Lending an amp to Chuck Berry could be a dream come true... or a nightmare.
It all started out so serendipitous. I had been thinking of major guitar players to interview for my upstart TV Show “Talkin’ Guitars.” I was driving down South Lewis Avenue and saw “Chuck Berry” on the marquis at the ORU Mabee Center for June 14. My mind started racing. I recalled the story from my friend Larry Shaeffer about the time he booked Chuck for a Blues and Bar-B-Que festival in about 1992. Larry and his wife Sharna had taken Chuck out on the town to The Sunset Grill and partied till the wee hours. When Chuck dropped the Shaeffers back at the concert site, Chuck took off in his rented Lincoln Town car and snagged a section of the concert security chain link fence and dragged about 100 feet of it off behind him in oblivion. Larry had mentioned that when Chuck performed, he always stipulated in his contract that he must be provided two Fender Showman Reverb amps to perform with.
I called Shaeffer and he told me that his now ex-wife Sharna was Chuck''s local liaison for the concert. I also contacted the Mabee Center director of operations and left my name and message that I had two Fender Dual Showman Amps if they needed them. I contacted Sharna and was waiting to hear back from her when I got a call from Johnny Buschardt, the promoter of the show. He was interested in using my Showmans. He confided that Chuck preferred to play through two Dual Showman Reverb amps, unaltered from factory specifications. “Hmmm,” I thought, rubbing my hands together like a little fly about to feast on a tasty morsel. I then asked, "What would be a fair rental price for you?” He said, “Well I could pay $300 if that sounds fair.”
Not wanting to appear too eager I said I thought that should suffice and made arrangements for someone to come pick up the amps. Only having a Lincoln Town car, I knew I couldn''t load those behemoths by myself. So it was agreed that Sharna would come by in the early afternoon of the concert to help fetch the amps. I later found out that Mr. Berry has a stipulation in his contract that unless two Fender Showmans are provided by the promoter, there is an additional $5,000 fee for his performance. This made me feel like my $300 was a paltry fee in light of this information. Nonetheless, I was going to have an opportunity to provide cool vintage amps, and meet and perhaps get C.B.''s autograph on my Amplifier. And who knows, maybe even get him to relent and do an interview for my Talkin’ Guitars TV show!
The morning of the event, at the appointed time, Sharna called to say she would be a few minutes late. After about 30 minutes, she showed up with a Cadillac and a willing laborer.
“Sharna,” I said. “I''m sorry but we are going to have to have a van for these amps.” She said she would see what she could do.
About two hours later she returned with a van and the wife of David Dover who is the opening act for the show. I was to later learn that Dover was providing all of the sound equipment and lighting for the event. Mrs. Dover grabbed her end of the mighty DUAL JBL cabinets and off we went. I carefully put fluffy towels between the immense speaker cabinets, to minimize any moving damage.
When we arrived at the performance arena, I went backstage to assess the situation. David Dover was as busy as a one man ant colony, setting up speakers, doing sound checks, and trying his best to coordinate the stage monitors with the mains. I was impressed, I must admit. Here was a guy in his mid to late-fifties with blond hair down to his ass; a local weekend warrior who, to my knowledge, only played rock ‘n roll in bars for a living, yet he had amassed a complete enormous stage full of sound equipment and lights (enough to serve a venue of 4,000 people).
Once my Showmans were safely on stage, I made sure they were working properly. That done, I thought I should perhaps make myself look useful just in case Mr. Berry might show up for a sound check. I heard he never did that. I also heard that he doesn''t rehearse with any band he plays with. He simply travels with his bass player of 35 years and trusts that the backup bands he plays with will know all of his songs. As I busied myself setting up mic stands and running cords like a good little volunteer, I overheard Dover and the other musicians saying that they had heard that Chuck likes to play in B flat. “Yuck,” I thought, “why would he do that? That just ain''t right, God himself would kick off Johnny B-Goode in A.”
I continued to keep looking busy like I was needed, hoping for a break. I had stowed my little silver flair in my pocket and brought my Canon digital camera along, just in case. “Surely I was the only one who had ulterior motives at the venue,” I confided to myself.
About the time I thought I would have to start scrubbing the stage with a toothbrush, I heard someone whisper, “He’s here!”
I rose to see the figure of a distinguished elderly black man with a bleached white seaman''s hat stroll towards the stage. He was in no apparent hurry and Sharna who was his escort took her time to be sure he didn''t seem rushed.
Prior to approaching the stage, his bass player came up to assess the equipment while Chuck went back in Johnny''s office.The bass player approached and spoke briefly with Dover and his keyboard player. He then sauntered over to me and the Showman Amps. He smiled approvingly. He had Chuck''s Gibson ES-355 in tow and I suggested we do a run through into my amps to see how it sounded. The bass player pulled out a wireless transmitter from a bag and said that Chuck preferred to use it for his performances. Obligingly, I plugged it in to my amps; one cascaded to the other from the low level input of the same channel with a direct cord to the input of the other amp. “Funny,” I thought to myself, “why not use a stereo jack and splitter from the Stereo ES-355?” But I kept my doubts to myself; after all, I was holding Chuck Berry’s guitar in my hands!
