made it his own.

I also have a bunch of different compilations, and I hear the direct influence on me. The way he phrases things, that double-note stop, where you get the two notes bending against each other and they make that rock & roll sound — that's what I hear when I listen back to a lot of my solos. It's a little bit of technique, but it's mostly phrasing.

And kids today are playing the same three chords, trying to play in that same style. Turn the guitars up, and it's punk rock. It's the Ramones and the Sex Pistols. I hear it in the White Stripes, too.

People will always cover Chuck Berry songs. When bands go do their homework, they will have to listen to Chuck Berry. If you want to learn about rock & roll, if you want to play rock & roll, you have to start there.

I've had the fortune to shake his hand once or twice, but I've never really had a chance to tell him any of this. It was always in passing, at an airport or something. The last time was in the Seventies. I was walking through the airport, and someone said, "It's Chuck Berry over there." Well, I had to go over and shake his hand. But he was tongue-tied. Then he was gone.

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Chuck Berry is 'bubbling over with glee' over weeklong tribute


By Kevin C. Johnson 314-340-8191 The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland will honor a St. Louis icon when it gives Chuck Berry a weeklong spotlight.

“Roll Over Beethoven: The Life and Music of Chuck Berry,” part of the museum’s American Music Masters Series, kicks off today and ends Saturday with a concert in Berry’s honor.

“I’m delighted — bubbling over with glee,” Berry said before performing a sold-out concert on the eve of his 86th birthday Wednesday at Blueberry Hill. “Each honor is a whole new day, and this one is a week.”

The American Music Masters Series, in its 17th year, honors a prior Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee each year. Honorees have included Woody Guthrie, Aretha Franklin, Muddy Waters, Hank Williams, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bessie Smith and Buddy Holly. Berry, a St. Louis native and Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award recipient, was inducted into the hall in 1986.

The rock ’n’ roll pioneer is known for his guitar licks and songs such as “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Johnny B. Goode,” “Maybellene,” “Rock and Roll Music” and his No. 1 hit, “My Ding-A-Ling.”

Berry has a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame and an 8-foot-tall bronze likeness of himself in the Delmar Loop, where he still performs monthly at Blueberry Hill. His daughter Ingrid Berry-Clay, who sings and plays harmonica in his band, said the Rock Hall honor is “another adventure.”

“We’re all very grateful for all the hard work — the decades of hard work — that Pop has put in over the years,” she said. “It’s a heartwarming honor to see.”

Charles Berry Jr., a guitarist in his father’s band, is also proud. “It puts hair on a bald chest,” he said.

Lauren Onkey, vice president of education and public programs for the Rock Hall, said the American Music Masters Series presents an opportunity to explore the careers of its inducted artists who were key to the development of rock ’n’ roll and have changed the landscape of music.

“The goal is to get at the story of the honorees from different points of view with different voices in the mix,” said Onkey, who was in the audience last week at Berry’s Blueberry Hill show. “Chuck Berry is so crucial to the formation of rock ’n’ roll, and it’s the right time to get at that story. He was interested and gave us his seal of approval.”

Onkey said Berry had been discussed as an honoree for a while. Berry worked with the Rock Hall last year on an oral history interview for its archives.

“It’s a story we always wanted to tell, so we said, ‘Let’s go for it,’” Onkey said.

Writer-musician Greg Tate, a founding member of the Black Rock Coalition, said music wouldn’t be music as we know it without Berry. Tate is delivering a keynote lecture this week at the American Music Masters Series.

“Everything we call rock ’n’ roll wouldn’t have happened without him — Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, the Beatles,” he said. “His form, his structure, approach and energy made the guitar matter the way it does. He created his own vernacular, which became the vernacular.”

Tate called Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” a breakout moment in the history of music.

“You can’t say there was ever a song like that before,” he said. “It made space for a new kind of entity. It was swinging, upbeat and affirmative — a ‘world, watch out, here I come’ song.”

Guitarist Ernie Isley, a 1992 Rock Hall inductee with the Isley Brothers, has never worked with Berry, but he said he quickly agreed when asked to perform in Saturday’s tribute concert in Cleveland. Isley, who also lives in St. Louis, said he was inspired by Berry’s talents as a teenager.

“When you pick up an electric guitar for the first time as you’re learning to play, you try different riffs,” he said. “You might play ‘Can’t Get No Satisfaction’ or ‘It’s Your Thing,’ and you’re certainly going to play ‘Johnny B. Goode.’ Everybody does. ... Chuck’s guitar riffs are signature.”

Blues-rock guitarist and singer Joe Bonamassa bought a Gibson guitar like Berry’s a long time ago.

“I’ve always loved his music,” Bonamassa said. “At the end of the day, it’s Chuck Berry. No matter what level or style of guitar you play, you never get past going through Chuck Berry. All styles lead there.”

Bonamassa said Berry’s style is erratic but identifiable — “one of the hardest things to do on a guitar.”

