“Poetry is my life’s blood,” Chuck Berry said, on meeting Columbia Public Schools’ Linda Harlan, circa 1991.
The best way to end this tribute is to begin at the end: Chuck Berry’s appearance in Columbia in 2009, an outdoor performance on Ninth Street — his last local show of seven, since 1993. Columbia Public Schools humanities teacher Linda Harlan had just thrown a V.I.P. pass around my neck and shoved me toward The Blue Note’s stage door, urging “He’s backstage — go meet him.”
I’d been spending the day with videographer Scott Wilson filming locals telling Chuck Berry anecdotes, kind of hoping against hope to get Berry on camera, and Linda thought this might be my shot. Turns out we were both wrong.
I did meet Chuck, alone in the dark, backstage… and I will never forget our exchange. Two sentences from him: “I’m sitting there” meaning where I was in the only backstage chair, and “I’m going to ask you to turn that off,” meaning my CAT TV camera, which he very politely turned off for me as I was too shocked being alone with him to speak.
No, my moment came just a minute earlier when I rounded the corner to the alley backstage and saw it: A Cadillac Coup de Ville parked just by the stage door, a captain’s hat perched in the rear window and two Big Gulp cups between the bucket seats. Remember this alley, it’ll come up later.
After properly introducing Chuck and me (whew!), promoter Richard King — who’d sponsored some crucial comeback shows for Berry since the early 1990s — offered to pull the Caddy around to the Ninth Street Summerfest backstage on Broadway to facilitate the fast getaway he knew Berry favored to avoid the post-concert crush.
“Nobody drives my car but me, son” was Berry’s reply, and to show no hard feelings, he let Richard take his picture while they drove.
“What is fame?
Fame is but a slow decay;
Even this shall pass away.”
— Theodore Tilton
Linda Harlan was still part of the original faculty of Rock Bridge High School when she met Berry through acquaintances in St. Louis. They talked about literature, poetry mostly, because Berry’s parents loved language so much that they named his brother after Paul Laurence Dunbar, the African-American poet, whose “We Wear the Mask” should be required reading in all schools.
Berry’s father’s favorite poem was a little more obscure: “Even This Shall Pass Away” written in 1867 by the abolitionist Theodore Tilton. This is the poem, in fact, that Berry started to recite from memory on first meeting Linda Harlan. It’s also the poem he’d sometimes recite to close his stage shows. So it’s no wonder that Berry broke into mainstream music playing Hillbilly Honk over precisely articulated lyrics that never really belied the “otherness” he felt as a black man in an industry whose “politics” (Berry’s word) were white.
“Diction is respect… Even if you can’t hear the beat, the words will get you where you want. It’s like poetry.” — Chuck Berry
Linda was impressed by the approachable and articulate Berry, who at that time was by no means a public person. After the drubbing he took in the press for just basically being himself during the filming of Taylor Hackford’s Concert Film “Hail, Hail Rock & Roll,” Chuck stuck to the Oldies Circuit (when criticized for rote performances of his hits, Berry commented “The music I play is a ritual. Something that matters to people in a special way. I wouldn’t want to interfere with that”) and rarely played in Missouri — and if he did it was often under the auspices of legendary U. City entrepreneur and Berry confidante Joe Edwards.
On returning to Columbia after meeting Berry and inviting him to speak to her Rock Bridge Humanities class, Harlan put Richard King in touch with Chuck in hopes that a show might be attached to his visit. King found out a couple of things quickly. One: that Chuck was a sociable, if business-minded, guy who still understandably adhered to the “pay up front” brown-bag economics of the Chitlin’ Circuit. And two: the reason he didn’t play out more was that he liked to travel light, but would only play through the classic, hard-to-find Fender Amp known as the Showman Twin.
In fact, Berry’s contract “rider” was only one page long, calling for little besides the stipulated amplifier. King quickly found the amp, booked the show and arranged not only for excellent backup (featuring the late Bobby “Lloyd” Hicks on drums), but also a surprise reunion with Berry’s stalwart pianist Johnnie Johnson.
Just before the performance, which was emotional and astounding at the same time, Berry finished watching basketball in his bus and walked the alley behind The Blue Note with King. (Remember the alley?) When they reached Walnut Street, Chuck nodded to his left — the courthouse and jail.
“I spent some time there” he told Richard, solving a lifelong quest of mine to find the exact location of that summer 1944 high school spree gone wrong that resulted in Berry’s first, and never contested by him, incarceration. (It would take about a decade of digging through thousands of pages of trial transcripts for me to confirm this.)
Chuck never held a grudge about his first (he felt deserved) stint in jail. Not when he’d play Corn’s Lake or the Paradise Club back in the day, and certainly not when reciting poetry for Linda Harlan’s students. In fact, for his next several Columbia shows he always brought along family and friends, agreed to speak to students at Hickman and Rock Bridge and always socialized at pre-show barbecues with members of the Columbia community.
So that’s where I wound up in 2009 and that’s where I want to leave you now: standing on Broadway, after the show, watching that Cadillac’s taillights heading east toward the Promised Land.
“Why should the world be over-wise, in counting all our tears and sighs? Nay, let them only see us, while we wear the mask.” — Paul Laurence Dunbar.