From unplugging a bass player’s guitar and telling him to sit down, to stopping a show because security had kicked out a kid who was dancing, Seattle musicians who backed up Chuck Berry tell their stories.
Years later, the local backup musicians, who had learned rock ’n’ roll listening to Chuck Berry riffs and idolized him, tell stories about the tumultuous nights they took the stage with Chuck.
Berry almost always played his gigs backed by local musicians.
It was in the mid-1980s that Steve Boyce got a phone call about getting everything ready in one day for a Christmas party at the Westin Hotel. It was corporate affair sponsored by Food Services of America, then headquartered in Seattle.
Boyce is a sound guy who works large events.
Chuck Berry: 1926-2017
For $10,000, the corporate bash had booked a special guest: Chuck Berry, the grandfather of rock ’n’ roll, who died Saturday at age 90.
Berry traveled by himself, flying in with his Gibson guitar and a really long guitar cable. It was up to the promoter to provide the backup band.
Berry often didn’t meet them until he walked on stage.
Boyce quickly put together a band, which included himself on bass.
This was his first memorable introduction to the man who defined rock ’n’ roll.
Berry kept his attention on half a dozen young women gathered around him in the Westin lobby. Finally, he turned to Boyce.
“So you’re the bass player? Fine. We’ll be on in seven minutes. Then he turned his back on me,” Boyce says.
It could be that Berry had a thing about bass players.
Consider what happened to Steve Fossen, the original bass player for the Seattle rock band Heart when he got on the wrong side of Berry at a 1981 Bumbershoot show. Heart was backing Berry at the Seattle Center Coliseum, now KeyArena. Fossen, who idolized Berry, spent the night before the show going through his Chuck Berry record collection.
But on stage, Fossen found himself the target of a glaring Berry who, a minute into the last song of the performance, walked over to Fossen, unplugged his bass guitar and told him to sit down.
It’s still not clear what made Berry embarrass Fossen.
To this day, Fossen says, “It’s painful.”
To Fossen, it felt like, “You’re the quarterback in the last play of the Super Bowl, and you throw an interception.”
Ned Neltner, guitarist for Jr. Cadillac, the longtime Seattle band, says members of the band had backed Berry in at least a dozen shows over the years.
Berry’s fees moved up and down: $10,000 for one show, $25,000 or even $50,000 for another.
He was known for the riders in his contract. He demanded half or more up front — sometimes 90 percent — with the rest to be paid in cash before he stepped on the stage.
And while many musicians haul expensive, custom amplifiers from gig to gig, Berry simply required that any stage he took come equipped with “Two (2) UNALTERED Fender Dual Showman Reverb amplifier sets.”
If they weren’t provided there was a monetary penalty — $1,000 or $2,000.
Neltner remembers a show in the early 1970s at the Salem Armory auditorium.
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The promoter kept signaling Jr. Cadillac to keep playing. It seemed the correct amps were not on stage, and Berry was demanding the monetary penalty before he strummed a chord.
Neltner said the crowd was hollering for Berry.
Perhaps as an added inducement for the promoter to cough up the dough, Neltner remembers, Berry “strolls across the stage behind the band with a … grin, hand in hand with a flaming redhead with piles of hair, super high heels and a leopard print coat. She was holding a bottle of Jack Daniels by the neck at her side. Both having a lovely time. This, of course, drove the crowd insane.”
The monetary dispute was settled.
Still, Chuck Berry seemed to always remember his audiences and why they came to see him.
Neltner remembers another show at the Coliseum in the mid-70s.
“It was a sit-down show, for some reason. People couldn’t get up and dance,” Neltner says. “Some kid in about the third row gets up and starts shaking. Security runs over and takes him out.
“Chuck stops the show. He tells security, ‘Go find that kid. Bring him back and let him stand there and dance. I want everybody to get up and dance if they want.”
The show was stopped for 10 to 20 minutes, an eternity in a concert. The guards finally found the kid.
Some of the best Chuck Berry shows in the Northwest were in unexpected settings.
Consider Dec. 9, 1977: A roller rink in Everett had been turned into the Great American Tavern, with 1,700 20-somethings jammed inside on a snowy evening.
“We want Chuck! We want Chuck!” they yelled, jumping up and down on tables, waving beer bottles and pounding empty pitchers. Thick cigarette smoke combined with the pungent tang of sweat hung in the air. There were bouncers in the men’s lavatory to stop fights.
None of it bothered Berry as he walked the fringe of the crowd, mildly amused. He’s talkative enough.
“This has been going on long before rock ’n’ roll. Sure, you had it with the crowds in Rome during the gladiators. No difference. Just human nature,” he tells a guy taking notes.
Then he is on stage, which is literally six inches away from the audience. So much beer has been spilled that the crowd is slipping on it and crashing.
“Sweet little 16, she’s got the grown-up blues … ”
Now people are standing on top of pool tables.
Then the crowd goes on the stage and dances there, too, and Chuck does a little bit of that duck walk.
It’s really an incredible rock ’n’ roll event, etched forever in your memory, but you had to be there.