My dream was to meet Chuck Berry.
It was April 1973, and he and Jerry Lee Lewis were playing at University of Maryland’s Cole Field House. I was a 15-year-old student at Rockville’s Wootton High School and dreamed of being a musician. My parents bought me a ticket for the evening concert, but I got there around noon in hopes I might see Berry rehearsing with the backup band. I had done my research and found out that Chuck always traveled alone and his contract called for the promoter to supply a backing band.
I walked into the venue hoping to not be questioned; stagehands were bringing in lights and speakers. I stayed out of everyone’s way and eventually made my way over near the stage where the band was hanging out. Having never played with, or even met Chuck before, they were nervous. Their thinking was that he would be there to rehearse and to do a sound check about 2 p.m. I was excited and anxious. Excited to meet my hero, but nervous I would be kicked out for not belonging backstage.
The rehearsal hour had come, and there was no sign of Chuck. Another hour passed. The band was on pins and needles. They went onstage for their sound check and ran through a few of Chuck’s songs.
Jerry Lee Lewis came in shortly after 7 p.m., but there was still no sign of the Chuck. The band seemed to be in a state somewhere between disappointed that he may have canceled and a nervous wreck that if he did show up, there was now no time to rehearse. They played a great set of their own material to kick off the concert.
The guy I figured out was the promoter was nervous because his star headliner had not shown. There were no cellphones back then to reach anyone who might be away from a landline. I remained optimistic because, in my intelligence gathering on Chuck, I had come to find out that he was in the habit of showing up about 10 minutes before his scheduled appearance time. I wasn’t nervous about his not showing; I was nervous about what I would say to my idol.
Jerry Lee hit the stage on schedule and was playing a great set. The crowd was going crazy. Little did they know that the headliner wasn’t even in the building. The promoter and the band knew it all too well.
Just before Jerry Lee finished his set, the backstage door opened, and in walked the King of Rock-and-Roll. He had nothing with him and he was alone. He breezed right past me. I had no chance to say a word to him. He asked a question to one of the stagehands, who pointed him down a corridor to a door. Chuck followed the direction and entered the door. He emerged a few minutes later and passed me again, heading back outside through the backstage door.
A moment later, he returned, but this time with his guitar case in hand. I realized I had witnessed Chuck doing something I had read about as being common practice. He showed up and got paid in advance before even thinking about unpacking his guitar. This is the stuff you don’t learn in Music Business 101. It comes from the Chuck Berry School of Business.
He walked over toward the stage where the band and I were standing. The bandleader introduced himself with an extended hand saying something to the effect of, “Hi Mr. Berry, I’m Bruce Springsteen and we are your band this evening. We thought you were going to be here this afternoon for a rehearsal.”
Chuck shook everyone’s hand and said, “Rehearsal? No,” scoffing at the notion. The guy who said his name was Bruce told Chuck that they had run over some of his songs that afternoon and asked if he knew offhand which ones he might play this evening. Chuck was pulling his guitar out of his case and replied, “I think I’ll play some Chuck Berry.” With that, he walked onstage, asked for a note from the piano player and quickly tuned his guitar. Then, without warning, he launched into the most famous rock guitar intro in the world. The Bruce guy and his band were right there with him and it was one of the greatest shows I had ever seen. I was sold on what I was going to do for a career.
By 1981, I had graduated from Howard University with a music degree in jazz. I had also been keeping up a one-way correspondence with Chuck for many years. I got his address and would regularly send him updates on my musical education, how I was learning to play like the great boogie-woogie pianist Pinetop Perkins and Chuck’s original pianist, Johnnie Johnson. When Chuck played at Baltimore’s Pier Six Pavilion that year, I called the show’s promoter and successfully convinced him that I knew more about Chuck Berry’s music than anyone in the area and he should hire me to put together the band.
When the date of the concert arrived, we were ready. Chuck showed up, and I asked him if there was anything in particular he wanted me to do on the piano behind his guitar playing. He responded, “You said you played like Pinetop Perkins and Johnnie Johnson. Do that.” So, he was reading my letters!
