Warren bass player remembers backing Berry

Assorted ramblings from the world of entertainment:

• Chuck Berry, who died Saturday at age 90, didn’t tour with a backing band.

The man who is more responsible than any single artist for creating and defining what we know as rock ‘n’ roll also was a businessman and he wasn’t going to dilute his cut by paying the travel and road expenses for guys no one was paying to see. It was up to the promoter in each city to provide musicians who knew how to play Chuck Berry songs.

Warren bass player Tim Powell had the pleasure — or challenge — of backing Berry in concert twice at the former Front Row Theatre in Highland Heights.

Powell — who has played with orchestras, jazz trios, blues / rock ensembles, musical theater pit bands and everything in between in his career — said he picked up a copy of the greatest hits compilation “The Great Twenty-Eight” when he was hired for the gig and studied the songs, but there was no rehearsal.

“Before we started, he looked at me and said, ‘Watch my left foot.’ He would count off the tune. He wouldn’t tell me what tune or anything. You just had to come in and hope you were in the right key.”

There also was no set list, Powell said. Berry played whatever he felt like and it was up to the band to keep up.

“It was kind of nerve-wracking playing to a sold-out Front Row Theatre crowd and not knowing what’s going to happen next,” he said. “At the same time, it was fun.”

And just because Berry’s songs served as the blueprint for the generations of rock musicians that followed, it didn’t mean they were easy to play, especially on the fly.

“Some of them are very straight-ahead blues forms, but a lot of them aren’t,” Powell said. “You’d be surprised. He has a lot of twists and turns in a lot of them.”

What Powell remembers most about that first gig is the ending. Berry had a long cord on his guitar, and he started walking up the aisle while playing “Reelin’ and Rockin’.” When he reached the back of the circular venue with a rotating stage, he unplugged his guitar and walked out the door.

“We’re still standing there playing,” Powell said. “What do we do now? We heard him unplug his guitar, so we stopped. People were screaming for him to come back for an encore, and he was already in the limo to the airport. That was classic Chuck Berry.”

That 1989 Front Row concert was the first time I ever got to see Berry live. I also saw him close out the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame opening concert in 1995 at Cleveland Municipal Stadium when his backing band was Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band and I will cherish the memory of both.

l Damian Knapp decided to turn his solo gig Friday at Jack’s Y-two Bar and Grill in Howland into a tribute to Berry and his music.

Knapp, guitar and vocals, now will be backed by Kevin Mazey, keyboard; Carmen Speziale, drums; Thad Weston, bass; and Jake Friel, harrmonica, for a night that will include “Around and Around,” “Maybelline,” “Johnny B. Goode,” “Roll over Beethoven” and other hits by Berry and from the ’50s.

“I decided to do the tribute band Friday because Chuck Berry was one of the all-time great innovators in the way he forged American musical styles to create rock ‘n’ roll, and in doing so brought young people from different races together, evoking change within society as well as with music,” Knapp said.

The music starts at 9 p.m. Friday. There’s no cover charge.

• Berry’s death was announced a few hours before The Smithereens performed Saturday at The Kent Stage. The band paid tribute to him with an unrehearsed, never-before-played rendition of “Rock and Roll Music.” It was a trainwreck, but a well-intentioned one.

It also was one of the few sloppy moments in a two-hour set that mixed Smithereens’ hits and rarities with covers of The Beatles ( “Please Please Me,” “It’s Only Love”) and The Who (“Sparks”). Pat DiNizio’s vocals were strong, but it was tough watching him on stage with one arm in a sling and the other hanging limply at this side unable to play guitar due to health issues.

I kept imagining what was going through his mind as he had to watch bandmates Jim Babjak, Dennis Diken and Severo Jornacion jamming away on an instrumental like “Sparks” and unable to join in.

Andy Gray is the entertainment writer for the Tribune Chronicle. Write to him at agray@tribtoday.com