Why I Saw Chuck Berry Play Live At Age 81
Paying homage to our pioneers, fifty years later and three thousand miles away.
A Celebration of African-American Music Appreciation Month at The FADER is presented by MetroPCS.
Knowing that some of the founding fathers of rock & roll go by the names of Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Ike Turner is one thing. But when’s the last time music from any of those icons found its way into your playlist? I brought this up to my bestie the other day, Berry’s “No Particular Place to Go” streaming from my Apple TV while doing the dishes. My culturally aware, music-loving friends are all quick to assail culture vultures like Elvis for undue credit in rock’s invention. But how well do we really know our own pioneers?
The idea for a blog called The Other Black Guy hit me in Paris’s Olympia theater nearly 10 years ago, when I was a fly in the buttermilk of a Chuck Berry concert, March 2008. I never followed through, but living in France from 2004-2011, I found myself at shows (My Bloody Valentine, The Breeders, Sly Stone, etc.) where people of color were so scant that I could have interviewed “the other black guy” at the show for fun. Granted, Berry might’ve had more African Americans attending his shows in the U.S. than the trickle of French-Caribbean and French-African fans assembled in the ninth arrondissement that night. But at the time, the colorless crowd only reminded me of how little support some legends receive from their original audiences after a certain age. I can’t picture Stevie Wonder ever having this problem, but I’d bet money on being the Other Black Guy at one of Little Richard’s last shows.
At 81, Chuck Berry — signature sailor cap cocked on his head like a crown, red Gibson guitar cradled in his arms — rocked Paris like a man half his age. Never necessarily much of a singer, his voice still carried to the cheap seats, his nimble rockabilly riffs undiminished by arthritis or anything else of the sort. Berry duck-walked like he’d been doing for decades, powering through “Johnny B. Goode,” “Maybellene,” “Rock and Roll Music” and the rest. Still, through all the broken English singalongs and applause, my relationship to the music and the performance felt slightly remote.
Chuck Berry deserved my homage and my 30 euros for creating rock & roll music (if not single-handedly, then inarguably as part of a small wave including Fats Domino, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Ike Turner and others). Chuck Berry wouldn’t be around forever and I wanted to experience the man firsthand before he took his last bow. Never mind that my most visceral connection to his music might’ve been the legendary guitar break sampled on “Go Cut Creator Go” when I was a teenager — Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven” by way of LL Cool J. As a curious lover of music from all corners, nothing about an eightysomething musician playing hits from before I was born dissuaded me from being there.
In July 2007, I’d seen Sly and the Family Stone at the same venue. Speaking of hip-hop samples, Sly Stone always hit a lot closer to my heart than Chuck Berry thanks to De La Soul, Beastie Boys, A Tribe Called Quest, Jungle Brothers and more. Either I recognized the Family Stone breakbeats all up in the mix of Native Tongues’ singles from my own crate-digging, or made the musical connections later when DJs juxtaposed the songs in NYC clubs like The Shelter, The World and Mars. If Chuck Berry invented rock ’n’ roll, Sly Stone created funk (building on James Brown, and built upon by George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic and others), and I wanted to share the same room for a couple hours.
That said, 64-year-old Sly was a shadow of his former self that night. Highly reclusive since the 1980s, he’d just resurfaced at a 2006 Grammy Awards tribute, and started world-touring with his daughter’s band playing hits from the ’60s and ’70s. At the show, Sly excused himself offstage several times inexplicably (or not quite inexplicably: he repeatedly blamed his bladder), and only ever sang about five songs while the band carried the rest themselves. The concert held none of the wonder of his legendary Woodstock performance or the choreographed funk precision of that era’s routines. But Woodstock was 1969. By 2007, all most of us were looking for was a glimpse of the man originally responsible for funk music, a contemporary of late icons (Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, James Brown) whom we’d never get the opportunity to see.
Experiencing musical legends from the past started at 17 for me, seeing James Brown live at the Apollo in 1988 (the year he’d made a youthful comeback album with the R&B production squad Full Force) and Miles Davis twice during the Newport Jazz Festival, at 19 and 20 years old. I was in my mid-30s at those Chuck Berry and Sly Stone shows, not some baby boomer romanticizing the past. In my mid-40s now, I’ve seen millennials like Wiz Khalifa, Miguel and SZA live lately, and knowing the greats helps me gauge what they’re really bringing to the table. With my favorite streaming service at my hip, I’m exploring everything from Funkadelic and Charles Lloyd to Jorja Smith and Kehlani at any given time. Expand your horizons; the choice is yours.