“I’m 86 years old,” Chuck Berry said after playing a short, raw set at Cleveland’s State Theatre late Saturday night. “And I’m happy to be anywhere!”
The crowd was equally ecstatic. Berry traveled to Cleveland for a tribute concert in his honor, which included performers Merle Haggard, Ronnie Hawkins, Darryl “DMC” McDaniels, Joe Bonamassa and Lemmy Kilmister. At the end of the night, Berry accepted the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s American Masters of Music Award, wrapping the Hall of Fame’s weeklong celebration of Berry’s life. The reclusive Berry seemed to love every minute of his Cleveland stay, spending Saturday afternoon at the Hall of Fame, where he checked out his exhibit with his family and held a rare interview with journalists in a Hall of Fame conference room, praising President Obama and discussing his health.
He was in for some surprises. Whether it was DMC retooling “School Days” as a pro-education hip-hop anthem or Haggard putting a twangy spin on “Memphis,” the night highlighted just how far Berry’s influence reaches. Between performers, classic Berry performance footage was shown on a massive screen and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame President Terry Stewart put the songs in historical context. “[Berry] was a lightning rod,” he said. “Rock & roll was still being born and he came out the way he did. Unbelievable.”
Setlist-wise, you couldn’t go wrong; Berry has one of the greatest catalogs in rock & roll history; vivid, witty storytelling over rollicking rhythm. Seventy-four-year-old Ray Sharpe, who has been recording since the late Fifties, growled a soulful “No Money Down” soaked in Texas twang, backed by the ace house band. Rockabilly revivalist J.D. McPherson howled a loose, chugging “Beautiful Delilah” and bounced across the stage through “Around and Around.” “It’s ridiculous that I’m here tonight,” McPherson said, grinning. The New York Dolls’ David Johansen and Earl Slick tore the roof off with a smoky, fuzzed-out take on 1961’s “I’m Talking About You” and invited out Ohio’s Rick Derringer for a heavy “Back in the U.S.A.”
The night rolled on with John Fulbright, who sat at a keyboard and played harmonica on “Downbound Train.” Malina Moye played Berry deep cut “Stop and Listen,” full of wah-wah and feedback-drenched guitar. The number concluded with Moye by raising her Stratocaster above her head and twirling around in her lengthy dress. It didn’t sound anything like Berry, but it made an impression. More fancy fretwork came from Bonamassa, who played a gorgeous, hushed “In the Wee Wee Hours” and a raucous “Oh Carol.”
Lemmy Kilmister attacked “Bye Bye Johnny” and “Let It Rock” with his whiskey-soaked growl. Sitting backstage sipping a Jack and Coke in his dressing room, Kilmister said Berry was one of his first heroes. “I liked his attitude. He had that sort of smile on his face and that pencil mustache, sort of a lothario, you know. He’s always got that innuendo in the vocals when he’s talking about chicks. He was always a horn dog, basically, and so was I.”
At 77, Ronnie Hawkins proved he’s still a powerhouse showman with “30 Days” and “Roll Over Beethoven,” the Hawk whooping and howling during instrumental breaks. San Antonio rockabilly singer Rosie Flores was one of the most impressive acts of the evening, performing endearing, country-flavored takes on “No Particular Place to Go” and “You Never Can Tell.” Flores was also the only performer brave enough to playfully attempt a duck walk.
Next to Berry, Merle Haggard was the biggest legend in the room. His set started rocky due to some technical difficulties; there was a pedal board in front of his microphone. “You guys put something in front of me that’s not supposed to be here,” he said, pointing to the board. “Can you come to move it?” The move made Haggard’s guitar short out, and he threw up his arms in frustration. He overcame the problems with his classic “Workin’ Man Blues,” grinning genuinely at his son Benion’s tasteful Telecaster mastery. Next, the duo played a raw “Memphis,” Haggard rattling off Berry’s lyrics with his axe slung across his back. “It’s great to be part of the fanbase of the great Chuck Berry,” Haggard said. “Its even better to be asked to play here.”
Next, Ernie Isley played a heavy version of “Rock & Roll Music” while McDaniels took one of the night’s biggest risks, performing his own version of “School Days” backed by a DJ and the house band. “Chuck Berry’s been rapping before rappers been rap!” McDaniels said in a speech; DMC and Ernie Isley soon mashed rock and hip-hop, sampling Berry’s vocals in their own take on “Brown Eyed Handsome Man.”
At the end of the night, Stewart announced “the man of the hour” and the curtain rose, as Berry stood onstage with his band to a massive standing ovation. He kicked straight into “Johnny B. Goode” before getting lost for a moment, while his daughter Ingrid sang the lyrics. He soon joined back in and the song picked up steam. “What’s the second song?” he asked the band afterward. He kicked into “Reeling and Rockin'” to huge applause, but soon raised his hand and stopped the song, then eased into it again with the rhythm a little slower. Berry was full of energy, hitting stellar double-string licks, duck-walking and holding his Gibson high in the air above the piano with a twinkle in his eyes.
The night finished up when Berry graciously accepted the Hall of Fame’s award, and, in a rare move, invited his wife onstage. “Ladies and gentlemen, Themetta Berry, my wife of 62 years,” he said. “It’s going to be 63 in June!” Most of the night’s performers returned to the stage for “Rock & Roll Music,” a fun mess that was led by Isley as Berry returned to the stage halfway through the song, playing rhythm next to Lemmy Kilmister and high-fiving the Motörhead singer. Earlier in the day, Berry told Rolling Stone that his singing days have passed. But, true to character, he’s still full of surprises.