When I Played Bass with Chuck Berry.

chuck berry

There was one time when I got the call to play bass for Chuck Berry at The Fillmore.

And you know about Chuck, right?  Chuck flies out to whatever city he’s playing and he only carries with him a suitcase and his guitar.  He rides a taxi up to the gig and the promoter hands him a check.  He says, “Now Chuck, here’s your money, and over there’s your band.”  Chuck ignores the band and gets a drink.

The promoter is always responsible for putting together a good pick-up band for Chuck’s gig.  It’s usually a couple of white guys who do session work in town.  They get a call to play with Chuck, two weeks hence, and they scratch a little note into their calendar books.  They show up on the night of the gig with their top-flight equipment and they figure that whatever 12-bar blues Chuck throws at them, they can play it.

But Chuck always hates these white cats.  It’s the flaw in his whole stripped-down, streamlined, “guitar-three-chords-and-the-truth” system.  He knows that these jazzers are professional musicians.  They set up their work by telephone, they eat dinner at uptown restaurants, sip wine, and ride over to a theater for their evening’s work.  Chuck’s done time in jail, he’s toured the Negro South, played juke joints in the west end ghettos of forgotten red-brick towns.  He’s washed dishes in cafes, worked as a waiter, paid for his first guitar by hauling bags of manure through the fields of an Arkansas farm.  It bothers him that these classy jazz musicians, who wear sweaters and collared shirts to a Friday evening dinner on Union Street in the Marina, don’t own Howling Wolf records or sit around drinking whiskey on a Tuesday night, jamming blues tunes till 3 a.m.  All these obvious cliches of sweated labor and dirty fingernails—Chuck’s lived ‘em, and these white boys don’t know nothin’ about it.

You know what Chuck does, though?  He tries to show up these cats when he gets onstage.  He’ll start the evening off really friendly, a whooping “How’ya doing” to his adoring audience, and with a sweep of his hand indicate his glorious band.  He’ll smile at his drummer and his bass player and throw “Sweet Little Sixteen” at them, or “Roll Over Beethoven,” or something fairly predictable.  It’ll be a 12-bar blues, a famous Chuck Berry™ song, and Chuck’ll say, “Okay boys, we gon’ do a number in B-flat and I think you know what to do,” and he’ll hit his trademark da-na-na-nah-nah-na-na— “Johnnie B. Goode” riff and start singing, “Way down in Louisiana close to New Orleans”—just something to give the boys a little confidence.

But most of Chuck’s songs don’t follow a 12-bar blues progression.  They’re inverted blues songs, or shuffle-jumps, or they riff on one chord for a while and then do a quick blues resolve.  If you don’t know the chords to “Mabelline”—and you’ve only heard it on an oldies radio station once or twice in the past ten years—then you’ll be caught dead surprised when it just keeps riffing on one chord.

So Chuck’s got one up on his backing musicians.  He knows what songs he’s gonna play, and he knows the chords to them.  But Chuck’ll get even more vicious.  He’ll take a classic song like “Johnny B. Goode” and, instead of playing it in its signature key of B-flat, will move it up to B.  Or down to A.  There’s no telling why he’ll do this.  Bob Dylan’s been known to change the keys of even his most famous songs: backstage he’ll cackle, “Man, let’s move `Like A Rollin’ Stone’ up to D, tonight.”  But Chuck will launch into a song— the band begging, “What song, which one are we doing now?… wait, wait, what key’s it in?”—and start it with an unfamiliar chord.  Sometimes he’ll play half of a song in A and then, right before the final verse, turn to face his bandmates—a toothy, mustached grin crinkled across his face—and suddenly move down to the key of G.

All of this leaves the band looking stupid, inept, not worthy of playing with the master.  “These damn white boys—see, they don’t know nothin’ about the blues.”

I had heard all these Chuck stories.  I’d read about him in the pages of Rolling Stone Magazine.  I’d listened to Keith Richards talk about him in interviews, explaining how Chuck had punched him in the jaw twice.  I knew Chuck was a bastard to work with.  It was probably true what John Lennon had once observed: “Chuck was never the same after he got out of prison.”

