The great rock and roller Chuck Berry has died at the age of 90.

Well, Tchaikovsky must have heard the news by now. Even if Beethoven has been slow in telling Mr. T. the news, the tributes from Bruce Springsteen, Keith Richards and so many more are hail, hail, hailing The Father of Rock and Roll.

In a live, local salute, Green Day played Johnny B. Goode at a jammed Budweiser Gardens on Sunday.

Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong told fans it was the first song he had learned to play on guitar, “We lost a legend,” Armstrong said in an ourlondon.ca report.

So there’s our segue.

Keeping with the London, Ontario sessions theme, Chuck Berry had played his signature song and other hits in London many times.

His first concert here looks to be an April 10, 1958 all-star, all-time bill with Jerry Lee Lewis and Buddy Holly at the old London Arena. Berry arrived in a sky blue (some say pink, like Elvis’s) Cadillac that night, fans recall.

Jerry Lee closed the show after Berry’s “guitar-twanging stint,” The Free Press said.
Also on the record is a hilarious Free Press photograph of an amused, what big-eyes-you-have Berry signing for some young London women seeking his autograph at that famous 1958 show. Chuck, can you say lascivious?

Chuck Berry London Ontario 1958
In this London Free Press photograph from April 10, 1958, Chuck Berry signs autographs for fans at the old London Arena. Berry died on Saturday at the age of 90.Courtesy of Western Archives

Berry may have been in London during the mid-1960s, but the next big show with a Berrymaniac in the house was more than 10 years after the arena. Iconic London arts publication 20 Cents Magazine had staff at a big Berry concert in late 1969 or early 1970. It was at Alumni Hall. U.S. duo Teegarden & Van Winkle opened.

The late Robert C. (Bob) McKenzie, the magazine’s editor and publisher, who had seen the 1958 show, said it all: “At 43, Chuck Berry is, if not the Father of Rock & Roll, at least its revered uncle.”

At the show, Berry opened with School Days’ “Hail, hail rock ‘n’ roll,” McKenzie said.

A couple of years later, Berry shared another thought. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is the blues,” he told a crowd at the old Wonderland Gardens in 1971. “Or rather,” Berry added, licking his lips, “you’ve gotta have big lips to say that – ‘Da Blooze.’ “

Berry also played Beal Secondary School about this time.

Well into the 1970s, Berry was flying up to the Western Fair grandstand in what’s remembered as a green Corvette.

Mr. Johnny B. Goode had decided to play the 1977 fair date only after a long delay at the border. Berry had at first refused to accept Canadian government regulations which required a temporary holding back of a portion of concert pay. No show. Then it was a go. Then it was almost off again.

After hitting the stage hours late for what was the first of two shows, Berry walked off, demanding a second amp for his guitar.
“It was a gag,” the U.S. star said later. He had never intended to stop the show, he added. Yet, Facebook posts by London fans say he looked really angry and blamed the Western Fair for not treating him right.

The amp issue was dealt with. He came back and a crowd of 10,000 fans screamed their approval. The fair’s grandstand booking official was understandably furious and said there would be no bringing Berry back.

Although, Berry was back in London for at least one more big show. Like the 1958 concert, it was an all-star tour date. Joining Berry at the old Gardens were Bo Diddley, Roy Orbison and Bobby Vee. Among those backing Berry was former London musician Stuart Peterson, now of Guelph. Also in the band for the early 1980s date were Jerry Fletcher and Les Hoffman with Ray Pierce on the soundboard.

“The  promoters would supply him with an amp and a band.  He wasn’t going to even meet with us before the show but eventually agreed to the promoter’s request. We asked him what we were to do … and he said, ‘When I bring my legs together, stop playing.”

I never saw Chuck Berry in London myself.

However, I did see him with my dad at the old Fillmore West in San Francisco in 1969. I can’t seem to recall the details but feel sure we heard and loved Maybellene, Memphis, Johnny B. Goode and more in that hippie heaven.

Chuck Berry will always be my favourite golden era rock and roller. I do regret never having seen him command a London stage, but my memories now will have to do. He may be gone now, but he’ll forever be remembered. 

Roll over Beethoven, tell Tchaikovsky the news.

Did you see Chuck Berry at the old London Arena, Alumni Hall, Beal, the Western Fair grandstand or the Gardens? Tell LondonFuse about it! Just send a line to info@londonfuse.ca

James Stewart Reaney keeps James’s Brander Newer Blogger at LondonFuse.ca as part of his volunteerism and reverence for London A&E. He recently retired from The London Free Press after more than 30 years covering everything from A — The Alcohollys — to B: baseball’s 1986 World Series. Follow his Twitter #ldnont thoughts via @JamesSReaney

Feature photo via billboard.com

2 COMMENTS

  1. Great show. And Berry, Orbison and ourselves Pierce Sound got stiffed. Promoter decided he was done with the business and took off with the cash. Believe it was Vernon Productions.

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