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One Night With Chuck

October 04, 1987

For most of his career, Chuck Berry traveled alone, relying on the promoter in each city to hire local musicians to back him up. It was cheaper that way and, since everyone knew his songs, there wasn't even a need for a rehearsal. Here's one musician's memory of the night in the early 1970s when he backed Berry at the 10,000-seat Maryland Armory.

"Now it was five minutes before the show was timed to start. The back door opened, and in he came . . . by himself. And he's got a guitar case. And that was it. I guess he pulled up in his own car. He didn't have anybody with him . . . We were all really nervous. There wasn't supposed to be an extra guitar player, so I came up to him and I said, 'Gee, is it OK if I play?' And he said, 'Yeah, yeah, you can play.' And I said, 'Well, Chuck . . . what songs are we going to do?' And he said, 'Chuck Berry songs.' That's all he said. So we went, 'OK.' "We got out on stage. The lights were up. The crowd was going insane. They could see him. He walked on, opened the guitar case and tuned the guitar in full view of the crowd. The place was going nuts. I felt like I had never been on stage before . . . I had been playing for about nine years by then, but I felt really nervous. The lights went down, and we're going like, 'What are we going to start with?' "He's kind of not paying attention to us, and then all I hear is " da-na-na-na , na-na-na, " and that was it. We were in a state of total panic. We're trying to figure out what song we were playing, what key it was in! Chuck played in a lot of strange keys, like B-flat and E-flat. Everybody turned to our bass player, he was kind of the historian of the band, and he had the right key. So we picked up the key, and we were doing pretty good, I think. I forget what song it was, but we were playing away, and the crowd was going nuts. . . .

"Anyway the night ended. There was a big brawl in front of the stage, and the lights came on. I think his amp blew up, and he just kind of walked right to the side of the stage, and packed his guitar in front of the entire auditorium. They were going crazy. . . . He waved, and that was it.

"He walked out. Walked back to his car, and he was gone. We were probably just another one of the bands he was using on the road at the time."

-- Bruce Springsteen, from an interview in the documentary "Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll."

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