Des Moines Ice Arena, Des Moines, Iowa: Nobody could have predicted it, but in the summer of 1972 Chuck Berry had his first Top 10 chart entry in over eight years. It came in the form of a live recording called “My Ding a Ling.” The song went to No. 1. Even more amazing: This was Chuck Berry’s first No. 1 hit ever! Although a lightweight novelty number, Berry sold the song convincingly on the single. That fall the veteran performer was on the road, perhaps more heavily than usual — capitalizing on his renewed fame.
I wanted to see Chuck Berry, but not because of “My Ding a Ling.” Our local Top 40 station played two oldies an hour — each immediately followed a newscast. It was there that I heard Berry’s biggest hits and made the connection to some of my early Beatles records, including “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Rock and Roll Music.” But I also liked the hits that I knew only by him, such as “No Particular Place to Go” and “Sweet Little Sixteen.”
Because the performer was not on television during this era, and me being a child of radio, I admit that I did not know that Chuck Berry was a black man until he stepped on that Des Moines stage. I have been told that this was often true with some members of his audience during his first wave of popularity in the 1950s. So, I guess I fit in well with his original fan base.
And speaking of original fans, I think I spotted some that night. While the area in front of the stage was filled with white teens, in the bleacher seats of this hockey arena I saw a few older African-American couples patiently waiting. And wait we did. After the two local bands had each played their sets, it was whispered that the star had not yet arrived. One of the bands volunteered to play some more, but the audience was restless. And their first set had not been all that well received. At last it was announced that Chuck Berry’s flight had landed and that he was getting an escort to the hall.
Chuck Berry was very professional. He worked the crowd well, acknowledging that this would be a late show. The audience cheered. At one point, he tried to get a little musical response going with the drummer But as usual, Berry was using a local, unrehearsed band for his backing group, and the nervous drummer was confused about what was being asked of him.
Chuck played the hits I knew, and he played some of his songs that I would later discover. I recall that he looked at his watch a lot during the performance, but he was friendly toward the audience. When he was certain he had performed long enough to satisfy the contract, Berry’s fingers burned up the neck of his guitar into the opening lick of “Johnny B Goode.” Then he abruptly stopped.
“I forgot! Wait!” He signaled the surprised band to stop. This was not a pre-arranged act; he had truly forgotten to play the recent hit. Berry then performed a non-hurried, crowd-pleasing version of “My Ding a Ling.” And then he hit the opening of “Johnny B. Goode” again, and the audience danced off into the night.
I am really glad to have seen Chuck Berry. Yes, the man comes with a lot of baggage concerning his professional and personal relationships. Forget all that. Let his music speak to you; it’s all that matters.
Tom Wilmeth is the author of Sound Bites: A Lifetime of Listening (2016, Muleshoe Press),
available now at Amazon.com.
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