Remembering Chuck Berry's Strange, Iconoclastic 1995 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Appearance
Labor Day weekend 1995 was not going to be a typical one for me. Filled with excitement, I boarded a plane and departed for Cleveland, Ohio. My mission: covering the official opening festivities for the physical museum of the brand new Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
As a born and bred New Jersey girl, there was a certain amount of pride involved, as this was going to be the first appearance of the reunited Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band since Springsteen broke up the band in 1989. I can’t lie -- that was the moment I was waiting for. What I got was more than I bargained for, as Springsteen and the band took the stage -- playing backup to Chuck Berry, the rock pioneer who passed away at the age of 90 on Saturday (March 18).
Back to 1995: I arrived early on Friday, quickly realizing I hadn’t packed correctly. Labor Day Weekend in Ohio is much colder than a weekend at the Jersey shore, due to the lake effect. Consequently, I had to head out to the mall for warmer attire if I was going to be out there for a seven-hour musical extravaganza. At the time I didn’t think that some of the acts I was witnessing would eventually no longer be with us, including Berry, Johnny Cash, Lou Reed, and James Brown.
Leading up to the main event, I had an up-close seat to some truly special moments: a ribbon cutting ceremony with James Brown, a stroll through the hall taking in the historic memorabilia on display, and readied myself for the main event: a concert at Cleveland Stadium with Springsteen, Melissa Etheridge, The Allman Brothers Band, Bruce Hornsby paying tribute to Jerry Garcia (who had passed away one month before the show), Lou Reed (who honored the passing of Velvet Underground guitarist Sterling Morrison by dedicating “Sweet Jane” to him on stage), The Kinks, Ann and Nancy Wilson, John Mellencamp with Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis (backed by the E Street Band), Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora paired with Eric Burdon of The Animals for "We've Gotta Get Out of This Place" (again, my Jersey pride burst when Jon was introduced as being from Sayreville, NJ), Booker T. and the MGs, Al Green, surprise guest Bob Dylan, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, and, of course, Chuck Berry.
Berry’s presence was everything I had imagined it would be. Dressed in a dapper white tuxedo and wielding his red Gibson guitar, Berry joined the E Street Band and dug into the opening riffs of “Johnny B. Goode.” A mustachioed Springsteen stood to the right of the 68-year-old guitarist, who still had a few licks in him and a gleam in his eye as he led the crowd in song, putting his hand to his ear and prompting us to yell “go.” I remember watching as Springsteen gallantly allowed Berry to bask in the spotlight, taking in the moment to once again perform alongside a guy whose records influenced him as a kid. I had read that Springsteen played that same role as backup for Berry in 1973, but this was a chance to see it happen again and the smile on his face said it all. That’s a gift for any musician, no matter what the circumstances. (Years later, we learned just how weird the circumstances were -- more on that later).
I especially loved the back and forth between Berry and the late, great Clarence Clemons on saxophone, as he pointed to Clemons to add some flavor where the guitar normally speaks. Then, there it was -- the famed guitar solo and his famous one-legged walk. I was in awe, as were the 60,000 in attendance.
Then came the all-star jam and finale. It should have been glorious, as a who’s who of musicians took to the stage to play what we learned later was supposed to be “Rock and Roll Music,” but all I remember was everyone on stage looking at each other wondering what to do next as Berry duck walked off the stage and left everyone there just a minute into the song. Years later, E Street guitarist Nils Lofgren said in an interview with the Hall of Fame that they were all shocked as well as Berry started playing without warning anyone else on stage what they were supposed to play.
“We’re all looking around at each other, the cast of characters and the backup band; these are pros, decades in. We are making these horrible sounds, collectively, in front of a stadium, sold out. We’re looking at each other like, ‘This can’t be happening, right? We’re not creating this thing we’re listening to. Yes, we are.’”
"At the height of it, when no one has any idea how to fix this, Chuck looks at us all and starts … looking at us, duck walking off the stage, away from us,” Lofgren continued. “He leaves the stage, leaves us all out there playing in six different keys with no band leader, gets in the car and drives away. Now if that’s not rock ‘n’ roll....”
That was rock n' roll, and I feel privileged to have witnessed it.
Rest in Peace, Chuck Berry.