When rock ‘n’ roll icon and pioneer Chuck Berry died over the weekend at 90, high-profile tributes lit up television and social media as the news broke.
“He taught me how to write rock,” said the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson. “He was a magician making music that was exotic yet normal,” wrote Paul McCartney on his website. Meanwhile, Bruce Springsteen hailed Berry as “rock’s greatest practitioner, guitarist, and the greatest pure rock ‘n’ roll writer who ever lived.”
With a ‘50s-rock songbook that includes guitar-scorching hits like “Johnny B. Goode” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Rock and Roll Music” and “Maybellene,” his vision inspired not only pop hit makers, but also lit a fire under punk-rock renegades like the Ramones and Detroit’s own MC5.
Berry’s immeasurable impact on pop culture is profound and far stretching, and a solid slice of that history belongs to Lansing, thanks to the Woolies, the Lansing-based band that backed up Berry at hundreds of shows over the last 50 years.
“Chuck and I were good buddies,” said “Boogie” Bob Baldori, keyboardist and harmonica player of the Woolies. “I’d talk with him all of the time. After the gigs we’d go out to dinner to a Chinese restaurant. When I went to St. Louis, I’d stay at his home.
“I was 19 or 20 when I first started working with him,” Baldori added. “I’ve probably played more gigs with Chuck than anybody else — dead or alive.”
Baldori was at Berry’s side, playing piano and harmonica, at many prestigious shows, including Wrigley Field in 1984 and at the White House in 1994 when Bill Clinton was president. Berry even chose Baldori’s Lansing Sound studio to record his “San Francisco Dues” LP, issued in 1971 on Chess Records.
“He kept telling me, ‘I’m going to cut my next album with you guys,’” Baldori said. “We were thinking, ‘Yeah right, Chuck Berry is going to come here and record with us.’ Next thing, I’m sitting there in the studio and he pulls up in a Cadillac. He spent a week here.”
It all started in mid-August 1968, when the Woolies walked into the Dells, a now demolished music venue in Haslett on Lake Lansing. The young musicians were there to see their hero, Chuck Berry.
“We were out there at the Dells on the first night,” Baldori recalled. “They’d hired a heavy metal-type band to back him up, so that first set was a train wreck.”
The Dells' promoter spotted Baldori in the crowd and decided to fire the hard-rock band immediately and get the Woolies.
“(The promoter) said, ‘Can you handle this?’ Next thing I knew, I was in the dressing room with Charles and he was telling us what to do,” Baldori said.
The shaggy haired, college-aged, bluesinspired rock ‘n’ roll group was hired for a multiple-day run backing the guitar legend. While the Dells gig was last minute, the well-rehearsed band knew all of Berry’s material and was ready to back him on a whim.
“It was always easy,” Baldori said. “It’s like we were born to it.”
Berry, a known stickler about his rhythm sections, took a liking to the Woolies and insisted their partnership continue beyond mid-Michigan. From there, Berry would continue working with pick-up bands at each show, but insisted that his booking agency, William Morris, recommend the Woolies to each promoter.
“When you hired Chuck, you’d get him, the guitar and the duckwalk — the promoter had to provide everything else,” Baldori said. “If a promoter knew what they were doing, they’d hire us.”
It wasn’t lost on Baldori or his fellow Woolies — which included his brother Jeff Baldori (guitar) and William Metros (drums) — that they were playing with the innovator of the music they loved.
“He’s a pioneer, because he had the business point of view and knew he had to write and publish his own songs if he wanted to make money,” Baldori said. “He’s credited as being one of the most original creative forces of the 20th century in pop music, but he readily acknowledged his roots. He was picking it up from Elmore James, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, all of those people.”
Aside from creating the rock ‘n’ roll blueprint, Berry was also known for his sometimes hot temper, which is demonstrated on well-known footage of him having it out with Keith Richards during a rehearsal.
“It goes back to Chuck being professional,” Baldori said. “He could read music. He could say, ‘Play in E flat,’ and he’d expect you to be right there and do it. He’d expect you to listen, not just get up there and blast away. When you did that around Chuck, he could get ornery.”
It’s been two years since Baldori shared the stage with Berry. Their last show together was one of Berry’s monthly gigs in St. Louis at Blueberry Hill.
“I’ve been sad about this for a while,” Baldori said. “For the past 50 years, every time we went up it was electric.
“Everyone talks about ‘playing in the groove,’ but almost nobody really does it,” he added. “It requires a certain amount of technique, finesse and awareness. It’s hard to find people who can do it. Chuck did it every night. If there’s one thing I really learned from him, it’s how to do that. I’m sure as hell going to miss not being able to do it with him again.”