Peter Cavanaugh

Long live rock & roll

Chuck Berry performing at Sherwood Forest in Flint in 1971.
Chuck Berry performing at Sherwood Forest in Flint in 1971. Submitted Photo

Chuck Berry - 1926 – 2017

The following are excerpts from my book Local DJ – an extended memoir recalling many decades in Rock & Roll radio.

“Chuck Berry played Flint in early fall of 1967, appearing with the Beach Boys. After the performance, a few of us took him to The Stardust Lounge - a major station hang out. I got to carry Chuck’s guitar case and diligently guard it when he jumped on stage to join a few local musicians playing his songs.

Mr. Berry was a soft-spoken gentleman, but had prison-hardened eyes from time served and bitter experiences with authorities of the late 50s who hated “that music.” Certain suspicions and cynicisms remained. Chuck Berry had been horribly mistreated more than once. It showed. Many stars carry scars.

In January of 1971, I received a call from a Detroit booking agent informing me that Chuck was spending several weeks in Lansing, recording a new album with a young Michigan group called “The Woolies.” They had constructed a makeshift recording studio in a garage annex next to their house.

After his incredible success in the mid to late 50s and a period of incarceration brought about more by his complexion and unparalleled popularity among white youth than overt acts of felonious illegality, Mr. Berry had fallen on marginal times. He had never been the primary beneficiary of his earlier triumphs. As a black artist, he was not unique in this distinction, but his experience was singular in terms of magnitude.

As a consequence, Chuck Berry had become a lone rider on the Rock & Roll range. He was his own manager now and all he carried on the road was a guitar. His contract specified simple amplifier requirements and local support musicians of acceptable ability.

Whenever Berry was booked in Michigan, Illinois, Indiana or Ohio - The Woolies were his first choice and promoters were instructed accordingly. Chuck was also without a recording contract. When The Woolies offered him use of their humble facilities at extremely favorable terms, Mr. Berry was most pleased. He had set aside much of January for the project.

Chuck had also reflected upon the possibility of generating a few dollars in the immediate vicinity during his stay in Lansing. Learning of his proximity, I agreed instantly to promote a Flint appearance.

Backstage we had gone through a ritual prior to performance - standard when dealing with Chuck Berry. He had carefully reviewed the ticket count and then audited the money given him. He had gone into percentage and was thus entitled to $1,770 for the night. This amount was presented in cash, mainly in one and five dollar bills.

Mr. Berry carefully counted each and every dollar. It took approximately 10 minutes. Satisfied that all was in order, a giant, tooth-filled grin crossed the showman’s face. With the word ‘mellow,’ he signified his satisfaction. One would not wish to see Chuck Berry frown.

During one of several encores, he introduced a novelty tune about a little boy and his bell. Crowd participation was requested and given. A studio version performed with The Woolies was later discarded in favor of a live recording made during an appearance the following winter at the Lanchester Polytechnic College Arts Festival in Coventry, England.

The BBC resisted severe pressure to ban the song after being accused of being “a vehicle for mass child molestation” by self-styled protector of British morals, Mary Whitehouse. My Ding-A-Ling sold over two million copies around the world.

Sept. 1, 1971 was our last major outdoor concert of the season at Sherwood Forest. Berry closed the show with his famous “Duck Walk.” Later, we proceeded to a friend’s house with several close acquaintances and partied through the night. I just listened to his stories. We were on the air over WTAC at 5 a.m. as he co-hosted the first hour. He made it to the Flint airport for a 6:20 flight.

Working with Chuck Berry was a major highlight of my life, both professionally and personally.

He was kind enough to allow me to use his lyrics without charge from Roll Over Beethoven in a book I was writing.

I have his permission signed by attorney on file here in my office, allowing me to start my life story with Chuck Berry’s own words:

“I’m gonna write a little letter, gonna mail it to my Local DJ. It’s a jumpin’ little record I want my jockey to play.” Chuck Berry – 1956.

Long live Rock & Roll!