And I knew how comfortable Chuck had gotten with his playing.  People go to see him and he does his duckwalks and his stomped foot moves, and he riffs his classic guitar licks.  He knows what his white audiences love to see.  But all his songs sound the same.  His stiff, 4/4 drum beat hasn’t changed since 1958.  It’s just that bop-bop snare drum, that old-fashioned rock `n roll rhythm.  It’s what rock music was built on—but it’s almost too easy to play now; Chuck’s never climbed out of the sandbox, never changed his style, or loosened his groove, or gotten the slightest bit funky.

So I was living in San Francisco and I came home one day after hiking Twin Peaks on a Saturday afternoon.  I staggered up my front steps, sweating, exhausted, in need of a glass of water.  My legs were tired enough from the hike that I figured I’d shower, eat an early dinner, maybe sip a beer or two later in the evening.  Nothing too taxing—I’d go to bed early.  But I heard the phone ringing as I unlocked the front door.  I was tempted to let the voicemail pick up, but I jumped inside and ran to the phone.

“Hello,” I answered.

“Oh, Steve, I’m so glad I got you,” a woman’s voice said.

“Cherie?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“What’s up?”

“I need you to play a gig tonight.  What are you doing tonight?  Can you play a gig?”

“Bass?” I asked.

“Yeah.”

Cherie explained that Chuck Berry was playing The Fillmore in a few hours.  Her friend Larry had set up the gig.  Larry had lined-up a really tight band.  They were due to rehearse a soundcheck in an hour.  But the pick-up band’s bass player had been in a bike accident on Market Street earlier in the afternoon.  Larry needed to find a replacement bass player on two hours notice.

“You think you could back Chuck Berry?” she asked.

“Well, you know—I mean—”

“You have to tell me now.  Do you think you could do something like that?”

“Man, that’s like—”

“I mean, can you play well enough for that?  You can say No.”

I coughed.  I shook my head.  “No look, Cherie, I’m in.  I can play that stuff at four in the morning.  You could pull me out of bed half-asleep—”

“Are you sure?  Because if you tell me you can do this, I have to tell them that I’ve found someone.”

“Yes, I can do it.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yes.”

“All right.  I can pick you up and get you over here.”

I was pacing the room.  I said, “One thing, though…”

“What?”

“I don’t have any gear for that kind of gig.  I have an amp at Billy’s.  But I don’t have a big enough amp to play a place like that.”

“Don’t worry.  We’ve got equipment.  Can you just get ready?”

“Yeah.”

“All right, I’ll be by as soon as I can leave here.”

“I’ll leave the door unlocked.”

“All right.”

I hung up.  I needed to take a shower.

Cherie and I arrived at The Fillmore too late for the soundcheck.  But I unpacked my bass in a backstage dressing room and began to stroll around, looking for a beer.  A crowd had begun to gather in the common room behind the stage and I could hear the opening band tuning up onstage.  Cherie came by and kissed me good luck.  I finished a beer and started another.  I shook hands with a saxophone player named Curtis and a drummer who’s name I couldn’t catch.  But the drummer had played with Chuck once before, at a festival in Modesto.

“What was that like?” I asked.

He shook his head.  “I dunno, man.  I was so scared I just kept drinking and drinking.  I kept sweating it out though and I just kept reaching for another Heineken.”

I pulled two beers out of a cooler and handed one to him.  We cracked them open.  I said, “Yeah, man, good luck.”

“Thanks.”  He walked away to find a bathroom.

I was beginning to feel the beer coming on.  In my legs first—because I’d spent the day hiking.  But I could feel the cold beer beginning to press in on my forehead.  That was always a sign to me that I’d been drinking too quickly.  The only solution was to drink a quick glass of water and then start on another beer.

I walked down a hallway near the dressing rooms and found a water fountain.  I was hunched over the water fountain when Chuck Berry arrived through a back door.  I heard the door pull open and then suddenly, there were five or six people standing in the hallway.  Chuck was wearing a wine-colored sport jacket with black pants and was holding a half-empty bottle of Early Times Whiskey.  He had on a white shirt, with a cowboy’s bolo cinched around the collar.  I had forgotten about his great whiskered sideburns.  But they were all grey and his face looked thinner than I’d expected.

I spotted Larry walking next to Chuck.  They hustled past me and disappeared into a side room.

