Notes from Chuck Berry and Little Richard Show, 9/3/05

“How did I ever get to play drums for Chuck Berry???” Apparently a gentleman by the name of Howard
Pitch (Howard Pitch Entertainment Co.) from Winnipeg was coordinating a show at Ho Chunk Casino in
Baraboo, to be featuring Little Richard and Chuck Berry. Little Richard has a polished show, traveling
with an established show band. Chuck Berry, on the other hand, travels solo (usually, I understand)
and contracts for the agent to provide back-up musicians (piano, bass and drums). As I understand it,
Howard contacted a well-known musician in Green Bay by the name of Lovell Ives, who then contacted
Rob Wernberg, from Medford, WI. I grew up with Rob and played in several bands with him up until
college took us separate directions. Rob’s an incredible musician and an absolute freak when it comes
to guitar, especially jazz. After our paths parted, Rob lived in Nashville and has played and toured with
national-acts. Since, Rob settled down, has a family, and is band director at Medford. I really had lost
touch with him for some time.

My wife, Linda, took the call back in July. I returned from jogging and she said Rob had called and
wanted to know if I had September 3rd open and wanted to play drums for somebody named Chuck?...
Chuck Berry??? and a Little Richie??? She said he was going to play bass and we needed to get a
piano player. Needless to say, I called Rob to get the scoop. Sure enough....Chuck Berry hires 3
backing musicians. Rob asked if I knew a really good piano player. I said I sure do. I called Scott Orme,
the keyboardist for our band, “Whoz Playing?” and I think he was floored—especially with the prospect
of playing on the same piano as Little Richard.

Both of us agreed and spent some time feeling excitement. Excitement started turning to anxiety as
time began approaching, particularly when Scott and I (detail-freaks) began researching. We read
Chuck’s 1987 autobiography. I’d seen the Keith Richards documentary, “Hail, Hail, Rock and Roll” from
about the same time. I realized the incredible volume of work he’d done just in getting a copy of “The
Chess Set,” Chuck’s recordings while with Chess Records, spanning 1955-1973. The combination of
learning that much material (I believe 71 songs on that alone) and digesting the “lore” out there about
his being a difficult artist to work with started scaring me. Not to mention the 1200-seat concert sold
out quickly.

Nerves set in for me well before the show, and REALLY started to hit as I pulled in to Ho Chunk Casino
the day of the show and saw that billboard. No sleep the night before, either. Even getting up and
working out at school that morning did nothing for anxiousness, but leave me a bit sore. Intermittent
feelings of excitement and terror is all I can describe. Hard to describe- or explain--to my wife & kids,
who didn’t really recognize the name “Chuck Berry” (though they recognized songs from the
recordings I’d been playing endlessly the past couple of weeks). Unfortunately for every great
scenario about the evening’s show I tried to imagine, my mind would conjure up the “alternate-
universe” scenario, which would result in an unfolding of this being the greatest concert train wreck in
history.

We were told to meet and hook up with Howard Pitch (the show’s contractor) at the hotel at 2:00pm.
Anxiety put me there at 1:00, but coincidentally, Howard was checking in at the front desk right ahead
of me. Very nice guy and a real pleasure to work with. He was quite anxious himself, as the week prior
had apparently not been good in terms of communications with and working “details” with Chuck Berry.
Scott Orme  arrived with his family next, also arriving early, and we stood around and waited—which
seemed to be much of the theme for the day.

Some security people accompanied Howard, Scott & I to check out the concert hall (Dells Upper
Ballroom). We entered at the very back of the hall, and what a sight! Huge stage, incredible sound &
lighting system, two giant projection screens, and a room that suddenly seemed really-really-really big.
Technicians, security, managers, hotel staff,...all over the place. I was stunned by the amount of
money that has to go into a production of this scale—minus the performers’ fee!

