PHOTO BY ASSOCIATED PRESS
Chuck Berry died Saturday at the age of 90. His concert in Lynn in 1955 is said to have had a big impact on him.
By BILL BROTHERTON
A 1955 concert in Lynn changed Chuck Berry’s life forever.
The charter member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, who died at age 90 Saturday in his suburban St. Louis home, wrote in his autobiography that a gig in Lynn at the start of his career taught him not to trust thieving club owners and business managers.
“(In Cleveland) I received telegrams from the Gale Agency telling us to continue (on tour) to Ohio, Lynn and Roxbury, Massachusetts, and to New Jersey, doing two shows in each city. We did it in great spirit, learning as we went how to manage the traveling.
“A big entry, near to 400 pounds, named Teddy Roag came into my ventures on this swing. Teddy was to arrange my schedules and assist my trio while traveling up the New England coast. The tour was a great education for me as to what a ‘concert’ was, what a box office is actually for and how to register into a hotel. … I also learned about percentages of gross-attendance income. My nightly fee then was 60 percent of the gross box-office intake with a minimum guarantee of $150. Roag somehow always managed to see to it that the attendance was just at the brink of entering the 60 percent range, never into it.
“I was a fair wizard at math in high school and could eyeball the dance houses to estimate attendance. Most nights I determined that there was enough attendance to carry into percentages, but when I mentioned this once I was told I’d have to prove it, so I didn’t question anymore … The figures that Roag would return with, after sometimes over an hour of counting the gross paid attendance … would usually show us just a few dollars under the amount that would have started my overage payable. Teddy had a habit of snapping his fingers and saying, ‘Damn, we almost made it.’
“Before I came to realize Teddy’s tactics, he had for weeks been advising me that I needed his expert management and that he was available for the job. I should have known the big beer-bellied bully did not like rock ‘n’ roll enough to be traveling along without any compensation but the prospect of the job he hoped to get.
“After a concert in Lynn, Massachusetts, in 1955, he handed me a hundred-dollar bill, but without the usual written statement, saying ‘How’s that?’ That night the crowd had to number over twelve hundred and the admission was $1.50 so it must have grossed at least $1,500 excluding freebies. We should have earned near to $750 aside from the guarantee of $150, but I could not have proved it. I pondered dearly how to overcome being vulnerable to such swindles. Since I had no other way to know the attendance I had to trust the promoters and my manager, who all knew each other very well.”
Berry didn’t say where the concert took place (do any Item readers know?).
In short order, Berry would fire Roag, hire reputable management and finally profit from his trailblazing talent. But for the rest of his career he continued to distrust nearly everyone in the music industry and became known for having a prickly personality.
Berry headlined the Great Woods Jazz and Blues Festival in Mansfield in June 1990. At that time, Berry traveled solo, picking up a local band to back him at shows. Revere-based Boston Rockabilly Music Conspiracy got the call. Vic Layne, BRMC’s singer/piano player, told me at the time that Berry showed up backstage mere minutes before the band was to go on stage. Set list? Rehearsal? Why bother? After all, every garage band worth its salt knew how to play the Berry classics.
A young Bruce Springsteen had a similar experience. The Boss and his band backed up Berry in the ’70s. “About five minutes before the show was timed to start, the back door opens and he comes in. He’s by himself. He’s got a guitar case, and that was it,” Springsteen said. “(I said) ‘Chuck, what songs are we going to do?’ He says, ‘Well, we’re going to do some Chuck Berry songs.’ That was all he said!”
Freddy “Boom Boom” Cannon, the rock ‘n’ roll icon with Revere and Swampscott ties and graduated from Lynn Tech, whose hits “Palisades Park” and “Tallahassee Lassie” were top-10 smashes in the ’60s, might have been at that 1955 show. Cannon, born Frederick Anthony Picariello Jr., has said that seeing Berry in concert and discovering the album “Chuck Berry On Top” changed his life. Cannon, 80, who now lives in California, has said “Chuck was the greatest lyric writer. He could rhyme anything. I don’t know how he did it with that many songs, but that’s why he’s a legend. To this day, I’ve never seen anyone else play lead, rhythm, sing and dance all at the same time. Who can do that? He was the ultimate rock and roll artist, and my favorites were ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ and ‘Too Much Monkey Business.’ ” Berry was rock ‘n’ roll’s founding guitar hero and storyteller. He defined the music’s joy and rebellion in such classics as “Johnny B. Goode,” ”Sweet Little Sixteen” and “Roll Over Beethoven.” Berry’s core repertoire was some three dozen songs, his influence incalculable, from the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and nearly every British Invasion band, garage band and arena act that called itself rock ‘n roll. While Elvis Presley gave rock its libidinous, hip-shaking image, Berry was the auteur, setting the template for a new sound and way of life. Hail, hail Chuck Berry, the founding father of rock and roll.
Bill Brotherton is the Item’s Features editor. He can be reached at [email protected]