I remembered a story my brother had told me—that Chuck used to drive himself to his gigs in a convertible Cadillac Eldorado.  He’d get backstage with the promoter and would demand an extra $2,000—or whatever seemed reasonable.  He’d tell the promoter to pay up or he wouldn’t play the gig.

I wondered how Chuck could get away with that sort of scam.  My brother had said, “`Cause he’s Chuck Berry.”  My brother had also heard a story that Ray Charles always auditioned his back-up singers by sleeping with them.  “He’s Ray Charles—he can get away with it.”

I sipped water at the water fountain and then went back to find my beer.  Chuck was being introduced to people in the common room.  I tried not to stare at him.  But Chuck was grinning and smiling and shucking and jiving: “Beautiful, beautiful, so glad tah meet yew…  Yes, yes…  All right, it’s a pleasure.”  He shook hands with two women in evening dresses and then was ushered into another room.  I saw Curtis the saxophonist pour himself a glass of whiskey.

Cherie came by and asked how I was doing.  I told her I’d wished I could have played the soundcheck.

“It’s all right, they didn’t even rehearse,” she said.

I drifted off to find another beer.  I grabbed a cold beer, popped it open, and walked behind the stage to listen to the opening band.  I tried to peer out at the audience, but they were blocked by the haze of yellow stage lights hanging down from the rafters.

I muttered aloud, “Whoo-whee, Chuck’s gonna sweat under those lights,” and took another sip of my beer.  I was beginning to feel drunk, but I was getting nervous.  I couldn’t watch a moment of the band playing onstage.  I turned and walked restlessly back to the dressing room.

A tray of sandwiches had arrived on a buffet table.  I ignored the food and sipped my beer.  I walked over to my bass and plugged in my electric tuner.  I began to tune the strings.  Chuck reappeared with his guitar case and saw me tuning.  He said, “I always do that by ear… but you feel free to use whatever help you.”  I looked down at my strings and finished tuning.

The drummer strolled into the room, spinning two drumsticks in his hands.  He walked up to Chuck and said, “Hey Chuck, how’re you doing?”  Chuck turned to the center of the room and said, “Anybody got something for Chuck Berry to drink?”  He held up his bottle of whiskey and turned it upside down to show that it was empty.  I saw Cherie nod and walk out of the room.

The drummer said, “Chuck, I played with you in Modesto last year.  At the Green Ridge Festival.”

Chuck looked up and said, “What’s your name?”

The drummer mumbled his name.  I couldn’t catch it.

Chuck took a cloth out of his guitar case and began to wipe down his guitar.  He shook his head.  “I don’t remember it.  I play with a lot of people.”

The drummer nodded and twiddled his drum sticks.  He drifted away from Chuck.  I put down my bass and grabbed a fresh beer.  I walked over to Chuck.

I said, “Chuck, I’m Steve.  I’m playing bass with you tonight.”

Chuck raised the neck of his guitar and began wiping down his fretboard.  He nodded to himself and said, “Uh-huh.”

I took a sip of beer and said, “But here’s the deal, Chuck.  I’m only playing this gig if you can do two things.”

I paused and looked at him.  He continued wiping his guitar.  “Uh-huh.”

“First off, Chuck, you’re not gonna be making a pain in the ass of yourself out there.  You’re not gonna hijack every song and change keys on us every two minutes.  I’m not gonna stand for that.”

Chuck continued to wipe down his guitar.  He smiled to himself.  “Is that so?”

“That’s right, Chuck.  And there’s something else.”

I looked at him.  He was grinning.  Suddenly Cherie appeared with a fresh bottle of whiskey.  “We have Rebel Yell,” she said.  “Is that okay?”  Chuck took the bottle and smiled.  “That’s beautiful, darling.  Thank you very much.”

Cherie glanced quickly at me and then back at Chuck.  She smiled and ducked away.

Chuck opened the bottle of whiskey and took a swig.  Then he rested the bottle on the table.  I looked at him for a moment.

“So anyway, Chuck, what I was saying was—”

“Yes, what were you saying?”  He stopped wiping his guitar.

I took a sip of beer.  “Point number two, Chuck, is that you damn well better play funky out there, `cause you get so boring with—”

“MAN—what did you say?”

“You heard me.”

