A look back at Chuck Berry's unforgettable moment at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
March 19, 2017 1:20 PM
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
Bruce Springsteen and Chuck Berry opening the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame concert in Cleveland in 1995.
By Scott Mervis / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
I had seen Chuck Berry before in Pittsburgh -- Fourth of July 1983 in Point State Park, not the Syria Mosque in 1957 (not born yet) -- but my most vivid memory of the rock ’n’ roll legend was Sept. 2, 1995, the night he played the opening ceremonies for Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.
It was a ridiculously star-studded event at Cleveland Municipal Stadium in front of 57,000 people, with, just for starters, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Al Green, Aretha Franklin, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street, The Kinks, surprise guest Bob Dylan, the Allman Brothers and a sizzling pairing of Lou Reed and Iggy Pop with Soul Asylum.
Among all those legends, and many more, it was Chuck Berry who was the King, and he got the honors of opening and closing the show, backed by the E Street Band. Berry, in a gleaming white tux, kicked if off with a spirited vocal on a big, busy rendition of “Johnny B. Goode,” throwing the crowd into a frenzy when he duck-walked on the solo.
Springsteen, who backed Berry years before and knew to expect the unexpected, had a quizzical smile on his face throughout the song (that you can see in the YouTube video above).
Nearly seven hours later, Berry returned for the finale of, naturally, “Rock and Roll Music,” which turned out to be one of the most jaw-droppingly chaotic demonstrations of rock ’n’ roll ever, or at least in a big ceremonial stadium moment.
Berry came out and tore into the song before the band quite knew what was happening, immediately throwing this rock ’n’ roll train to the edge of the tracks.
E Street guitarist Nils Lofgren explained in an interview with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, “Somehow, a minute or two in, he like … shifts the song in gears and a key without talking to us. Now, we all … OK, we’re pros, right? So, we’re all like … trying not to make a train wreck, and it’s tricky. OK, what key is he in? Let’s start playing there.”
But then Berry shifted the key again, and again, and maybe again. Lofgren swears it was “to mess with us. I can’t imagine why else this happened. We’re all looking around at each other, the cast of characters and the backup band; these are pros, decades in. We are making these horrible sounds, collectively, in front of a stadium, sold out. We’re looking at each other like, ‘This can’t be happening, right? We’re not creating this thing we’re listening to. Yes, we are.’”
The ending was vintage Chuck.
“At the height of it, when no one has any idea how to fix this, Chuck looks at us all and starts … looking at us, duck walking off the stage, away from us. He leaves the stage, leaves us all out there playing in six different keys with no band leader, gets in the car and drives away. Now if that’s not rock ‘n’ roll … and, I love Chuck Berry, but man … ”
After the show, Lofgren and Springsteen could only laugh about it.
“I don’t think the two of us have ever participated in something that godawful musically since we were probably 13 or 14. I didn’t even start playing until I was 14. The fact that we did that in a stadium, in an event like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame opening; it was just so insane and absurd and bad, that we got into one of those laughing jags where you can’t stop laughing, we were howling...It was just hilarious and awful all at once.”
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