After the December 1969 Iron Butterfly show, the shows kept rolling into El Paso almost on a monthly basis.
1970 turned out to be a stand-out year for music and touring rock acts. The promoter no doubt had his finger on the pulse of many a traveling band and took advantage of booking every act that was headed anywhere close to EP.
And there I was with hundreds of others that in many cases filled the cow barn at least half way, to see the likes of: The Rascals, Canned Heat, Procol Harum ( whose name was misspelled on the marquee ), Mountain, Three Dog Night and Grand Funk.
When I heard that Chuck Berry and the Guess Who were slated to play the Coliseum with the Canadian pop-rock band headlining, I had a “What?” moment that I still remember to this day.
It would have made more sense to me and countless other music fans if Bo Diddley or Albert King had been added to the card instead of those crazy canucks. So I hoped the promoter would come to his senses and switch the performers the other way around on the night of the show.
I pondered how any band could be so over-confident to follow such a rock ‘n roll legend, and never understood why till years later that Chuck Berry planned the shows his way: He was known to fly solo with his red wide-body Gibson, an amp and a suitcase, packing it all up in a station wagon that he drove himself.
Wherever he played, he’d arrange for a local band to back him up and oh, by the way, he demanded cash payment up front before the show. So why not take top billing? He probably preferred leaving town right after his one-hour set, money in hand and the highway in front of him – and with a good head start to his next gig.
On the night of the concert, I still couldn’t believe it. Just as advertised he was first up: Chuck walked on stage amid waves of cheers and applause. With his sly grin and cool persona, he won over every ticket holder with his old school guitar licks and roots rock.
We heard them all: Little Queenie, Maybelline, You Never Can Tell, Sweet Little Sixteen, Memphis.
Johnny B. Goode needed no prompting from him; the audience responded in cue to the chorus, but someone close to me smartly sang “Go, Chuck Go!” instead, and we all joined in.
Hearing the impromptu verse change, Berry humbly bowed his head several times, mouthing “thank-you’s” to all the crazy teenagers singing along to the 1958 hit single. The song ended with thunderous applause from an already exhausted audience that had been jumping in place ever since he had plugged in his Gibson.
His encore didn’t let up; a raucous seven minute version of “Reelin ‘n Rockin” drove the crowd wild after every double entendre he sang, leaving us screaming for more at the end. But we were only treated to one encore after the frenetic number; he waved goodbye and just like that Chuck Berry had left the building.
The adrenalized fans collapsed to the floor during intermission for a much needed rest before the next band. With electricity still hanging in the air many caught their breath as others shook their heads in disbelief at the exhilarating performance everyone had just witnessed. I didn’t smoke, but I needed a cigarette.
All there is left to say is “Thank you, Chuck..and Hail, Hail, Rock and Roll!”
The music world lost Chuck Berry on Saturday, March 18, 2017. He passed away in his home in St Charles, Missouri. He was 90 years old.
José Oswaldo Rico, Guest Contributor