ST. LOUIS • Inside The Pageant concert hall, the late Chuck Berry was remembered on Sunday for changing the music landscape and keeping worldwide fame planted in his hometown.
“He is one of America’s greatest rock ’n’ roll pioneers,” former President Bill Clinton said in a letter read by Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis. “He captivated audiences around the world. His music spoke to the hopes and dreams we all had in common. Me and Hillary grew up listening to him.” Berry played at both of Clinton’s inaugurations.
As the private service for Berry got underway after a morning of public viewing, the Rev. Alex I. Peterson told the crowd that the famed Pageant would, for the day, become a house of worship.
“We are going to celebrate him in a rock ’n’ roll style. We’re not going to sit here and be sad,” Peterson said.
Berry, regarded as one of the most influential figures in American popular music, died at his home near Wentzville March 18 at age 90.
He was born Charles Edward Anderson Berry on Oct. 18, 1926, in his family’s home at 2520 Goode Avenue in the Ville neighborhood of north St. Louis. He first hit it big with “Maybellene” — his take on the country-swing standard “Ida Red” — and put together a string of hits including “School Days,” Roll Over Beethoven,” “Johnny B. Goode,” “No Particular Place to Go” and “My Ding-a-Ling.”
St. Louis Mayor-elect Lyda Krewson, an alderman representing the area of the Pageant, read a proclamation from Francis Slay, who is winding down his fourth term as mayor.
Slay lauded Berry for never straying far from home and for continually showing his love for St. Louis by performing regularly at the Duck Room, a small venue inside the Blueberry Hill restaurant.
“His Duck Room shows brought thousands to the [Delmar] Loop, and they came back and they came back,” Krewson said, referring to the popular entertainment strip that runs through University City and St. Louis.
Rock ’n’ roll royalty
But his influence went far beyond St. Louis. Berry recorded on Chess Records, co-founded by Leonard Chess. His son, Marshall Chess, recounted his father’s stories about Berry, including when those at the label heard Berry’s “Maybellene” for the first time.
“That was the beginning of rock ’n’ roll,” Marshall Chess said. “Make no doubt about it. He was not only the father of rock ’n’ roll, but he changed the world.”
Berry was among the first people inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. Joel Peresman, president of the rock hall’s foundation, told the crowd: “From the first brick, everything that was built was based on Chuck Berry.”
Rock ’n’ roll royalty sent words of comfort. A message was read from Paul McCartney, who apologized for not being able to attend but thanked Berry for his contributions to music. Little Richard, who was initially scheduled to appear, sent his condolences. The Rolling Stones sent flowers. Gene Simmons of Kiss spent most of the service standing in the back of the hall but was encouraged by organizers to speak.
“I wasn’t planning on saying anything,” said Simmons, who was wearing his trademark sunglasses. “These shades are going to help me a lot. But there are real tears behind them.“
Simmons talked about coming to the United States from Israel as a child in 1958 and hearing Berry on the radio.
“I couldn’t dance. But I moved like I was a Baptist in church,” Simmons said.
Paul Shaffer, former band leader for David Letterman, created a buzz as he made his way through the crowd looking for his VIP credentials. Shaffer said that Berry was “right there with the folks who invented rock ’n’ roll. Anyone who plays rock ’n’ roll was inspired by him.”
Fans pay tribute
The day of goodbyes started with the public viewing, with some fans arriving as early as 5 a.m. to be the first in the door to walk by the open casket.
“He looks real good,” said Diane Walton, 55, of Sikeston, Mo., as she looked down at the music legend. “I’d always wanted to see him in person, but this is the only chance I got.” Growing up, she would see him and other stars such as Tina Turner perform on TV, a young girl struck by people who looked like her, succeeding and bringing people together with music.
As fans stood in line for the public viewing, some cried. Others reached out toward the casket. One man knelt to pray. Many shared their memories of listening to Berry’s music. Many were recollections of his frequent concerts at the Duck Room.
Dexter Louden was the set-up guy for Berry’s 200 shows at the Duck Room, making sure everything was working properly and Berry had everything he needed.
“I always brought him chicken wings and orange juice before the show,” said Louden, 60, of Berkeley.
Sitting through all the shows, “I knew every string, every instrument, every chord,” Louden said. “He was a character.”
Lovey Davis, 53, of St. Louis, said she was at the viewing to represent Sumner High School, from which she and Berry both graduated.
“He’s part of our family,” Davis said, standing in line with her sister Nancy Davis, 58. The sisters broke into a brief rendition of “Maybellene,” Berry’s first hit song.
As John Herget walked toward the casket Sunday morning, he talked about hanging out at his father’s garage in St. Louis. He was 8 when he saw a guitar in the back of one of the cars his father was working on. A man standing behind him said: “You wanna learn to play?”
“Well, sure,” Herget said to Berry. It was 1968. Berry had already soared to fame, run into trouble with the law, and was back to hit-making again. But all Herget remembers is a guy who ended up giving him guitar lessons. Then a guitar.
Herget, 58, now performs in Branson. He credits his music career to that fateful day at his father’s garage.
Security was tight. Guards wanded fans as they entered, and the crowd was repeatedly told: “No photos allowed.” Visitors were encouraged, however, to sign one of three guest books at the entrance. The line to get in wrapped around the side of the Pageant but was moving smoothly through the morning, a four-hour opportunity for fans to pay respects. Although the afternoon service was private, up to 300 tickets were issued to the public on a first-come basis.
Berry’s casket lay on the floor of the concert hall, just in front of the stage, flanked by large sprays of flowers — including one in the shape of a guitar, sent by The Rolling Stones. A red electric guitar hung from the lid of the mahogany casket above Berry, who was in a white suit, purple sequined shirt and his trademark captain’s hat. Several family members were either dressed in purple or wore purple accents.
Joe Edwards, who owns the Pageant and Blueberry Hill, arrived for the service in a navy pinstripe suit with red sequined shirt. He said he bought the shirt 25 years ago but had never worn it until Sunday, knowing that it would someday be a fitting tribute when he said goodbye to his longtime friend for the last time. On Saturday night, Edwards led a toast at Blueberry Hill honoring Berry.
The service, which stretched more than three hours, included Johnny Rivers performing “Blue Suede Blues." Two of Berry’s grandchildren sang “Summertime,” and a few of Berry’s band members brought a concert feel to the Pageant with their rendition of “Johnny B. Goode”, culminating with longtime Berry musician Billy Peek duck-walking across the stage.
“I was always proud I was considered his mentee,” Peek had said earlier through tears. “Everything that happened good to me musically goes back to Chuck Berry.”