Checked out the stage and was told I wouldn’t need to bring in my drum kit. “Take your pick” they said,
from two Yamaha Maple Custom Absolutes that were set up on a riser next to each other (Little
Richard uses 2 drummers as well as 2 bassists!). Rob Wernberg joins us. Good seeing Rob again and
the 3 of us immediately slip into old, familiar, juvenile behavior. Also hooked up with two good buddies
and fellow teachers from my work who came down for the show, Ken Szymanski and Steve Kent. In
addition to fellow teachers, Ken’s a writer and reporter with a specialty for performing arts, and Steve
has been backstage security chief at Country Jam for years; both veterans to big shows and two
people I came to very much appreciate as supports for that day and evening. Ken’s musical passion,
humor and insight, and Steve’s cool-as-a-cucumber demeanor were two elements that really helped.
Not to mention, just plain fun in experiencing this with some people I knew.

Headed back to the hotel rooms and we listen to “The Great 28” and some stuff from “The Chess Box”
just to brush up on tempos, song keys, breaks, etc (as it turns out, Chuck’s actual show would prove
that intense study was certainly not required, though basic familiarity with the material was---more
later....).

The day amounted to a lot of “hurry up and wait.” Maybe too many people involved “managing things,”
maybe difficult performers—whatever the case, we seemed to be on “standby” all afternoon. Too
much time to think. I do have to say, I can imagine how the attention somebody truly famous gets could
go to your head...as we moved around the hotel between hotel room and concert hall, people
identified us as musicians by Rob carrying his bass and I with my drumsticks. At one point we were in
an elevator and a group of people got in. One asked, “Are you musicians?” to which I said “Yes.” Rob
immediately followed with, “Yes,..we’re playing with Chuck Berry.” It sounded surreal. They reacted like
we were actually “stars.” The red-carpet treatment before the show all afternoon and the attention
garnered during and after the show was incredible. I wondered the whole time about these people that
actually “live” this kind of life. For me, I’d have to settle for this simply being my personal one-day
version of “The Average Joe” reality-TV experience.

Mid-afternoon, Me, Rob, Scott and Ken and Steve  were hanging out backstage waiting for Little
Richard’s band to complete a rehearsal/sound check. Little Richard travels with a big band. Polished
show. Veterans. Like I said earlier, Chuck Berry generally travels alone and hires locals to back him.
We were playing with Chuck Berry, knowing we’d not meet or rehearse with him. In fact, supposedly his
contract indicates that the band will not talk to him. All this ambiguity and we were to follow a polished
and practiced show for a sold-out crowd of 1200 who paid $40 a pop. If that wasn’t enough to add
stress, the clincher to me then happened: “Which one of you is the drummer for Chuck?” asked a guy
rather harshly, as he came off stage and appeared to be Little Richard’s road manager. I said, “I am.”
The guy said, “Now here’s all you need to know....THIS means START (he stomps his foot) and THIS
means STOP (stomps again). Now,...Whatever Chuck says,...don’t take it personal. It’s business,...
nothing personal” I asked, “Will there be a set list?” (desperately hoping at least to see the specific 15
or so songs we were playing, so I could study them again up in my room). The guy laughed and said,
“There ain’t no such thing as a set list.” I believe it was at that point that I thought seriously about
heading home, though I remembered I’m always telling other people that crap about, “That which does
not kill you makes you stronger...”

After they left the stage, Rob, Scott & I were allowed to jam. All I can say is, what an awesome sound
and lighting set-up, not to mention the gear. Scott began salivating like Pavlov’s Dog at the Hammond
B-3 and Leslie, but was even more excited to play that huge grand piano set up; the same one Little
Richard would be playing right before. Nerves were calmed a bit as Rob, Scott & I started jamming.
The 3 of us had never played all together, though Scott & I’ve been playing with “Whoz Playing?” for
the past few years and I grew up playing in multiple incarnations of bands with Rob. Each of them are
talented, “listening” musicians which is a treat, and we locked into grooves like a glove. We ran “Great
Balls of Fire,” “All Blues,” “Take the A-Train,” and just some rudiments which helped us to loosen up. I
felt pretty good and more confident after jamming a bit, getting used to the rented gear, and hearing
the guy running monitor mix say that we sounded good.

