Chuck Berry is the type of man to pioneer rock ‘n’ roll, give it some of its most iconic anthems, travel the world, and at age 82, still mow his own lawn and drive himself to gigs. He is St. Louis music incarnate: hillbilly sound mixed with the rush of rhythm and blues. And once a month at Blueberry Hill, a nightclub, bar and restaurant in The Loop neighborhood, he can still bring down a full house and make the ladies howl.
“In my opinion,” says Joe Edwards, owner of Blueberry Hill, “I think he’s performing better than he did even 20 years ago. He’s just relaxed, having fun with his family and friends.”
Decked out in red sequins, bellbottoms, shined shoes and a captain’s hat, Berry played, sang and swaggered at his sold out show last Wednesday night. Maybe not as powerful as he once was, his stage presence still possesses an intense clarity. He swiveled and stamped, hitting the beat with his lanky leg to cue the band. He’s famous for improvising on stage, not knowing which song he’ll perform until a second before he breaks into a new chord.
“Now let’s play something we know,” he says jokingly, “What do we know?” Then they revved up the classic “Sweet Little Sixteen”:
They’re really rockin’ Boston,
In Pittsburgh, P.A.,
Deep in the heart of Texas,
And ‘round the Frisco Bay,
All over St. Louis,
Way down in New Orleans,
All the cats wanna dance with
Sweet Little Sixteen
The band knows how to follow his lead: Berry was joined by son Charles Berry Jr. on guitar, daughter Ingrid on harmonica and vocals and longtime bassist Jim Marsala.
Berry’s been performing monthly at Blueberry Hill more than 12 years. It’s about the size of the clubs Berry played when he was getting started, says Edwards. The space lends itself to a feeling of intimacy, with an overflow of fans perched on counter ledges, stairs, near jukeboxes and ashtrays. When asked why he had come that night, one first-time concertgoer said, “I think we’re all here for the same reason.” According to Chuck Berry, he’s here for the wings, but he’s probably the most popular thing on Blueberry Hill’s menu: his monthly show sells out in 45 seconds when tickets go online.
The elder statesman of rock n’ roll still belts out the songs that “gave the post-World War II generation a whole new way at looking at life,” says Edwards. “He covered so many subjects and gave teenagers and people in their 20s just a whole new type of music to hold onto. It was not their parents’ music; they could rebel, they could rock out.” Berry helped define the pantheon of rock n’ roll: school, cars and girls. But he also helped give voice to the changing attitudes about race, sex and personal freedom, with songs like “Brown Eyed Handsome Man.”
St. Louis is viewed as the gateway between east and west, north and south, as well as the meeting point of the Missouri and the Mississippi rivers, though that’s not the only natural confluence in the city. In order to appeal to white and black audiences alike, Berry made a concerted effort to use the best of both the hillbilly and R&B genres.
Berry’s initial impetus may have been more financial than artistic. As a young musician, intent on securing a decent income to support his growing family, “he realized that in order to cross over to the white audience, which was the biggest audience, and to have the most sales…he would have to appeal to white people,” explained Edwards. Seeing Nat King Cole as a role model who had used perfect diction to gain broad popularity, Berry created seamless crossover songs and found great success, going out on tour in the 1950s to support “Maybellene” and other hits. “When he went to certain cities,” Edwards told us, “some people did not know he was African-American… They thought he was white, and just a rock n’ roller in this strange, new music.”
The music isn’t new anymore and the young people who first picked up his records are now parents and grandparents. But Berry draws young fans to today’s shows, too. The reasons are endless as the themes of rock n’ roll are timeless. Some come because of a nostalgic yearning to be part of a musical movement that seems so powerful and revolutionary to those who weren’t around to see it happen. Or because Berry’s humor is ripe and a little raunchy and he still throws a good party. Above all, among the young crowd there seemed a great respect for the man who, in addition to being a musical legend, seemed to display more energy, wit and talent than most of us can summon on a good day.
The final song of the night was filled with not-so-subtle innuendo about rocking and rolling all night long. In actuality, the band played exactly an hour. Before you knew it, Berry was gyrating backwards to the orange glow of an open dressing room door. The house lights came up around 11, by which time a long line of fans had snaked outside his door. We wondered how many people would actually get to meet the man. Then again, if they didn’t make it this time, there’s always next month — if they can get a ticket.