Once the wiring was in place, the standby switch was flipped. Three or four good bluesy notes emerged before.... “BNAAAH .....PKKKKKKT,” which is an awful noise from a vintage amp you are proud of. We checked the connections after going back to standby then tried again; six or seven good notes were played then…“BMAAAAP!”
“Holy crap,” I thought, “Surely it must be the transmitter.”
I demurely suggested that we might try a direct guitar cord, to which the bass player nodded amiably. With the change-out from the wireless, to the straight cord, the guitar and amps purred nicely together.
“You better test it on ten,” Chuck''s sideman said. “He likes to play them dimed.”
“Shit the bed, Fred!” I thought to myself. “This old bastard is going to blow out my entire original cone JBLs!” My face flushed. At least we had taken the Gremlin wireless out of the equation.
I asked the bass player if I could shoot a few shots of Chuck''s guitar. He said that would be fine. I took a couple of quick studies of the Guitar in its case and strap with the British. I was somewhat taken back to see that a knob or two was missing and that he had evidently stuck duct tape to the front at one time—probably to rig a better connection for his beloved wireless.
I propped his Guitar up against my blond Showman, and it made a match like Rhett and Scarlett, I thought. The blond Showman and his dark brown 355 made the prefect contrast.
“I brought an external Reverb unit for you to use with the Showman 15,” I muttered feebly. He looked down and smiled at the rig.
“That won''t be necessary,” Chuck replied. He visually surveyed my Showmans; there was a gentle recollection and anticipation in his smiling eyes as he looked them up and down.
“Would you consider autographing my amp for me?” I managed to say. He agreed and I took two or three photos of the process. I also got a picture of me and him together, thanks to Sharna.
“Would you sign my book?” someone hollered. “Please sign my keyboard!” “I brought my autobiography of you would you please sign it?” To hell with sound check, we were all serving our own greedy little desires. After four or five minutes of this, he decided it was time to go to dinner.
Like a learned statesman he bid us farewell and exited the stage with Sharna and the bass player. I saw them drive off in a newly rented Lincoln Town Car.
My wife and I arrived at the venue just moments before the show started. We had complimentary seats so I couldn''t complain when we were pretty far back.
I had the okay from Johnny to shoot stills around the venue because I had promised him, Chuck and Sharna a set of photos. After the first song, which I shot from the seat, I smiled at the lady next to me and crawled back over the seat to make my escape to the front of the stage left. Man, you could hear the 355 all over the arena, who needed the mics in the Pennsylvania?
My amps were cranking out mega bass on the neck position of Chuck''s 355. I was sure my wife Joey was impressed. Fifteen photos from close range with my zoom, and I was stoked. I triumphantly made my way back to our seat, certain that any and all in the audience had seen me taking Chuck''s photos. I assumed they all knew those were my amps as well.
About the time I returned to my seat and had time to smile self-assuredly at my wife--things started to go south.
By the third song, it was becoming apparent that Chuck’s fingers weren''t as timeless as his music. Although he could remember the words to his own songs and could still sing rather well--which is more than you could say for most performers his age--his guitar playing was rather different. It was pretty much an occasional grace note and a few three finger chords. He thanked the audience for letting him continue to do what he loved. After their applause he asked everyone to sing along on “My Ding-a-Ling.”
Just then, the unthinkable came from the stage... “BNAAAH-PHKKKKKT.”
“Oh my God,” I thought, “he''s using the wireless!” Then again, “BRAMMMMPT–BNAACHCT.”
My amps complained at 200 decibels in front of 3000 people. I felt like the guy in the cartoons, where his head immediately shrinks down so small it nearly disappears in the collar of his shirt.
“Lose the crappy amp!” some guy hollered from about two rows over. “Get some good equipment!” someone else booed.
“Oh my, now what to do?” I worried. Undaunted, I sprung to my feet and leapt over the back of my chair like some stupid superhero on a mission.
I hurried my way up the ramp and onstage in front of God, Chuck Berry and 3000 irate concert goers to try to minimize the damage.
I unplugged the feeder line from my other amp, and it seemed to quiet the problem. Meanwhile, Chuck stopped playing and looked for something to be done. I helplessly fumbled with the gain controls on the amp. Now David Dover to the rescue—he heels up his Twin Reverb and plugs Chuck''s bad wireless into his working wireless. Chuck hits a note or two, smiles, and the show continues.
I slithered off the stage like a vanquished invader and obtrusively return to my seat. I am sure 3000 people now know it is all my fault. My wife tried unsuccessfully to console me; I had let down the God of rock ‘n roll! I had let my ambition for Chucks autograph overcome my better wisdom to insist on a replacement for the bad wireless.
For the grand finale, Chuck invited all the pretty girls from the audience up on stage to be his go-go girls. One, then two, then ten, then 20, then 40 women took to the stage and flailed about unashamedly in revelation of their own celebrity. This frenzy went on for about four minutes until we were certain that every one in the arena that night had seen a legend. Never mind that he might have lost a step or two, he was Chuck Berry for crying out loud.
After the show, Dover''s wife and I loaded the amps and we drove back to my house to unload. We spoke politely of the mutual acquaintance we had, but awkwardly… I knew I was the slime ball of the night.