A MAJOR DOWNER came shortly after our rehearsal/sound check when Howard found us and
indicated Chuck had “brought his own bassist and was going to have his son play rhythm guitar.”
Howard was not pleased with the contractual fall-out he had to deal with as a result that afternoon or
Chuck wouldn’t play, not to mention I could tell it pained him to have to break the news to Rob. I
admired Howard’s genuine regret in the latter. Needless to say, we felt terrible....Rob was responsible
for getting Scott and I us the gig and now wasn’t able to play it! Not only that, but the show was sold-
out and he couldn’t even have a seat! Rob handled it professionally and gracefully, but there’s no
question he was disappointed, as were Scott and I. The whole thing was starting to look like one
helluva fiasco. Howard supposedly scurried all afternoon to accommodate Chuck’s plan in terms of
contract fee, etc. We just felt bad that Rob wasn’t gigging.

“Eventually” it was told to Scott & I that we were to meet and “rehearse” with Chuck’s son and the
bassist. “When?” we asked. “At 5:15...” turned to “whenever they come down.” Hurry up and wait
again. They finally appear and we head back into the concert hall. If there was any consolation at that
moment, I have to say, these two gentlemen were a couple of the nicest guys you could ask for. Jimmy
Marsalas and Charles Berry, II. Charles was a refined and articulate guy probably a little younger than
Scott & I. Jimmy has been playing with Chuck on-and-off for more than 30 years. He’s weathered and
seasoned and his calming and relaxed demeanor did more than anything to settle me down on stage.
As I recall this “rehearsal” (which finally started about 15 minutes before the doors were to open)
amounted to us running through about 4 bars each of Chuck’s shuffle-style (as in “School Days”), slow
blues, and instructions to completely change the classic “swing-shuffle” style that Ebby Hardy played
on the old original recordings (that complimented Chuck’s straight-ahead “chunking” style) to a
straight ahead, 4/4, balls-to-the-wall, heavy back-beat. Jimmy also said for Scott and I to NOT play
over Chuck; to keep things very simple and tasty. To drop out if need be, when Chuck drops volume
to bare minimum for effect. We wrapped up and Charles II and Jimmy posed for a picture (the only one
allowed of any “Berry” I would get) with Rob, Scott & I. Jimmy reassured me again with his instructions,
“Just watch me for intro’s, breaks, and endings.” “Watch Chuck too,...but if his signals contradict mine,
do what I do and I’ll take the heat from him!” Jimmy also taught Scott some hand signals that he could
flash at a moment’s notice to indicate what particular key Chuck decided to play a song in on that
particular night. I’m sure this stuff’s “old hat” to them, but Jimmy and Charles II reassured us that things
will go just fine; that “it’s just a jam-session,” not to worry, have fun, and that, “it’s only rock and roll.”

Rob, Scott and his family went to eat. I gave Sue (Scott’s wife) my meal ticket and decided to just hang
out in the room I was sharing with my folks. Seeing the crowd starting to gather outside the hall as we
wrapped up our “rehearsal” didn’t do anything for my appetite.

I cleaned up and changed in the room and returned backstage in time, I thought, to hear Little Richard’
s band start. As it turned out, they started almost an hour late, which definitely did not set the crowd in
the best mood right off the bat. Later, Ken and Steve shared the fiasco apparently as poor planning in
terms of getting the audience into the hall or something like that. From backstage I peeked out of a
side door and saw Ken and Steve in their seats. I went out and sat with them as the hall was filling. We
chatted and go over to a cash bar set up just feet from their seats. We each have a “good-luck” shot
of Jack Daniels, after Ken’s toast of, “Hail, Hail Rock and Roll!” I head backstage and wait for Little
Richard’s band to start.

