Ramblin' Round: Chuck Berry – Getting the PBS treatment

Chuck Berry

One of the things discerning rock guitar fans learn is the sound certain artists create with their instruments.

Even before the plethora of effects pedals that exist today were invented, great guitarists often developed a signature sound using nothing but the tone and volume knobs on their guitars and amps — along with the occasional whammy bar.

Among early rock ‘n’ roll artists, Chuck Berry led the way. After hearing “Johnny B. Goode” or “Sweet Little Sixteen” a few times, a record by Berry became instantly recognizable before he ever sang a word, open hearing those opening guitar licks.

Berry preferred big hollow body Gibson guitars and though he used several different models, the one most associated with him is his cherry-red Gibson ES-355.

Move over “Country Music.” Berry, renowned as one of the founding fathers of rock ‘n’ roll, is about to get a new tribute through a PBS special called “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” set to air on Feb. 29 (yep, it’s a leap year).

It’s filled with archival footage of other famed musicians playing Berry’s songs, such as when The Beatles played “Roll Over Beethoven” during their first American concert in Washington D.C., shortly after their American television debut on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

Other musicians included in the PBS tribute include Jimi Hendrix, Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and Linda Ronstadt.

In addition to their 1960s performances with their respective bands, Paul McCartney and Keith Richards will be onstage as solo artists during the special, with McCartney performing “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” in the Cavern Club and Richards joining Berry onstage for a rendition of “Carol” in the musical documentary “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll.”

If you’ve never seen the film, check it out. It’s about a couple of special Chuck Berry concerts held at the Fox Theatre in Berry’s hometown of St. Louis, Missouri, to celebrate his 60th birthday. Berry’s backed by an all-star band which included Richards, Robert Cray, Berry’s longtime pianist Johnnie Johnson, organist Chuck Leavell, saxophonist Bobby Keys and drummer Steve Jordan.

Several performances from “Hail!Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll” are included in the PBS special — including a duet with Linda Ronstadt singing “Back in the USA.”

Berry’s version took the song to no. 37 in 1959. Ronstadt heard it in the 1970s on a homemade cassette mix tape while driving around Los Angeles with her friend Glenn Frey, who like fellow future Eagle Don Henley, had played as a member of Ronstadt’s backing band in 1971.

Rondstadt liked the song and recorded it  in 1978, with her version of “Back in the USA” climbing to no. 16 on the Billboard charts .

She agreed to travel to St. Louis for the pair of Fox Theatre performances set to be filmed for the “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll” concert and dutifully rehearsed the song with the backing band in the key of C — the key she used when singing the song on her hit record.

When Berry took the stage for the first night’s concert though, he kicked it off in the key of G — to suit his voice and guitar playing.

Ronstadt soldiered through — but a production assistant later said she was so mad she strode straight offstage, out of the Fox Theatre and to a waiting limousine.

In addition to the movie’s musical moments, it’s hilarious watching rock’s notable bad boy Keith Richards trying to be the voice of sanity and reason as the exasperated Richards tries to get Berry — who preferred to do things on the wing — to get serious about holding rehearsals for the event.

Richards might like things loose with the Stones, but he wanted the all-star backing band tight when he served as bandleader for the birthday tribute to his musical hero, Chuck Berry.

Speaking of the Stones, they’ve just announced the venues on their new 2020 No Filter Tour. The closest they’re coming to Oklahoma is their May 29 concert at Cotton Bowl Stadium in Dallas.

Richards is among the many guitarists who own rack after rack of instruments — and not just rock guitarists who collect guitars, either. Oklahoma native Vince Gill is a renowned guitar collector. I heard a story that he once bought two passenger jet tickets so the owner of a rare guitar could bring the instrument to Nashville for Gill to purchase. 

One of the seats was for the man who owned the instrument. The other was for the guitar itself!

While collectors love to get their hands on guitars played by their musical heroes, there’s one they will never be able to get their hands on — Berry’s favorite ES-355 cherry-red Gibson.

It was buried with him after he passed away in 2017. 

Contact James Beaty at jbeaty@mcalesternews.com

Contact James Beaty by email at jbeaty@mcalesternews.com.

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