Chuck was very happy with my playing that night, so much so that whenever he came through the D.C. area over the next few years I got the call to come play with him. Soon my region expanded and I was Chuck’s go-to player up and down the East Coast and sometimes the Midwest. Soon, Chuck was calling me on the phone himself to ask if I could do dates with him. We would often go out to dinner before or after the show. He loved barbecue and Chinese food.
I came to know all of Chuck’s quirks. He would almost always rent a car and drive himself from the airport to the gig, hotel or wherever he wanted to go. People would send limos for him and he would refuse them, choosing instead to follow the limo in his rental car.
Among our most memorable gigs together was Bill Clinton’s inaugural in 1993. Chuck was one of President Clinton’s favorite musicians and Chuck took me along as his musical director. The arena was packed with celebrities that night, and they all came over to our table to pay their respects to Chuck. Barbra Streisand, Dionne Warwick, Michael McDonald, Kenny Loggins and many more.
Sometimes, Chuck just liked to talk. We would do this in his hotel room, restaurant table, dressing room or riding in the car. Unlike many musicians who can only converse about music, Chuck could and would speak on a variety of subjects and share stories he lived through. He told me stories of racism that endured throughout his career. He spoke about touring with people such as Carl Perkins and Buddy Holly, who would refuse to eat at places that would not serve Berry. In cases where there wasn’t a place that would serve him, Buddy and his band members or Carl would go in and bring the food out for Chuck. It was like oral tradition history for me. I will always remember each and every story he told me. This one always makes me smile.
In 1994, Chuck was booked to play Patriot Center at George Mason University. Peter Noone from Herman’s Hermits and Lesley Gore were the opening acts. I stopped by Chuck’s hotel and took his guitar over the arena to the sound check. During both Peter’s and Lesley’s sound checks, a gentleman was standing at the downstage right corner doing sign language to the lyrics as each of those artists ran through some songs.
After I did Chuck’s sound check, the signer approached me and told me he was hired to sign for any deaf and hearing-impaired who might be in the audience that evening. He then asked if Chuck would mind him doing that during his performance. I told him I would find out for him when Chuck arrived.
A little while later, Chuck and I were walking down the corridor to his dressing room. The signer caught up with us about halfway down the hall and explained to Chuck what his purpose was and asked permission to do his job. Chuck said, “Yeah baby, no problem, do your thing.” Then Chuck looked at the guy and said, “You’re a signer?” The man acknowledged his vocation, and Chuck began snickering. I didn’t see what was so funny, and the guy was just scratching his head because he didn’t know either. Chuck continued laughing to himself and elbowed me in the ribs pretty hard as if to say, “Don’t you get it?”
Well, I didn’t get it, and Chuck turned and continued walking to his dressing room. I shrugged my shoulders at the signer to let him know I was as clueless as he was as to what was so amusing for Chuck. “What the hell was so funny?” I asked.
“That guy says he’s a signer,” answered Chuck. I confirmed to him that the guy was indeed a signer and I had seen him do his signing during Peter and Lesley’s sound checks. Chuck said he didn’t doubt it. So I asked again what was so funny. Chuck replied, “I was just thinking, how’s he going to sign to ‘My Ding-a-Ling’?’ ”
In 1976, I was a senior in high school. For the school newspaper’s last issue of the year, seniors were asked about their plans. When asked, I said I was going to play piano for Chuck Berry. The interviewers burst out laughing. When the paper came out, all the seniors were listed alphabetically and next to their names were their plans. Next to my name it said one word: “Undecided.”
Chuck Berry was the reason I became a musician. I met him as a teenager and worked with him on and off for about 32 years. Pinetop Perkins and Johnnie Johnson taught me how to play, and Chuck taught me how to make a good living and make a name for myself. I applied it, and now, 37 years after I started playing professionally, I am still making a living as a musician on my own name, thanks to Chuck Berry. He gave me a career and enabled me to make a living. There was no rock-and-roll before him and now it’s forever a part of American culture. I will always keep his music alive and I won’t be alone in doing that.
Daryl Davis is a Maryland-based musician who has performed with many artists, including Chuck Berry and B.B. King, and toured across the world.