One of my earliest childhood memories is listening to scratchy rock 'n' roll records on the family phonograph. It was a vintage 1940s model that only played one speed - 78 rpm. We had a set of "Top Hit Tunes" my teenage brother had ordered through a TV offer, and they contained copycat versions of Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode" and "Sweet Little Sixteen."Berry's influence helped shape pop music for many years to come. It was dominant in the surf sound of the Beach Boys and the Mersey Beat of the Beatles, and is occasionally discernible today in the guitar work of such artists as Keith Richards.
Thus, it was with some curiosity I witnessed the legendary rocker's performance at Deer Valley. I wanted to see how reality compared with my mental image.
Chuck didn't disappoint me. Right away, the magic was present as he launched into the introduction to "Roll Over, Beethoven," playing for several minutes before he stepped up to the microphone.
I kept reminding myself those brilliant, two-string licks were coming from the man who created them, not one of the countless Berry imitators.
He sustained the excitment through "School Days," "Sweet Little Sixteen," "Memphis," and "Nadine," and brought audience members to their feet with "Rock and Roll Music," and a frenetic climax with "Johnny B. Goode."
Berry uses a modicum of backup instruments - just electric piano, bass guitar and drums. Spontaneous and unpredictable, he carried the concert with showmanship, swaggering around the stage, gesturing now and then to the audience. At 62, he probably qualifies as the first senior-citizen rock star, but still does his famous duck walk across the stage.
Twice during the show, he broke strings but that didn't stop the action. The first time he handed his hollow-bodied Gibson to a stagehand and joined his pianist in an improvised blues duet. The second time he filled in the gap by reciting a poem.
The show had its flaws. Berry seems to have grown tired of singing his old songs, and his vocals lacked the energy present on his recordings. But his guitar work and showmanship more than compensated and combined to make a sunny summer evening even hotter.