The show finally begins with Little Richard’s big band kicking off with an instrumental, which featured
each player (including both drummers and both bassists!) They were tight and powerful. The house
PA was really loud and standing just offstage, I was blasted out BEHIND the main speakers. Long intro
and Little Richard walks right past me back stage. I nod and smile and he waves at me. He’s finally
helped on stage. Age and years of this life have taken their toll health-wise it appeared, but he can still
play! He seemed to fatigue quite easily and solos were limited but he was charismatic and had a
powerful band. I remember little of the show as I alternated between obsessing about what was going
to happen in just a short while, and chatting with a couple of super-nice security people. Scott shows
up with Rob and we hear there’s a “Green Room” (a backstage band member lounge, to “relax” and
have some provided refreshments). We try to find this supposed “Green Room” that the elderly
security-guard told us about. “Take the freight elevator, and....” he said, losing me after about the
sixth hallway turn. We end up looking for it and the 3 of us essentially gave ourselves a tour of the
hotel’s bowels looking for a room we never found. Minutes before we were to go on, he told us it had
just been unlocked and gave us more maze-like directions to find it. We passed. Honestly, I’d rather
gone out to have another shot with Ken & Steve, but it was almost intermission and the stage crew was
readying the stage for Chuck’s show.

All the while and at this late point I was wondering,...”Are we ever going to at least meet Chuck before
going on stage to play with him???” It hadn’t happened yet was looking unlikely. Earlier, Howard said
something about Chuck’s contract stating that band members do not talk to him before the show and
he often leaves immediately after. I thought at least that maybe Chuck would meet us, talk to us;
perhaps a “pep-talk,” or some specific instructions, or as lore might suggest--an intimidating or caustic
verbal experience.

The stage crew was just finishing moving some gear when Scott and I stepped on the darkened stage.
I grabbed 3 water bottles before heading up. Luckily the stagehand offered them to me as they were
being removed, supposedly at someone’s (Chucks?) request, stating, “they won’t have time to drink
water...”

I swear that stage seemed to grow twice in size since that afternoon. I took my place behind the drum
kit, adjusted stands and such from the previous drummer’s preferences. Scott sat behind that
enormous grand piano that never did get moved back very much after Little Richard’s performance,
and was right up front by where Chuck would be (one of Scott’s feared scenarios!). Jimmy and Charles
II joined us on stage and put their guitars on. The crowd had pretty much taken their seats again.
Charles II took that trademark red Gibson of Chuck’s out of it’s case and it sat on Chuck’s monstrous
twin Dual Showman amps just 3 feet from me. These are the amps he demands be provided for his
shows. Earlier I had studied them, noting the gain set at “10” on both heads. He was gonna cook
tonight.

Suddenly, the lights come on and Chuck comes on stage. He’s an impressive figure (literally) for a guy
nearly 80 years old—holding his age better than Little Richard. He’s in a loud, red-sparkled shirt. He
ignores us and picks up that Gibson, moves to the mic and the crowd erupts.

Honestly, if this story’s just getting interesting and you’re looking for show “details,” sorry to disappoint
you. The show itself was a blur. Chuck rips into the intro to “Roll Over Beethoven” and I focus
intensely on the bass players cues. Panic strikes when I realize I have no monitors at that point—
unable to hear much of anything, so I focus visually on the bass player’s generous visual cues. When
we finish and the crowd applauds, I grab the attention of the guy doing the stage mix. I signal the
problem and he gives me some sound. Far cry from the sweet mix I had at “rehearsal,” but it’ll do as I
don’t want to make any distraction from behind Chuck.  Scott said after he nailed a solo Chuck gave
him on the first song, he was pretty much able to relax and just have fun. I never did relax until late in
the show. Scott said he could see me focused; that my eyes never left the bass player or Chuck.
Chuck didn’t follow structure of the recordings, and did some really short versions of many songs, so it
was imperative that I be locked-in.

Shortly into the show, Chuck stopped and “politely” but very directly indicated having a problem with a
videographer who was shooting for the adjacent big screens. From what I could see, the headphones
the poor guy was wearing prevented him from hearing Chuck’s chastising and even his threat of
leaving the stage if the guy wouldn’t put the camera down. The crowd seemed surprised. Some yelled,
“break the camera, Chuck!” The guy finally turned it off and left. The show continued.

