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Why Chuck Berry Snubbed a 60th Birthday Tribute From a Rock Supergroup
When Chuck Berry turned 60, the milestone was celebrated with an all-star concert filmed on Oct 16, 1986 at the Fox Theater in his native St. Louis and captured in the film Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll.
But for Berry's actual birthday two days later, Oct. 18, 1986, veteran New York promoter John Scher had booked the Felt Forum (now the Theater At Madison Square Garden) one year in advance, working with Berry's longtime agent, Dick Alen at the William Morris Agency.
The birthday bash did not go as planned.
Scher, who promotes events today as head of Metropolitan Entertainment Consultants, had presented Berry in concert numerous times going back to the early 1970s. Like almost all promoters with whom Berry worked, Scher had responsibility for booking the backup band for the Felt Forum show.
Apart from the ensemble featured in Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll, led by Keith Richards, the group Scher assembled was one of "the greatest bands he'd ever played with."
On bass was John Entwistle of the Who, the iconic British rock band that rocked the Live Aid benefit the previous summer. On keyboards was Chuck Leavell, a longtime member of the Allman Brothers who had been touring with the Rolling Stones (who also had played the St. Louis concert). On guitar and drums were Dave Edmunds and Terry Williams, respectively, of Rockpile, the acclaimed British pub rock band, both devoted Berry acolytes.
Each of the band members "picked out one song they wanted to do as a tribute" to Berry, recalls Scher, not one of his songs, but a selection inspired by his pioneering hits. "So they'd play four songs and then he'd come on."
Berry, as usual, showed up about 15 minutes before showtime.
"I took him aside and I said, `Chuck, I've got to ask you something a little out of the usual," Scher says, explaining plans for the four-song tribute to open the show
The promoter expected the gesture "would have gotten to his heart a little bit. But nope... "
As Scher recalls the encounter, Berry opened his briefcase, pulled out his contract and leafed through to a paragraph in the rider "that forbids his backup band from performing any of their own material.
"So I looked at him and, said, `Chuck, we've worked together a bunch." Berry was unmoved. He held up the contract and said to Scher: "Read it? Signed it? So what's the confusion."
The musicians took Berry's stance in stride. "These guys were gentlemen, they sort of understood," says Scher. "They just all shrugged and they still got off on playing with him" -- for exactly the hour-long show in Berry's contract.
"He played for 60 minutes, to the second," says Scher. "Then he walked off, no encore, and left. The audience went crazy. I don't think the audience harbored any ill will toward him. He never did encores. They were still cheering when he was out the door."
Like others who have worked with Berry through the years, Scher suggests the singer's unflinching control over his concerts can be traced to earlier years "when he felt he'd been fucked around so often by early promoters and club owners.
"Nothing," adds Scher, "takes away from the power of the guy's music."