Chuck Berry: The First Guitar Hero

Chuck Berry Live at Fillmore Auditorium.

In May of 1980 Lorri and I were just short of our first anniversary and new parents. Money was hard to come by and when our friends suggested we go to the Seattle Center for one of the very first iterations of the Northwest Folk Life Festival and it was FREE, we took them up on the offer.  There was lots to see and do, but most importantly there was free music.  Performing live in a pretty small space was none other than Chuck Berry.

Though I did not know everything there was about Chuck Berry, I did know “Johnny B. Good,” “Maybelline,” and “My Ding-a-Ling.” Chuck was amazing as maybe 200 people stood in the venue and listened to the 60+ year old St. Louis rocker do what he did.  When he called out “You still remember me?” the crowd roared its approval. For about an hour he put on quite a show with a duck walk or two for good measure. Three month old Patrick was in a back pack on my shoulders, and I don’t know if I’ve ever told him, the family musician, that he saw Chuck Berry when he was a wee tiny man.

Berry was really the first guitar hero.  John Lennon and George Harrison had to learn the Berry licks and you hear it in their early work.  Hell, they covered “Roll Over Beethoven.”  Keith Richards and Brian Jones had to learn Chuck Berry and Bo Diddly before they could write “Satisfaction.” Berry was the first great guitar hero who would be followed by Clapton, Beck, Page, Van Halen and a host of others.

I’m acquiring my collection of the Steve Miller Band, and their first recording is a live pairing with Berry at the Fillmore West in 1967.  They appear as The Miller Band and really back Berry as he mostly performs the blues.  No oldies rock tunes.  Chuck plays a very slowed down version of “C.C. Rider,” “Wee Baby Blues,” and “I Am Your Hoochie Coochie Man.” We forget that before Berry cut loose with “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” and “Back in the USA” he was a blues man. It’s not until the very end of side two he cuts loose with an abbreviated, gratuitous tangle of chords to the words of ‘go, go, go, go Johnny go!”

Though I bought the record to be a Steve Miller completist, it was great to find a record so unique and special. It was fun to find Chuck Berry as he was created and perhaps not as we remember him.


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