Chuck stood up.  I could feel people turning to look at us.  Chuck stared at me.  He pointed at me, gesturing with the cloth he’d used to wipe down his guitar.  “You don’t talk to Chuck Berry like that.”

“I sure do,” I said.  “The fact is, Chuck, you get way too comfortable out there.  I want to see you get up the funk.  Let’s see what you got.  You’ve been doing the same thing for forty years and I don’t think too much of it now.”

Chuck shook his head and turned to the room.  “SOMEBODY WANT TO GET THIS MAN OUT MY FACE?”

Cherie stepped next to me and pulled at my arm.  “Steve?  Steve?”

I stared at Chuck.  I put my beer down on the table.  “I’m just stating a fact, Chuck.  Let’s see you get funky.  If you really—”

Chuck exploded, “MAN—I DON”T WANT TO HEAR NOTHIN’ FROM YOU—”

Cherie began pulling me away.  “STEVE, HEY—”

Larry walked over.  He mumbled something and Chuck shouted, “WHAT’S CHUCK BERRY SUPPOSED TO SAY?  WATCH ME HIT THAT MAN.  I’M NOT VIOLENT.  CHUCK BERRY IS NOT A VIOLENT MAN.  DOES HE WANT TO GET HIT—”

Larry said, “No, Chuck—listen—”

“MAN, I’M SITTIN’ HERE—”

Cherie pulled me out of the room.  We stumbled into the hallway and she said, “I can’t believe you’d start talking to Chuck Berry like that,” but I shook my head and walked away from her.  I drifted slowly down the hallway to a water fountain.  I could hear Cherie saying something behind me but I waved her off.  I hunched over the water fountain and began sipping water.  Then I turned and walked into a nearby bathroom.

I splashed cold water on my face and stared into the bathroom mirror.  I was drunk.  I knew it.  But my adrenaline was pumping.  I could feel my heart pounding mightily in my hollow chest.  My face flickered pale and white under the fluorescent bathroom light.  I was drunk enough that I stood hovering over the sink for a while.  The cold water ran till I noticed that I’d left it running.  I shut it off.  I stood there, staring at my bruised eyes in the mirror.

After a few minutes, I stood up and walked out of the bathroom.  I started walking down the hall toward the common room.  Larry and Cherie came toward me.  Larry said, “What the hell happened back there?”  Cherie interrupted him and said, “You guys are going on any minute—can you play this gig?  WHAT ARE YOU YELLING AT CHUCK FOR?”

“I’m cool,” I said.  “Trust me.”

Larry began to gesture at me.  Stray hairs began to fall down across his face.  “I just want this thing to work.  I just want this gig to happen.  We have a lot of work and we don’t—we can’t wait—”

Cherie interrupted him.  “Are you gonna play?”

“Yes,” I said.

“I mean, this has to work.”

“I know, I know.”

Cherie took my arm.  “Can you just go in there and get your bass?  You guys have to go on any second.”

I paused and listened for a moment.  I couldn’t hear the opening band playing anymore.  How long had I been standing in the bathroom?…  I started walking toward the common room.  I looked back at them and said, “Let’s go.”

When I walked into the common room, Chuck was wearing his guitar and sipping whiskey.  He saw me and looked away.  The rest of the band were standing around watching Chuck.  The second guitar player had shown up; he was tuning his guitar.  He finished tuning and strapped on his guitar.  He stood up and said, “I’m good.”

Chuck took another pull of whiskey.  A blonde woman strolled by in a mini-skirt and he began talking to her.  I picked up my bass and strapped it on.  I played a few stray notes and then walked over to the cooler.  I pulled out a bottle of Rolling Rock.  Cherie came over and took the bottle from me.  “You’ve had enough,” she said.

I turned and looked at Chuck.  He was laughing, talking to the blonde woman, “Now that’s the way I was raised—it doesn’t mean any disrespect.”  The girl laughed.  After a minute, Chuck put down his whiskey and said, “All right, Chuck Berry’s gonna play some rock `n roll mu-sick.”  He began walking toward the door.  Larry and the band followed him.