Another weird incident was when Chuck broke a string. Jimmy took the guitar backstage to change the
string. Seemed to take forever (“Did he change the entire set??”). Meanwhile, Chuck demonstrated
impressive articulation and recall of a very lengthy and entertaining poem. While not what you’d expect
at a rock show, it actually was pretty cool.

We played a lot. I understood (from lore) Chuck to be a clock-watcher. He made it clear after an hour
that we were just getting warmed up and that the good people who waited for the show’s delayed start
were going to get a good show. I was told after that we’d played between 1 ½ and 2 hours?

We played some unfamiliar but very cool slow blues stuff. He liked Scott’s piano playing, giving Scott
some extended solos, and saying Scott was playing pretty good “for a white boy!” At one point during
a song he went over to either showcase his own piano playing or make a statement “showing Scott
how to play a part.” Scott said Chuck’s hands were huge and calloused. I wasn’t quite sure the intent,
but the interplay was cute and the audience ate it up. Chuck definitely approved of Scott’s playing.
The fact that he didn’t shoot me any dirty looks was good enough for me, though he included me in a
song that included each member taking a short solo. I watched the song unfold with short feature of
his son, the “piano,” then “bass,” then my turn--sweaty hands and all at that point, but nailing the 4-
bar ditty.

Chuck would signal us all drop volume down almost to nonexistent, likening it to being, “titillating.” I
think he liked that word and used it in humoring the audience.

At times, he asked for “requests.” Given his anthology, you can bet there were a great many titles
yelled up by the audience.

I can’t even list all the specific songs we played. A good many I didn’t recognize. I also was so focused,
it was hard to keep track.

There were a few moments though that I will never forget....

We ripped into a powerful version of “Nadine” that rocked, and he extended that song. Between
songs, someone yelled, “Johnny B. Goode!” There was something incredible seeing the man himself
ripping into that immortalized guitar intro---all the while seeming surreal, being the drummer laying his
groove for that legendary song!

Chuck did a short version of his trademark “duckwalk” to the audience’s thunderous approval, though
for the life of me, I have no idea what song we were doing at the time! Around that time, Charles II
leans to me during a song and asks my last name and Scott’s last name. I tell him and that was the
extent of our on-stage conversation (though he was polite and friendly before and after playing).

I think we closed the show with “Reelin’ and Rockin’.” (??) He started it out and got a bunch of people
up on stage dancing. After a bit, he comes back to face me—two or three feet away—smiling, sweating
profusely, and I lock into an interplay with him of off-beat accents and kicks with his guitar playing.
Suddenly he signals to me we pick up the tempo. His guitar neck moves up and down faster and faster
and I lock in with him. We are rocking, and for a moment I can actually think beyond and I think,...”My
God,..this is Chuck Berry in my face!!!”

The large group of dancing folks makes room as Chuck exits the stage—still playing his wireless
guitar—while we continue playing. Eventually, Jimmy signals to close and we end with a big finish.

Charles II goes into a dialogue about his father, our troops in Iraq, and pleads to everyone to help the
victims of Hurricane Katrina. Not before, however, he introduces Scott and I!

Immediately after the show, a line forms across the entire front of the stage. Chuck was long gone.
Jimmy and Charles II were courteous but seemed unfazed. I was very surprised to hear, “Hey,...fellow
drummer!,” all kinds of people wanting to shake my hand and requests for all my drum sticks!

Backstage, a few thank-you’s to people with the show and “good lucks.” Scott and Rob head back to
their rooms but not after we’re noticed by people as we leave the ballroom. That was very cool but felt
kinda weird. I head to the adjacent lounge with my folks, Ken and Steve, where there’s a band playing
and cold beers waiting. Couple of ladies immediately descend and I give them my remaining two
drumsticks.

Ken, Steve, my folks and I cajole for a bit, have a couple beers and call it a night.

In retrospect, it really was a glorified jam session, and at times I’m sure sounded as such. At times,
Chuck sounded great; at times he appeared sloppy and as if it really didn’t matter to him. I suppose a
person overlooks the flaws, being “he’s Chuck Berry” or that the guy will be turning 80 years old (by
his account) in like a month or two I think he said?


Scott Benson