And rockabilly artist Rosie Flores said anyone who has ever played a guitar has to name Berry as an influence.

“There are no guitar licks more fun to start out with than learning to play guitar to Chuck Berry,” she said. “And if you play rock ’n’ roll, you know how to play ‘Johnny B. Goode.’ That was very empowering when you’re 15. And I’m still challenged playing it.”

Events to celebrate Berry this week in Cleveland also include a conference on his career and influence on rock ’n’ roll, a screening of “Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll” and programming for students. Two new Berry exhibitions also are open, featuring items such as his stage clothing, a guitar and an early recording contract. Most of the events will stream live at

Berry will accept the American Music Masters Award on Saturday at a concert that features Isley, Bonamassa and Flores, plus Merle Haggard, Darryl “DMC” McDaniels, Vernon Reid, Duke Robillard, Ronnie Hawkins and others.

“I’m super-appreciative,” Berry said. “The man upstairs is taking care of me.”

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Chuck Berry Looks to Record, Admits Future is 'Very Dim'


by AP / Billboard Staff Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Pays Tribute to 86-Year-Old Icon

Still rockin' at 86, music legend Chuck Berry promised a comeback Saturday with six new songs, some written 16 years ago.

"And as soon as I can get someone to guide me - and I do know a little about the business - I want to push them out," he told reporters at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, which honored him with an award and tribute concert. "I'm going to come back and push them out if you know what I mean, somehow."

Berry, a rock pioneer with early hits that included "Roll Over Beethoven," ''Sweet Little Sixteen" and "Johnny B. Goode," wouldn't tip his hand in detail about the new songs or when they might be released.

"They might be old, but they are the same type of music that I have been playing," he said.

The lineup for Saturday night's tribute concert honoring Berry at the State Theater included Ernie Isley and Darryl DMC McDaniels, Joe Bonamassa, Rick Derringer, Rosie Flores, John Fullbright, David Johansen, Ronnie Hawkins, Steve Jordan and Merle Haggard.

Berry offered some advice to the performers: "Keep rocking, keep rocking. That's two words. Next word is: Be kind to your fans."

Earlier in the day, the legend struck a bittersweet tone when talking to reporters about his own mortality and diminished vocal abilities, saying he's been "wondering" about his future.

"I'll give you a little piece of poetry," he said, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch . "My singing days have passed. My voice is gone. My throat is worn. And my lungs are going fast."

Berry still performs monthly at Blueberry Hill, a club in St. Louis, and says he has no plans to slow down, adding his fans are "having a great time from memory. I hope that I can continue to enhance their memory, because it looks very dim."

To mark the American Music Masters award presentation, the rock hall has mounted a special exhibition with items including Berry's stage clothes, a guitar and his 1958 Chess Records recording contract.

The rock hall's new library and archives has a separate exhibit with items including Berry's 1964 British tour program and a handbill promoting his appearance with the Grateful Dead in 1968.

Past American Music Masters program honorees include Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin and Woody Guthrie.

Berry, the museum's first inductee in 1986, called the award and enshrinement in the rock hall a great honor. "You can't get any higher in my profession than this building or this reason for this building," he said.

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Chuck Berry: 'My singing days have passed'


05 Noah_ And the NeighborBy Rolling Stone Recently, Chuck Berry made a rare move: he gave an interview. Visiting Cleveland to accept the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s American Music Masters Award, the 86-year-old met with journalists at the museum’s offices before touring an exhibit celebrating his life.

Seated in the center of a conference table between friend Joe Edwards and his son Charles Berry Jr., wearing a captain's hat and a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame varsity jacket, Berry was humble, revealing and playful.

"Now let me make a statement," he said at the beginning. "After being before drums for 48 years, it has taken effect in the last four months and I have a strange hiccup that comes out every time I tell the truth." The room erupted in laughter.

At one point, Rolling Stone asked Berry how far the country has come since the days he played segregated venues throughout the South. Berry paused for a moment. "I never thought that a man with the qualities, features, and all that (President Obama) has, [could] be our President," he said. "My dad said, 'You may not live to see that day,' and I believed him. I thank God that I have." Berry stopped for several seconds while his eyes welled up. "Excuse me," he said.

The most moving moment came when Berry discussed his own future. Explaining that he doesn't hear well, Berry turned to his friend Edwards. "If you don’t mind, Joe, explaining [questions] to me, because I am hearing very little. I’m wondering about my future," he said, raising his finger. "That’s news!"

Berry was asked to expand. "Well, I’ll give you a little piece of poetry," he said. "Give you a song? I can’t do that. My singing days have passed. My voice is gone. My throat is worn. And my lungs are going fast.  I think that explains it." St. Louis Post-Dispatch writer Kevin C. Johnson argued that people still pay to see Berry monthly at St. Louis’ Blueberry Hill. "I’ll tell you what that is," Berry said. "They’re having a great time from memory. And I hope that I can continue to enhance their memory because it looks very dim, like I said, you know."