Chuck Berry: the First Poet of Rock and Roll

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Photo by David | CC BY 2.0

Photo by David | CC BY 2.0

On a hot night in July 1969, I was standing with at least a thousand other people on the narrow road that led to Wollman Rink in Central Park, waiting to get into the late show of a concert featuring John Lee Hooker, Chuck Berry and The Byrds, that as part of the Schaefer Music Festival cost a whopping two dollars.  Suddenly the entire line in front of me jumped off the road and onto the grass.  A black Cadillac came down the road away from the rink, with one person inside, the driver, Chuck Berry.  That was as close as I got to Chuck Berry that night, and as close as I got period.  It didn’t matter what the contract said, it didn’t matter thousands were there to see him, Chuck Berry did one show a night and that was that.

Several years later I tried to see him again at a club called Alexander’s in Browns Mills, New Jersey.  The place was packed, and every once in a while I managed a glimpse of the top of Berry’s head.  I didn’t try again and it didn’t really matter.  Chuck Berry was notorious for bad shows.  He refused to have his own band, and promoters would wind up hiring the cheapest band they could get, figuring every band could play Chuck Berry songs, which wasn’t necessarily the case.  They may have known the songs, playing them right is a different matter.  That said, I’ve spent a lot of time since Berry’s death Saturday trying to think of a musician in my lifetime who had a greater influence, because…

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