I grabbed another Rolling Rock from the cooler and followed them out to the stage.  I could hear the rushing “Hahhh” of the audience as they cheered Chuck’s entrance.  I tried to squint out at the crowd beyond the haze of lights.  A technician came over to help me plug in my bass but I snatched the cable from his hand and said, “Man…”  I plugged into the amp and he walked away.

Chuck was adjusting his guitar strap, talking into a microphone, addressing the crowd.  I ignored him and began switching the knobs on the amp.  Someone had flattened all the levels so that the bass would sound low and wide, almost atonal.  I knew Chuck liked the bass to sound that way—wide and deep.  But I preferred a bit more high end in my sound.  I turned up the mid-range and began snapping loud notes on the strings to test the setting.  I raised the volume and thumped my low E-string.  It boomed out through the house.  Chuck turned to look at me.  Then he stepped over to the other guitar player and said, “All right, `Roll Over Beethoven’ in A.”

He stepped back up to the microphone and said, “You folks are beautiful.  Bee-yoo-tee-full.  I can’t hardly get out to Califor-nee enough.  No sir—but ain’t it purty?”  Then he stepped back, hunched over his guitar, and cranked into the opening riff of “Roll Over Beethoven.”  The drummer came in with a double snare shot and started rattling out a 4/4 beat.  I tried to start a fast, looping blues walk, but I was too loud.  I reached down, to lower my volume control, and hit a few simple notes.

Chuck was playing too fast.  He was revving through the song—which seemed strange.  It would have made sense if he were nervous—to rush the song.  But I had trouble keeping up and began to feel vaguely light-headed.  I had drunk too much beer and couldn’t move my fingers fast enough.

I missed a turnaround as Chuck began to solo.  For a moment he stopped tapping his feet.  He threw his head back and glared at me with an open-mouthed expression.  I looked down at my bass.

Chuck soloed through the next twelve bars.  I stepped around my amp to face the drummer.  He wouldn’t look at me.  He was watching Chuck, trying to keep time with Chuck’s hurried pace.  I began playing off the beat of his snare drum and fell into a better rhythm.  “The hell with the crowd,” I thought.  “Let me just get through this.”  I played off the drummer’s snare and began to catch up with his beat.  At the next turnaround I dropped in a quick walk from  low-E up to A.  The drummer caught it and double-timed his high hat.  He glanced quickly at me and nodded.

Chuck started soloing again, doing his duck walk, hitting one note over and over.  I suddenly understood his whole game.  It was just simple garage rock.  He didn’t know any more than that, but he played it damn well.  He kept hitting that one note riff again and again, playing off the drummer’s beat, striking it over and over—far longer than some young, hotshot guitarist would dare to do.  Anybody else would be afraid of looking too simple; they’d start doing something fancy.  But Chuck was hitting it again and again—“Dah… dah… dah…,” and I could feel the drummer locking into it.

It started to get unnerving—how long was Chuck gonna hit this one note?  I stepped toward him and slid into thumping single-note beats that would back up his riff.  But he turned to me and we made eye contact.  He shouted, “No,” and began soloing again.  I turned back to the drummer and started a pattern of walking bass notes.  I could see the drummer wince at something and behind me Chuck suddenly ended the song.   He strummed two final chords and then stopped.  The audience erupted immediately, shouting and clapping.  But Chuck turned away from his microphone and looked at me.  He smiled a moment, but then his eyes caught mine and he shouted, “You ain’t too good, man.  You should turn down.”

And then the smile reappeared as he swung his head back toward the audience.  He stepped up to the microphone and shouted, “Oh yeah… oh yeah—you people are just so good.  Um-hmm…  here’s an oldie—but a GOODIE.”  I heard him strike the descending riff of  “You Never Can Tell” and I immediately hit a C.  But it was wrong.  Chuck wasn’t in the key of C.  I slid up and down the neck trying to find the key.

The drummer came in a bit stiffly.  The song is an old shuffle—my favorite kind of blues, what I do best.  Chuck Berry wants to give me a shuffle-blues, I’ll stomp all over his grey, whiskered face.  I could hear the other guitar playing strumming stunted chords, trying to figure the key.  I suddenly locked into F and shouted to him, “F.”  He nodded and began strumming.

