Chuck Berry was the first artist inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame when the institution launched in 1986. So when the museum finally opened nine years later with an enormous concert at Cleveland Municipal Stadium, it only made sense to have him open the show. Berry usually played with pickup bands to limit costs and hassles on the road. But on this night, Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band were happy to take on the notoriously difficult task.
It was actually the second time they’d backed Berry. On April 28th, 1973, weeks after the release of Greetings From Asbury Park, they shared a bill with Jerry Lee Lewis and Berry at the University of Maryland. They jumped at the chance to back their idol, though sadly no audio or video captured the performance.
Springsteen remembered it well, though. “About five minutes before the show was timed to start, the back door opens and he comes up and he’s got a guitar case and that was it,” Springsteen said in 1987. “He just pulled up in his own car and didn’t have anybody with him, or a band. We said, ‘What songs are we going to do?’ He goes, ‘We’re going to do some Chuck Berry songs.'”
Things weren’t nearly as chaotic 22 years later when they kicked off the Concert For The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with “Johnny B. Goode,” But hours later, when it came time to wrap up the night with “Rock and Roll Music,” Berry threw them a curveball.
“Somehow, a minute or two [in], he shifts the song in gears and a key without talking to us,” E Street Band guitarist Nils Lofgren told Ultimate Classic Rock. “We are making these horrible sounds, collectively, in front of a stadium, sold out … At the height of it, when no one has any idea how to fix this, Chuck looks at us all and starts duckwalking off the stage, away from us. He leaves the stage, leaves us all out there playing in six different keys with no band leader, gets in the car and drives away. I don’t think we have ever participated in something that godawful musically since we were probably 13 or 14.”
It was the final time the E Street Band played until their reunion tour four years later. Berry continued to tour heavily until 2014 when health issues made it impossible. Until the end, he put his backing bands through the ringer, whether he was playing with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in front of 90,000 people and a worldwide TV audience or a crowd of 300. To Chuck Berry, a gig was a gig and he was going to do things his way.