Berry had some wild times during his Pittsburgh stops
'He was the architect,' says longtime Pittsburgh promoter Rich Engler
March 18, 2017 8:07 PM
James A. Finley/Associated Press
In this Oct. 17, 1986 file photo, Chuck Berry performs during a concert celebration for his 60th birthday in St. Louis, Mo.
Pablo Porciuncula/AFP/Getty Images
In this file photo taken on April 15, 2013 legendary singer and composer Chuck Berry, one of the pioneers of rock-and-roll, performs a concert in Uruguay.
Chuck Berry with Joe Grushecky to his left in 1983 at Point State Park.
By Scott Mervis / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
There was no better place to be in Pittsburgh on Sept. 6, 1957 than the Syria Mosque in Oakland.
On that night, Alan Freed's The Biggest Show Of Stars for 1957 road show rolled through town with Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers, the Drifters, Clyde McPhatter, Buddy Holly & the Crickets, Paul Anka, the Everly Brothers and the man who defined rock ‘n’ roll, Chuck Berry.
It was one of four stops Berry made at the Mosque in 1957, the first year he ever came to Pittsburgh.
By that point, Berry — to some, the true King of Rock ‘n’ Roll — had quite a set to duck-walk through, having already hit the charts with “Maybellene,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “School Day” and “Rock and Roll Music.” His signature song, “Johnny B. Goode,” was still a few months away.
He was in the process of inventing this new style of music and more than six decades later, guitarists are still copping his licks, whether they know it or not. And as long as there are guitars, they always will. As for the words, when Bob Dylan and John Lennon both declare you one of their biggest lyrical influences ...
“He was the architect,” says longtime Pittsburgh promoter Rich Engler. “He and Bo Diddley were the two guys who really drove rock ’n’ roll in the early days.
“Dealing with him,” he adds, “was always very trying.”
He played many great shows in Pittsburgh, but one of his most memorable nights here was a famous disappearing act.
Berry was set to perform at Three Rivers Stadium following the Pirates-Mets game on Sept. 28, 1986. He was told that he would perform at 5 p.m., but when he arrived a few minutes before 5, the game had gone into extra innings. He insisted that if he was not on stage by 5, he was leaving. The game ended at exactly 5:03 and by then he was gone.
“It was amazing that he would fly into the city, get a rental car and leave with all those people there,” says Engler, who promoted it. “You can’t even fathom it.”
Fortunately, the Four Tops, who were to headline, agreed to do a double set. The Pirates went on to sue him for $20,000 and ended up recouping the deposit and some of the damages.
The incident wasn’t a shock to Engler, who had brought him into the Mosque years before that.
“He showed up for the soundcheck and didn’t like the amp. He said, ‘I wanted a Fender Twin black and this one’s brown. I’ll play on this piece of [junk] but I want an extra $2,000.’ We negotiated it down to $1,000.”
In 1982, Berry was booked to play the Roots of Rock and Roll Show at the Stanley. He turned up right before intermission of the matinee, but then went out and played a great show, despite blowing a fuse in one of his amps. An ancient amp, of course.
Before the second show, according to promoter Henry DeLuca, he took a friend from Pittsburgh out to dinner, and when he returned, Stanley personnel couldn’t locate the key to his dressing room.
“So he goes nuts, goes out to his car, he's not going to perform on the second show, he's insulted,” DeLuca recalled in 2014. “Luckily he had brought his daughter, who was going to do vocals on the show, a beautiful girl, and she persuaded him to come back in.”
That night, the oldies crowd got Chuck Berry in vintage form, ending with the whole stage being filled with dancing fans.
A year later, in 1983, he played the play free concert on the Fourth of July in Point State Park. Joe Grushecky, of the Iron City Houserockers, was a huge Chuck Berry fan and wanted to find a way to get on stage with Berry’s local pickup band. He got backstage, where, he says, Berry “quickly brushed me off.”
But then DeLuca, who was promoting the show, handed Grushecky a guitar and told him to get on stage.
“Of course, he doesn’t tell anyone what he’s playing or what key it’s in,” Grushecky says. “I remember the key was B-flat on ‘No Particular Place to Go.’ I’d been playing Chuck Berry stuff all my life, so I figured I would get up there and go from there, but I’m thinking, ‘Why is he playing in B-flat?’ I’m working through it, and Chuck looks back at me, and I had these visions that he’s gonna say, ‘It’s the best thing I’ve ever heard.’ He said, ‘You! We’re going on without you, son.’ And that was it. I got kicked off the stage by Chuck Berry.”
The Three Rivers Stadium show was going to be his redemption, Grushecky says. He and some of the Houserockers were ready to back him and had the chords worked out for every song, in every possible key, but then the game went late and Grushecky says, “Chuck was back there and wanted more money, and then he left without playing.”
His final gig in Pittsburgh was at the I.C. Light Amphitheater at Station Square on June 6, 1997 with the Marvelettes, the Coasters and the Drifters.
“I spent a lot of time with him that day,” Engler recalls. “He was slow to go on, dragging his feet.”
And the performance, it was the irascible Chuck Berry.
“He never really gave people exactly what they wanted. He tended to play these other things nobody cared about. Kind of like Eric Clapton does a lot. Then he’d play a few things at the end of the show.”
He was one of the pioneers of a rebellious music called rock ‘n’ roll, and with Chuck Berry, a rebel attitude came as part of the package.
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