By this time, Chuck was singing, “It was a teenage wedding and the old folks wished them well…”  Rather than wait for us to find the key, he’d launched into the vocals.  I knew the song though, remembering that it was only two chords—not the typical 3-chord blues pattern.  I began to swing my bass line and turned to the drummer, nodding my head on the two and the four beats to show him that I had the groove.  He nodded back.

I waited for Chuck to finish the first verse and then I began to punctuate my bass line with rapid swing-bursts—quick pulses of double-pumped bass notes, a funky twist on the beat—very tricky to pull off, but perfectly natural for a shuffle beat.  The drummer skipped his high hat and locked into the groove.  The other guitarist picked up on the beat and went with it.  Suddenly we were swinging a really looping, funky shuffle.  I turned to smile at the drummer and then glanced toward Chuck.  But as I turned to him, I saw him stop singing and turn to me.  He was strumming his guitar, trying to lock in with our groove.  I smiled and nodded, playing my cool “Duh-bum-bum… duh-bum-bum” bass line.

Chuck hitched his strumming and watched my hands to see what I was playing.  He started strumming again but faltered.  He couldn’t get up the hand-speed to strum funky chords against my shuffle groove.  He fumbled and stopped.  He tried again to catch up to the beat.  He looked at me and shouted, “MAN?…”

I turned and smiled at the other guitarist, who was calmly strumming along with the groove.  We dropped down to a C-chord for the turnaround.  I turned and nodded to the saxophone player.  We finished the turnaround and he began to solo.

Suddenly Chuck ran at me.  He lifted his guitar across his chest with his left hand and reared back to throw a punch with his right.  He came at me and jabbed a punch at my face, but I stumbled backwards.  His fist glanced off the guitar strap on my shoulder.  I fell back against my amp.

“MAN—” he screamed.  I tried to lift my bass off my chest, but Chuck threw another punch.  It smacked against the neck of my bass.  I lifted my bass over my head and pivoted sideways, getting set to take a swing at Chuck’s jaw.  Suddenly the guitar player appeared behind Chuck and pulled him away.  Chuck screamed something and Larry ran onto the stage.  He grabbed me from behind and pulled me away from Chuck.  My bass slipped out of my hand and fell to the floor.  The strings clanged against the neck, setting off a booming echo throughout the hall.  I started laughing.

I looked across at Chuck.  Two people were holding him back.  Larry had his arms wrapped around me.  I kept laughing.  Someone switched off the bass amp to stop it from reverberating.

The drummer ran up to Larry and shouted, “What the hell, man?”  Chuck was screaming, “I AIN’T PLAYIN’ WITH THAT CAT.”  Someone else jumped in to grab  hold of him.  He began to push against them.  “HEY, MAN, DAMN—”

Larry shoved me to the side of the stage.  Someone else pushed me backward.  Larry ran over to Chuck and shouted, “Sonofabitch—what the hell you doing?”  Chuck started gesturing and screaming at me.  Spit flew from his mouth.

“MAN— HE’S TRYING TO THROW MY ACT.  BUT I’M HIP.  I AIN’T TAKIN’ NONE O’THAT.  YOU GET RIDDA THAT CAT RIGHT NOW.”

Larry waved his arms.  “Chuck—listen, listen.  I can throw him out.  But you’re the one throwing punches.  Who’m I gonna get to play the gig?”

Chuck pointed at Larry.  He shook his head.  “I DON’T CARE, MAN.  JUST GET SOMEBODY.”

Larry nodded.  “All right, look—”  He interrupted himself and turned to the other guitar player.  “Scott, Scott—you think you can play bass?”

Scott shook his head.  “I’m union, man.  I can’t do that.”

Larry threw up his hands.  “Good Christ—this is ridiculous.  Look, Chuck, what’s going on here?  Let’s just straighten it out.  You gotta do the show.”

Behind Larry the audience had begun to stomp their feet, clapping in unison to show their disapproval.  Larry swept an arm toward the crowd.  “See, man, you gotta do the gig.”

Chuck wiped spit from the side of his mouth.  “Why’s he gotta upstage me, man?”

I picked up my bass.  I yelled, “I’m not upstagin’ anything.  What’d I tell you, man?”

Larry ran over to me.  “You just shut the hell up.  I should throw you outta here.”

The drummer grabbed Larry’s arm.  “Larry—keep your cool, man.  This is on cable.”

