DES HENLY “ON THE ROAD”
DES HENLY “ON THE ROAD” with CHUCK BERRY
The first time I met Chuck Berry was on a cold winters night in February 1973, in north London when he was topping the bill at the Rainbow Theatre (the old Finsbury Park Empire). Fumble were the opening act. We were all delighted to be playing with Chuck, a rock ‘n roll legend, and enjoyed our role as the band who played the first half of the show. After we’d finished we settled down to watch Chuck from the side of the stage. The first time I saw him, he was still backstage, having a discussion with Peter Bowyer, the promoter, and I sensed all was not right. Chuck had always had a reputation in the music business of being very awkward at times. This apparently dated back to his formative years in rock ‘n roll when he was exploited (as were many) by avaricious publishers and promoters, who were invariably white ! Chuck was now a legend and did things his way. I strained my ears to listen ! Ready for the stage with his guitar over his shoulder, he was asking for his concert fee before he took the stage. With minutes to go before the scheduled start, this unorthodox request clearly caused much consternation with the promoter. Given little choice however, I saw Peter reach for his cheque book, but it was obvious Chuck was still not happy. “No thank you man, I mean cash, I want cash !”. Peter looked worried before, but now he was panicking, and pleaded with Chuck to accept his cheque. At this point Chuck took his guitar off his shoulders and stepped towards his open guitar case as if to put it away. Peter realised Chuck meant it ! He sent his staff scurrying off in all directions to beg steal and borrow the necessary cash, from the box office till, from their own wallets, wherever it could be found. Miraculously, only running about ten minutes late, and with the 2,000 plus crowd becoming impatient for Chuck’s appearance the money was raised and given to the man. Oblivious to the impatient fans, he slowly counted every note, and when satisfied, he folded the notes and stuffed a wadge into each of his two front trouser pockets. Strapping his guitar back on his shoulder, I heard him say to Peter, with his best “show smile” “Well thank you man”. At this point he turned and walked onto the stage, to a tumultuous roar. “Hey Rainbow, I Love You” (another tumultuous roar). I will always remember seeing Chuck strutting around on the stage with his pockets bulging from the wadge of notes he was carrying. As always, he was brilliant, and I was glad to meet “the man”.
The next time I met Chuck was on a hot sunny day in Frankfurt, 22nd July 1973. Fumble were on the same bill as Chuck Berry at an open air concert at the Radstadion Football Stadium. Chuck had been performing the previous night at the Buxton Rock Festival in Derbyshire, and his backing band had missed the flight to Germany, so Chuck was topping the bill, and had no band. With just 30 minutes notice, and no time for preparation we were asked if we would step in for Chuck’s missing band. “Great !” we thought, “this is one for the scrapbook” For Fumble to accompany Chuck Berry live on stage performing his classic songs was on it’s own not a problem, but we had no idea which songs Chuck intended to play, and it would have been comforting to at least know that. So with half an hour to go, and 20,000 noisy expectant fans in the stadium, I fought my way to Chuck’s changing room, only to find him pulling on a pair of dazzling red check trousers. After introducing myself and briefly saying how much we liked his music, I asked him what numbers we would be playing, to which he politely but firmly answered “I’m changing my trousers”. I asked the same question, slightly differently, and drew the same response. Chuck was busy, so I took the hint and made myself scarce! I went back to the Fumble band members, who were eager for some news. I told them about the trousers, and that we were still no wiser about which songs we were going to play. I asked one of Chuck’s aids for some guidance about the set to which he said “Just watch Chuck’s left leg – when he wants you to pause – he’ll lift it off the ground and stamp, you break when he stamps !”.
Hanging around backstage, we heard a huge roar from the crowd. Looking to see what had prompted it, we saw Chuck had arrived on stage on his own. No one had told us to join him, but as we were told he wanted us to back him for this performance, it seemed a good idea to join him, so on we went. Chuck was being the showman and warming up the crowd. Still completely unaware of the song list I ventured up to him and asked “what are we doing Chuck ?”, at which point the great man beamed from ear to ear with a great show smile, engulfed his giant right hand around mine in an American handshake (which drew another roar from the crowd), and simply said to me “We’re gonna shake hands and come out fightin’!” Being on stage and seconds away from the first number, the boys in the band were now desperate for some musical direction, and asked me “what are we doing”. I still didn’t know so I shrugged my shoulders and said, “We’re gonna shake hands and come out fightin’ !” At that moment, with no warning, Chuck launched into one of his typical guitar intros to open the first number. I ran to the front of the stage to see where his hands were on his guitar to see which key he was playing in, and shouted “C” to the boys.
So there we were on stage, with a true legend of rock n’ roll, in front of 20,000 roaring fans, with no idea what songs we were about to play, and no musical guidance other than to “watch his left leg” and “come out fightin’” and that was it ! We joined in on cue, and then we were away, adrenalin pumping and taking over from our nerves. Chuck was right in front of us, doing his famous “duck walk” all over the stage, and there were us lads from Weston Super Mare backing him up, loving every second of it.
The Chuck songs and solos (including one solo he indicated that I should play with only two bars notice) started to roll into each other and become one. I turned to Chris, one of our road managers at the side of the stage to ask which song we were now playing, to which he just shrugged. We carried on playing. A very fond memory was when, just after I had spoken to Chris, Chuck “duck walked” himself to the edge of the stage where I heard him say to one of his aids “what song am I playing man ?” (At least I wasn’t alone !).
After about 50 minutes, with 20,000 plus fans in the stadium shouting for more, Chuck left the stage, he never did encores, but we didn’t know that. As we kept up a steady rhythm, I turned and noticed Chuck sat in a black Mercedes in the backstage area, examining a camera, totally distanced from his fans. I nodded to Sean, Mario and Barry, counted 4 loudly, and we finished the performance with a big A chord. Ah well ! That’s rock ‘n roll !
I was in love with the music of Chuck Berry long before Fumble came to prominence, (I still am), and this unexpected opportunity to play with him at such big events gave the whole band a rush of adrenalin that not many things can beat ! Wonderful memories !
It was in June 1977 at Barcelona’s football stadium that we last played the first half of the bill with Chuck. I met him backstage and said “Hi Chuck !, last saw you in Frankfurt 4 years ago – how’s it going ?”. A long “Yeeeaaaa Man”, another hand engulfing handshake, and the broadest of “show smiles”. Nothing changes really ! Good luck Chuck – Des Henly