As I drove Chuck Berry from the Houston airport to his gig in Winnie, we found ourselves laughing at the times of the not-so-great 1950s.
The broad generous smile held his 84 years well. His big hands and 6-foot-plus frame stretched out and relaxed as we talked of trials and tribulations that beset his career. He was jailed at one time without charges, taunted by white club owners and got less than a penny a record during his 66-year tenure on stage.
He seemed to remember the concert in Dallas when I played piano for one of the much lesser known acts on the show. I recall being mesmerized when he hit the spotlight doing his trademark duck-walk across the stage to the roar and approval of the crowd, which was both black and white.
Whether I was in his memory is not important. It was what happened a year earlier after his first big hit that we must never forget.Chuck speaks clearly with no signs of a southern accent.
“I took the train overnight from St. Louis to Mobile for a hundred-dollar booking in ’55,” he said. “Got to the private club and buzzed the door.”
“Who is it?” came the gruff voice from within. “Chuck Berry, sir” came the Midwestern reply from the front steps. “Come on in, Chuck,” yelled the club owner, anxious to meet his star attraction. The door opened and one look later, the show was off.
“Who the hell are you? I don’t book no colored acts,” said the owner.
He didn’t know Chuck was black, and although the pleas came from the young singer, they were in vain. No job, no money and back to the railroad station to wait for the next northbound choo-choo. A ticket home and one dollar in his pocket. The next train was at midnight and he didn’t feel too comfortable alone in the colored waiting room.
No front money was sent ahead in those days. It wasn’t the first or the last shortchanging the berry picker would encounter.
Years later, the Beatles, the Stones and even Elvis would copy his tunes.
It’s been a bittersweet ride for the guy who has sung everything from “Maybelline” to “Nadine” to “Beethoven” to “B. Goode.”
Last Friday night at Nutty Jerry’s, he delivered his stuff to a much more appreciative audience than the gentleman from Mobile who declined to see him perform.Berry has no regrets, except perhaps that today’s young entertainers, regardless of color, don’t seem to know the rocky road yesterday’s troubadours had to follow.
Great show. Thanks, Chuck.Be safe and keep “Reelin’ and Rockin.”
— Al Caldwell