Larry put his hand to his forehead.  “Oh Jesus, oh Jesus.”  He ran back to Chuck.  “See, man.  You gotta play the gig.  Just plug in and keep going.”

Chuck squinted at Larry a moment.  He pointed at me.  “What’s the boy’s problem?  What’s he trying to do?”

Larry waved me over.  He said, “What the hell’s going on?”

I walked over to them.  “Look, I told Chuck we were gonna do this funky.  He’s busy changing keys on us.  But if he’s gonna play a shuffle it should be funky.”  I looked at Chuck.  “You’re Chuck Berry, you’re supposed to do all that.”

Chuck shook his head.  “But, man, they’re my songs.  You don’t change my songs.”  He pounded his fist against his chest.  Behind him the audience was yelling and jeering.  “I do `em my way.”

I shook my head.  I said, “Chuck, you gotta push yourself.  You can play it funky.  You’re gonna have to.  Long as I’m here, I owe it to myself to push it, you know.  If I’m playing with Chuck Berry at The Fillmore, I’m gonna—”

“Man, I don’t know how come you can—”

Larry stepped between us.  “We’re wasting time.  Can’t you play something?”

Chuck grabbed the neck of his guitar and lifted it upright.  “Look, I’ll play.  But he’s gotta play my way.  That’s the way it goes.”

Larry looked at me.  “Can’t you do what Chuck says?”

I nodded.  “Yeah, I can do it Chuck’s way.  But I’m just say—”

Larry screamed, “I DON’T CARE.  I DON’T CARE.  JUST PLAY.”

I looked down at the floor.  I nodded.  “All right, all right.  Let’s just play.”

Larry looked at Chuck.  “Chuck?”

Chuck nodded, “Yeah, man.”

Larry stepped back, “Okay then.”

I took a step toward Chuck.  “Hey Chuck, man, I’m sorry.  No disrespect, you know.”

He strapped on his guitar and shook his head.  “I don’t wanna hear it.”

I turned away and plugged in my bass.  Scott walked past me and muttered.  “You screwed this all up, man.”

I stepped in front of the drummer.  He looked down at me.  “What the hell are we supposed to do?”

I shook my head.

Chuck walked over to us.  “A’aight.  We gon’ keep it simple, right?”

“Uh-huh,” I said.

“Awright.”

He turned away and stepped in front of the microphone.  I called after him, “Wait—Chuck?…”

He turned around.  “WHAT?”

“What are we gonna do?”

He squinted at me.  “Real simple, man.”  He turned back to the microphone.  His cheeks puffed into that famous Chuck smile.  He yelled into the mike, “You all so patient—DAMN.  You the best.  THE BEST.  You come out to see Chuck Berry, you never know what gon’ happen.”  He glanced over his shoulder to check that we were ready.  He turned back to the microphone, “I want everyone of you singin’ and clappin’—that’s why we here.  Chuck can’t do it himself.  He’s gotta hear y’all.”

He grabbed the neck of his guitar and broke into the riff of  “Johnny B. Goode.”  I hit a B-flat, but Chuck was playing it in A.  He heard us hit the wrong note and turned to us.  He scowled and turned back to the mike.  I shouted to Scott, “He’s in A.”  Scott nodded.

Chuck began singing “Way down in Louisiana…” and we locked into a hard, fast groove.  I hunched over my bass and began playing a fast, walking bass line.  The drummer rattled off a fast snare beat.  Chuck began stomping his feet, bouncing up and down, shouting the lyrics.  His neck strained as he shouted, “Go… Go Johnny, go, go…”

After the first chorus, Chuck started riffing.  He shouted something and the saxophone player came in with a high horn line.  Chuck was nodding his head, grinning.  I glanced at the drummer and he nodded, smiling.  We hit the final chorus and Chuck put his hand to his ear, listening to the audience as they sang along.  He leaned into the microphone and yelled, “I wanna hear y’all.”  The drummer pounded a simple one-two-three-four and the audience shouted, “Go… Go Johnny go, go…”

Chuck shouted, “Ee-yeah” and we hit the chorus one more time.  Then abruptly Chuck turned to the drummer and signaled the song to end.  He crashed a final chord and the drummer bashed his loud cymbals.  The audience jumped up and began to applaud.

