Backstage with Ron Onesti:
Hail, Hail, to THIS King …Chuck Berry”
The recent passing of Chuck Berry stirred a worldwide uprising of tributes — from Mick Jagger to Eric Clapton and everybody in between. There is much to be said about the guy who really started rock ‘n’ roll, years before most of the others.
I would imagine if you asked the question, “Who is the king of rock ‘n’ roll?” most people would do the quiver-lip thing and respond, “Elvis Presley, thank you very much.”
But I guess it depends on who you are talking to. Try to ask that question of rock ‘n’ roll pioneers Chuck Berry or Little Richard and you may get a music lesson you will never forget. I never did.
When it comes down to it, no singer has sold more records or is more of a larger-than-life pop culture phenomenon than the boy from Tupelo, Mississippi, who is commonly referred to as “The King.” Although Berry’s duckwalk style and Richard’s animated piano-playing antics are featured on almost every retrospective of the beginnings of rock music, they are no match for the swivel-hipped charm, timeless music and internationally worshipped good looks of Elvis Presley.
I once put together a very cool rock ‘n’ roll Hall of Fame show with Chuck Berry and Little Richard, two guys who were there when country and western collided with rhythm, blues and gospel to create a “new sound” that swept the world of music, and became what disc jockey Alan Freed coined as “rock ‘n’ roll.”
But who would open this show and who would occupy the coveted headliner spot on the bill? For me the answer was simple. Berry’s appearance fee was $5,000 more than Richard, so Berry would be the headliner and Richard would open.
Richard found out about this billing after he arrived.
“Excuse me!” he said, after hearing he was to open the show. “Son, the king of rock ‘n’ roll don’t open for nobody. You better change that in a hurry.”
I went to Chuck and explained the situation, thinking he would see it in his heart to flip-flop the bill and save us from an uncomfortable situation.
“You wouldn’t ask Elvis to open the show. What makes you think this king would do it?” he said ironically. “There is a reason they did the ‘Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll’ movie about me!”
Chuck flew in the day of the show by himself, rented a car at the airport, and got to the gig on his own. Richard, on the other hand, arrived with an entourage of 24 people, required four limousines, six dressing rooms and 25 hotel rooms for two nights. Chuck only had one requirement: I was to supply a musical trio that would serve as his backup band.
When I asked about a rehearsal, he said, “There ain’t no rehearsal.”
He didn’t have music charts; he wouldn’t even give me a song list.
“Tell the band to buy my greatest hits album and learn it. When I raise my guitar, they play. When I lower the guitar, they stop. Here is your tempo (as he stomped his foot to give the beat).” I was thinking to myself, “Yeah, this is normal!”
I held my ground and Little Richard opened the show. He definitely was not happy about it, and his mind was set on getting the last laugh.
The opener for these shows usually plays 45 minutes or so. The show began at 7 p.m., so by 7:45 p.m. I was stage-left waiting to take Richard off and get Chuck’s equipment on in time for an 8:30 start. 8 … 8:10 … 8:20 … OK, NOW I see how this is going!
Richard was waving a Bible in his hand musically preaching and doing nine verses of “Tutti Fruiti!”
So by now, Chuck was getting upset. He tapped me on the shoulder and asked me to follow him to the stage. With Richard doing a third encore of “Lucille,” Chuck pointed to the floor as he put one foot on the stage and said, “My contract says I go on at 8:30 for an hour. See my foot? It’s 8:30 and your time starts now.”
“I’m doing the best I can, Chuck,” I said. “You see what’s going on here! Your fans will be the ones cheated. Please, Chuck, a true king wouldn’t treat his loyal subjects that way!”
At the end of his next song, I walked on stage with a microphone to congratulate a true “king” of rock ‘n’ roll, a title Richard confidently accepted. We never switched out equipment faster than we did that day.
“Ladies and gentlemen, another ‘king of rock ‘n’ roll’, Mr. Chuck Berry!” I shouted.
To say the band I put together for Chuck was nervous is an understatement. To make matters even more stressful, every time the band made a simple mistake, Chuck stopped the song and made the guys start over — in front of the packed house. He did “Maybelline” three times that night as the small band was reduced from three gigging professionals to three first-year music students.
Chuck wound up doing more than the hour he originally said he was contracted to do, and way more than he threatened to cut his show down to. So, in the end, the crowd got two great performances with two headliners (the point Richard was making), even though I lost a little more hair in the interim.
A disappointing thing about all of this was that neither Chuck nor Richard was willing to take a photograph with me. Their contracts were very specific, stating no photos or autographs, and Richard’s bow-tie wearing security force made that eminently clear to me.
As I went to give Chuck an expected “thank you,” he said, “What you said about cheating the fans hit me hard, and it made sense. Grab your camera, let’s take a picture.”
“Whoa!” I thought to myself.
I then went to Richard’s camp to thank him. He came out and actually apologized!
“Sorry you got caught up in that mess,” he said. “That’s a battle that’s been happenin’ for a long time.”
So I thought, “What the heck, I’ll ask him for a photo.”
“Well you got that comin’,” he said. “Another score,” I thought.
Richard posed with me and my staff, and actually kind of leaned his face onto the side of my forehead.
I left the room feeling pretty good about myself. I went back by the stage and thanked people for coming. I must have said goodbye to several hundred people, each one giving me what I thought was an appreciative stare.
They all did the double-take thing as they looked at me, and because I hosted the show, I was sure it was because I was the big-time producer who crafted this memorable evening for them.
It wasn’t until the very last person, a young girl about 12 years old, who pointed out the real reason why the throngs of people were looking at me with such love and admiration. “What’s on your head?” she asked.
Apparently, when Richard took the picture with me, a large clump of his light brown pancake makeup stuck to my forehead, a souvenir I wasn’t planning to receive.
“Oh, that’s what everybody was looking at,” I muttered.
Quite the hand I wound up with that day: two kings and a joker!
The thunder I heard the other night wasn’t really thunder at all, it was Chuck Berry … duckwalking into Rock ‘N’ Roll Heaven.
• Ron Onesti is president and CEO of The Onesti Entertainment Corp. and The Historic Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. Celebrity questions and comments? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.