Legendary rock n’ roll musician Chuck Berry died Saturday, and Austin’s live music community has gathered to reflect on a man who inspired them and kept them dancing for 90 years. After hearing the news, Statesman music writer Peter Blackstock posted the following plea on his Facebook page: “Austin musicians: Chime in here if you played a gig in Chuck Berry’s band. I know there are a few of you.”
And their stories didn’t disappoint.
Austin drummer Conrad Choucroun wrote about the time he played with Berry on the Texas coast:
Galveston Mardi Gras 1998. Unbelievable. My 22 yr old self was trying to play everything swingy like the original recordings, but he wanted everything straightened out with the same bass drum pattern. Between songs, he looked back at me and made the hip thrusting gesture, and I didn’t know why. So I did the hip thrust gesture back at him. He yelled something unintelligible at me and did it again, and so I did it again. Allen Hill the bass player hipped me to fact that he wanted me hitting the cymbal when he thrust his hips, not thrusting back at him. So there was a moment where Chuck and I were thrusting our hips at each other on stage in front of thousands of people. The show was part train wreck part rock’n’roll brilliance.
Choucroun told a more detailed version of the story to Blackstock via a private message:
Banana Blender Surprise got asked to be Chuck’s backing band for a Galveston Mardi Gras show by the late great Houston promoter, Don Gomez. We asked what set list we were to learn for the show. Chuck’s people just said, “learn the Great 28.” So we did. Day of show, everyone including the crowd was in Galveston ready for the show. We were all set up and waiting, but no Chuck. He was at the Houston airport on the phone with the promoters saying he refused to come to Galveston until he had the cash. The money was in Galveston at the show, but that wasn’t good enough. So, much to the displeasure of the crowd, we had to play our own music while we waited for CB. Finally he rolls up in his rented Lincoln Town Car, eventually walks on stage, plugs his guitar into the two Fender Dual Showman amps, and just starts playing. He did the whole bit, changed keys on us and everything. It was simultaneously great and terrifying. After the show, we went back to his tent, and the police officer said “can I help you.” And we said, sweaty just off stage, ” yes we’d like to thank Chuck and maybe get a picture.” The officer said “hold on” and went into the tent. When he came out, he said “Chuck says no.” It was really a perfect ending to our Chuck Berry experience!
Keyboardist Patterson Barrett referenced the time he and local drummer Tommy Taylor played with Berry at the Austin Aquafest (remember Aquafest?) at Auditorium Shores. He posted a link to a post Taylor wrote in October, talking about how Berry reportedly never liked to use promoters or agents to book his shows, his flights, his drivers or his hotels. He also apparently never tuned.
Here’s the full story (click “see more” for the whole thing):
While we’re talking about Aquafest, musician Troy Campbell remembered seeing Berry there:
I went to see him with scrappy Jud when we were both really young at aqua fest. We went to the front row which was too high to see well so we basically dig long chin-ups to see him up close. He was awesome yelling out at the band and running down classics. We were all pretty high on life etc that evening and I remember he pointed to others musicians using his massive middle finger and introducing them. Was right up there with Rev Al green the next year. Thank you chuck berry for Rock and roll [sic]
The thread has only been up for an hour, but musicians are continuing to share their memories. Follow along here:
Texas artist Sunny Sweeney also paid tribute to Berry on Saturday at the South by Southwest Outdoor Stage at Auditorium Shores, before Garth Brooks’ performance. Austin songwriter Chris Wall’s tune “I Feel Like Hank Williams Tonight,” which Sweeney recorded on her new album, just happens to mention Berry in its final verse:
Sunny Sweeney gives a singing shoutout to the late #ChuckBerry in a Chris Wall song opening for #GarthBrooks #sxsw pic.twitter.com/rQ2bINPJLG
— Peter Blackstock (@Blackstock360) March 19, 2017
UPDATE: Another story from Austin bassist Glenn Fukunaga, who also backed Berry for a show once:
Finally, KUTX DJ Jody Denberg shared a couple of memories of Berry shows at the Paramount:
One time about 10 years ago I was emceeing a Chuck Berry show at the Paramount. I was introduced to the man by Pinetop Perkins and Clifford Antone backstage, who said nice things to me about Chuck. After I introduced him and made what I thought was a quick getaway, Chuck motioned me back to the microphone. I was apprehensive as I approached him (to say the least). He looked me right in the eye, lifted his guitar toward me and sang: “I’m gonna write a little letter, going to mail it to my local DJ”. His eyes kindly dismissed me. One of the greatest moments of my life. … There was another show at the Paramount that Ed Mayberry emceed in the 1980s — Chuck and Bo Diddley. Bo canceled due to illness. Chuck played the opening set and did all Bo Diddley songs, and then did his own set. He, of course, was paid Bo’s fee along with his own!]]