Chuck shouted into the microphone, “OH, MY, MY… YEAH…”  He wiped sweat from his forehead.  I turned to the drummer and shouted, “See, no problem.”

Chuck announced, “You gotta love that rock `n roll music… bee-yoo-tee-full… YEAH.  All right, we gonna play some rock `n roll music.”  He picked up his guitar and began strumming the opening of “Rock `n Roll Music.”  I jumped in with a low E and the drummer followed.

I could hear the audience cheering and clapping.  I began to settle in, to let Chuck play his fast, straight rock `n roll.  I wiped sweat from my forehead, and suddenly felt light-headed.  It was all the beer I’d drunk.  But Chuck finished the song quickly and suddenly jumped into “No Particular Place To Go”—which left the house shaking with applause.  Chuck nodded to the saxophone player and they traded solos over the song’s run-out chords.  I bounced to the beat, playing my bass, feeling slightly faint.  But the music passed in a blur.  After two more songs, Chuck announced, “We got one more for you” and started “Sweet Little Sixteen.”

After the bashed close of “Sweet Little Sixteen,” Chuck stood on the stage saying, “Thank you, thank you—oh my, thank you so much.”  He wiped sweat from his face and neck and nodded at the audience.  But then he walked off-stage and wouldn’t return for an encore.

As soon as he hit the side of the stage he grabbed a pitcher of water and collapsed into a chair.  Larry came running up to him and said, “Chuck, Chuck, you gotta do an encore.”  Chuck shook his head.  He gasped for breath and wiped sweat off his forehead.  “No man, not tonight.”  He panted and coughed.  “I’m worn out.”

I walked past him and patted him on the shoulder.  His shirt was soaked with sweat.  I said, “Great job, Chuck.”

Chuck gulped a cup of water and looked up at me.  “Don’t you tell me `Great job, Chuck.’  I know damn well when a show go all right.  I wouldn’t be sittin’ here right now, if I coulda had to beat yo’ ass.”

I nodded.  “Uh-huh.  All right… well, good playin’ with ya Chuck.”

He tried to pour another cup of water.  His hands were shaking.  Larry turned to me.  “I’ll talk to you later.”

“Uh-huh,” I said.

I went backstage to pack up.  Cherie walked up to me and said, “You’re a complete asshole.  I don’t know what you thought…”

I put my bass in its case.  I closed the cover and clicked the locks.  “Thanks for the gig,” I said.  I picked up my bass and walked over to the beer cooler.  I grabbed a Rolling Rock.

Cherie stepped in front of me.  “See, this would have been great.  But you had to be a schmuck.”

I put down my bass and twisted off the cap on the beer bottle.  I took a sip of beer.  I took another sip of beer and looked at her for a moment.  I said, “This was a great gig.  You’ll be hearing about it for a long time.”

“I know I will.”

I nodded and took another sip of beer.  “You know where to reach me.  Give Chuck my number.”

Her eyes widened.  “Right.”

“I’m serious.”

“Why would I ever give Chuck your number?”

“`Cause in two weeks, or two months, he’s gonna be calling to play gigs with me.  Just wait till tomorrow.  Everybody’s gonna say, `Did you see that Chuck Berry  show?’  And their friends are gonna say, `No, what?’  And everybody’s gonna be talking about Chuck getting into a fight and all.  It’s the way—”

“You’re proud of that?”

“It’s rock `n roll.”  I pointed out toward the stage.  “That was a great gig.”

She waved her hand in the air to dismiss what I was saying.  “Whatever.”

I took a sip of my beer.  I nodded.  “All right, thanks for the gig.”  I picked up my bass and walked out of the room.

 

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About Steven Capozzola

Music, writing, dogs, life.

2 responses to “When I Played Bass with Chuck Berry.”

  1. kevin says :

    Dude, you are a total jackass. Who the f*** are you? I’ve never heard of you, I have heard of Chuck Berry and that says it all. He’s the star of the show and those are his songs. You were just the hired hand on bass. And a fill in at that. Total f***Ing jackass.

    • Steven Capozzola says :

      Hey Kevin: The story is totally fictitious. But the fact that you believed it, and took it seriously, is very flattering. That means it reads like actual journalism. Awesome, thanks. -steven

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