Don't Mess With Chuck: Backstage with The Legend

Chuck Berry could be charming and just as easily he could be as prickly as a porcupine up your arse. Bill King recounts a gig with the legend showing his darker side.

In 1968, I'd been hanging around the musicians’ local in Hollywood, looking for gigs. Wandering in, hoping to find any kind of work, I shot some pool and yakked it up with the employed studio musicians who hung around between calls and pretended to be in the middle of things.

One day this guy named "Scooby," if you can believe that, mentions that Chuck Berry was in need of players for a concert at the Los Angeles Exhibition Center.

I quickly got on the vine and called the players I'd been rehearsing with; they were to be members of a new band for Linda Ronstadt, with me being the music director.

"Scooby" was older than most hippies, a guy who couldn't get a handle on the love generation but definitely liked the perks. He played the saxophone and did a few pit gigs, the most memorable being hired to play behind the Temptations. In fact, he was the only horn facing a fully orchestrated score that called for eight to ten horns. He professed it to be the scariest night of his life when he was told, "Just play the parts, mut’ah…”

On the phone, I get the band to commit and show up ready to roar for Chucky. At the gig, the first band up was the original edition of Fleetwood Mac with Peter Green.

The second act: the Chambers Brothers. Forty minutes into their set, I was ready to rip that throbbing cowbell out of the frontman's hand and scream "Time's up!" It may have been a cool song for the duration of 60 seconds, but a heavy dose of  “Time” was more than this vagrant could stand.

Here comes Chuck Berry! Give it up.

We were on.

Keep in mind that Chuck Berry didn't rehearse or spring a set list on you. So I stood back and watched the roadies haul this psychedelic-stained Dual Showman onto the stage, egged on by 10,000 screaming, teenagers amped on reefers.

Then an old upright piano is rolled into place. I looked on, thinking, "That must be for me.”  

Chuck Berry shows up side stage, wearing this electric blue vinyl Nehru shirt. Just as we were about to climb into position on stage, pianist Barry Goldberg and drummer Eddie Hoh show up. Goldberg cuts me off, announcing that he’s replacing me, on orders from Chuck. I think for a minute, then tell Goldberg to bring Chuck over and we'd work things out. Goldberg fires back, "Look, man, Eddie and I played with Chuck last night in Chicago and we flew all the way out here to play with him."

Another pause. Then I ask, "How much is he paying you?"

Goldberg shoots back, "We're here because we want to be." I tell both of them, "We're here because we've been hired--get lost."

Case closed!

Who says rock n roll is mellow?

Goldberg sniffs around Chuck, trying to draw him into the line of fire. Chuck looks back and says, "I don't care who's on the stage, just as long as they play."

Goldberg loses it. Starts telling me how he'd make sure I'd never work again in L.A.

Hell, I didn't even know anyone who had a job.

Who is he gonna tell, the folks at the Spot Dog Diner, home of the ten-cent corndog and my favourite hangout?

Chuck kicks things off, louder than a diesel pulling freight going full out in a tunnel; his amp so distorted it was difficult to make out the chords through what must have been a busted speaker cone.

In the next 50 minutes, though, we hit Nirvana. Every song had a piano solo and an approving nod from above. I can't say how elated I was. The crowd stomped, hooted, rocked and rolled.

Berry finished our dynamic set with “My Ding-A-Ling.”

I left the stage feeling as though I'd conquered the west coast. Springboard this triumph to a second keyboard with The Doors? Hey, why not?

Still buzzing with adrenaline, the four of us wait to get paid our hundred crisp greenbacks. It’s settle-up time with the promoters and Berry.

While waiting, I thought it seemed appropriate to exchange a few friendly words with this great headliner.

Three words in, no response from him. I cool it.

Chuck is busy, totally focused, counting his money.

He rattles off, "Four thousand one hundred and seventy, four thousand one hundred and eighty, four thousand one hundred and ninety.  Wait a minute, you shorted me ten dollars."

The ordeal repeats itself. Promoter A recounts to the dollar. Chuck counts it his way and the total comes up ten bucks short. After an hour of haggling, Promoter B says, “Who gives a shit - give the cheapskate another ten.”

Now comes the payout we’ve been patiently waiting for. Without looking up, Chuck Berry lays aside four 100-dollar bills and begins scooping up his personal stash.

Like a fool, I think the time’s ripe for us to get acquainted so I say, lightheartedly, "So, I guess you're taking the band out for steaks?"

Berry gives me a look I'll never forget.

Let me translate it into words. 'Get lost and excuse me because I have a plane to catch.'

Suddenly, a panhandling gig seemed more realistic. Even strangely attractive.





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