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For Berry, rockin' without the chair

How will the legend celebrate his 80th birthday tonight? By performing -- and duck-walking, of course.

October 18, 2006|Cheryl Wittenauer | Associated Press

ST. LOUIS — As he turns 80 today, Chuck Berry could leave the hard work of great music to younger souls and rest comfortably as the rock 'n' roll legend who first made his mark in the 1950s.

But Berry, the duck-walking, guitar-playing rock genius who defined the music's joy and rebellion in such classics as "Johnny B. Goode," "Sweet Little Sixteen" and "Roll Over Beethoven," has plenty left to say and play.

He still performs regularly at an intimate nightclub here, his hometown, as well as venues from Las Vegas to London, saying "these shows keep me alive."

Early next year, he'll release a CD of new material, his first commercial release in more than 20 years.

"There's some stuff that will surprise people," his piano player, Robert Lohr, said. "It's Chuck Berry meets Ray Charles, black gospel meets country.

"There's one song, 'Big Boys,' that is classic top-shelf Chuck Berry."

At his 75th birthday concert here five years ago, Berry was feted by Little Richard on stage, while regards poured in from Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, David Bowie, Bo Diddley and other music icons.

The celebration for his 80th will be a more intimate affair -- a dinner party with family and close friends, and a late-night performance at Blueberry Hill, where he has given legendary concerts in the "Duck Room" one night a month since 1996.

The concerts draw visitors from around the world, and satisfy Berry's nostalgic yearning for the smaller venues of his earliest $4-a-night gigs in the 1950s, friend and Blueberry Hill owner Joe Edwards said.

In recent years, Berry's been joined by his guitarist son, Charles Berry Jr., and daughter Ingrid Berry Clay, on vocals and harmonica. Berry treasures performing with his kids, Edwards said.

When he takes the stage tonight, Berry will sling his guitar with an ease belying his age, and scoot across the stage in his famous one-legged hop, his extended leg kicking off the stage.

The old man, still as lean and agile as a teenager, will also surely please the crowd with his signature duck walk, the iconic crouched move he patented in a 1956 performance in New York. It's a move imitated by rockers through the decades since.

"He intuitively choreographed the first stage moves of the rock era, setting the tone for what a rock performance could be visually as well as through the music," Edwards said. "He used the guitar as a foil on stage, moving it around his back and in front of him. Jimi Hendrix and all that followed got it all from him first."

The only sign of Berry's creeping age on stage is the occasional brain freeze when he can't quite recall a verse he's sung thousands of times.

He typically laughs it off, leans on the band to fill in the blank, or offers comical utterances to reassure the audience his mental acuity is still intact.

"He's entitled to that. He's 80 years old," said Jim Marsala, who's been Berry's bassist for 33 years.

There's no evidence time has taken a toll on him physically.

Berry, whose father and brother were carpenters, and who seems driven by an incessant work ethic, loves to tinker at Berry Park, a 155-acre property in nearby Wentzville, Mo., where he records and lives when not at his suburban St. Louis home.

He relaxes by maintaining Berry Park's buildings, mowing the lawn and splitting wood, said Berry Jr., describing his father as a "regular guy" off stage.

Berry's music and a 1987 autobiography started while he served time in federal prison on tax charges will have to speak for the rock 'n' roll genius, who refuses all but the rare interview.

He made an exception following the death -- at age 80 -- of his longtime friend and collaborator Johnnie Johnson in April 2005. Johnson was the master boogie-woogie piano player who gave Berry his first break.

On New Year's Eve 1952 at the Cosmopolitan in East St. Louis, Ill., Johnson called Berry to fill in for an ailing musician in his Sir John Trio.

The struggling and unknown Berry rushed over, did a hillbilly country number with a bluesy vein that knocked people out, and launched a career.

Berry told reporters in April 2005 he'd miss his friend and his music, but wasn't melancholy.

"My turn is coming very soon," he said. "Would you shed a tear for Chuck? I hope not, because I don't see why one should weep when something inevitable must come.

"At 78, I'm glad to be anywhere, anytime."

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