Chuck Berry's Backing Bands: Tales From the Circle Jerks, Uptown Horns & More
When he took the stage, Chuck Berry could strike terror into the hearts of backup musicians who were booked to play behind the father of rock'n'roll.
"We were in a state of total panic...trying to find out what song we were playing and what key it was in," Bruce Springsteen recalls in the film Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll, describing when the then-unknown E Street Band backed Berry at a show at the University of Maryland in 1973.
Scores of journeyman musicians have tales of playing one-off or small numbers of gigs through the decades with Berry who infamously traveled alone, got paid upfront (cash only), never bothered with soundchecks, expected his sidemen to play his classics -- and sometimes fired them mid-show if they could not.
Here are some of their stories.
Guitarist Ned Nelter and his band, Jr. Cadillac, from Seattle, backed Berry for more than a dozen dates in the Pacific Nortwest. "No entourage. No rehearsal. No set list. No soundcheck. In fact, he'd often do the same song in a different key. He never called keys, or counted off. We just found the key and fell in. My best memory was at Boise State University. He was in fine form, a good mood. He asked two couples to join us on stage and dance. Suddenly, we have 40 revelers dancing all around us. Chuck went to our piano player, and started playing the right hand, while our piano player maintained the left. Then he switched around to the left hand. A natural showman. His sense of pitch was like a laser on the note -- even though his guitar was rarely in tune."
Danny Benair was the drummer in a Los Angeles band called the Falcons booked to play with Berry in March 1980 at the Hollywood Palladium. "The band rehearsed his songs for a couple of weeks, with no idea what he would play," recalls Benair. The night of the show, Berry arrived with his own bass player, Jimmy Marsala, but otherwise relied on Benair and his bandmates. "During the second song, our piano player, Mickey Mariano, was not seeing that Chuck wanted to bring the sound down. His head was staring into the grand piano. After the song, Chuck's bass player went up to him and said, 'Chuck, would like you to leave the stage.' But Chuck did invite him back for the encore."
In 1995, Greg Hetson was playing with the Circle Jerks at the club Mississippi Nights in Berry's hometown of St. Louis. "About halfway through the show, the stage manager hands me a note saying, 'Chuck Berry is here and he wants to play with you. Is that okay?' I say, 'Yes, of course! Bring him up!' So I unplugged one of my amps and gave him my spare guitar." Berry calls out for "Roll Over Beethoven" and Hetson turns to bandmate Zander Schloss: "Oh shit, what key? Then I remembered from watching Keith Richards in Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll that most of his songs were in C, so I yell "C!" And we followed his lead. He left before we finished our set so we didn't get to meet him. Our singer, Keith Morris, heard from the club manager that he thought we were one of the best rock bands he'd ever seen. Who would have thunk?"
A festival called Summit on the Hudson in 2003 in Westchester County gave Brian O'Callaghan his "one opportunity to play with Mr. Berry -- or Chuck, as he asked us to call him." O'Callaghan was hired to play bass, with Nate Wilson on piano and Eric Kalb on drums. "After getting the gig, I proceeded to the record store and purchased two double CDs of Chuck Berry music. I listened to nothing else for the next six weeks" before the show. "Show time. Chuck comes wailing onto the concert site in the Lincoln Town Car the promoters rented for him, per his rider. He said, 'I start every song. That's where you get the key and the tempo. Let's rock it!' We rocked it for 60 minutes and we were done. It felt like five minutes had passed. Unlike those horror stories, he treated us like professionals, equals and seemed to be having just as much fun as we were."
In recent years, Ray Andersen has recorded 11 albums that have climbed the Top Kid Albums chart as Mr. Ray. But in 1996, playing in a band called Blue Van Gogh, Andersen had one of the more unusual encounters with Berry. He recalls a hot, muggy, August night when Berry drove up, alone, in his rented black Cadillac to play a show in South Dakota, at a concert site overrun by a late-summer infestation of grasshoppers. Stepping out of his car, a handkerchief in hand, the father of rock'n'roll proceeded to wipe the grasshoppers off his windshield -- taking care of business himself, as usual. "We all watched like it's the bottom of the 9th in a World Series game—it was surreal," recalls Andersen, who sat in on piano behind Berry that night at the Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. When Andersen asked Berry the key to a song, the rocker said he was "whining like Keith Richards. What a freaking honor."
When it came to getting paid, Berry didn't mess around. Steve Fossen, of the band Heart By Heart and a founding original bassist with Heart, was backstage at the Seattle Coliseum in 1981 when Berry faced down a promoter, demanding an additional $10,000. "But we have a contract," the promoter countered. "Fuck the contract," Fossen remembers Berry saying. "I ain't playing unless you pay me another $10,000." The promoter insisted, "But our deal was for $50,000." Berry stated: "Look man, you got two choices. Either go on stage and tell 15,000 people that I ain't playing - or find another $10,000. Cause I'm not going out there until you do." Berry got his extra cash and took the stage, backed by members of Heart.
Tom Hambridge played some 30 Northeast shows with Berry from the mid '80s through the mid '90s, and recalls a night the singer's cash temporarily went astray. At an amphitheater show in Mansfield, Mass., Berry received his performance pay in cash, as usual, and put it in a suitcase in the trunk of his rented Cadillac. "After the show, he realized he had put the car keys in the suitcase and locked them in the trunk. He desperately needed to get that suitcase out, filled with $20,000 or $30,000. Stagehands at the venue worked on getting into that car for about an hour. They finally pried open the trunk and we were all standing there. Chuck opened the suitcase and took out one $20 bill, signed it and handed to the guys, said thanks, and drove off. The stage hands ended up framing the twenty backstage."
Saxophonist Arno Hecht, co-founder of the Uptown Horns, which backed the J. Geils Band, the Rolling Stones and others, recalls when Berry first played The Ritz (now Webster Hall) in New York City in the early `80s. "He apparently fired the bass player after a couple of songs, right off the stage. And then he fired the drummer a few more songs later, and finished the set with just him and the piano player."
For Berry's return to The Ritz, Hecht was asked to recruit a new set of players and tapped guitarist Jon Paris, bassist Charles Torres, drummer Ray Agcaoili, fellow saxophonist Crispin Cioe and keyboardist Charlie Giordano, now a member of the E Street band. "Chuck's attitude was, if you're going to take a Chuck Berry gig, you should know Chuck Berry material," says Hecht. The Ritz sidemen knew Berry's repertoire so well "he would do songs which he generally never did" in concert. They played with Berry throughout the New York area. "It came to a point," says Hecht, "where Chuck would know we were the guys on the gig and he actually -- and uncharacteristically -- showed up for soundcheck, just to jam, just for the fun of it. It was thrilling. We loved the guy."