Steve Holley met Chuck Berry minutes before playing with him in front of 30,000 fans in Mexico City. It was the early '90s, and Holley, who had drummed for Joe Cocker and Paul McCartney's Wings before joining Ian Hunter's Rant Band, had jumped at a fellow musician's invitation to keep the beat for one of his musical heroes. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Berry," Holley recalls saying when the rock'n'roll legend took the stage. "What are we going to play?"
"Chuck Berry songs, boy," his hero replied. So began a "baptism of fire," as Holley calls it, that was experienced by countless musicians of varying degrees of renown and talent -- hired to play in the pickup bands that Berry used (and, some say, abused) for thousands upon thousands of live shows he played from the 1960s to 2014.
According to Bob Baldori, aka "Boogie Bob," who did double duty as Berry's piano player and attorney, when the rocker was released from prison in 1963 after doing time for transporting a minor across state lines, "he [rarely] traveled with a band again," although one or two of his trusted sidemen, such as bassist Jimmy Marsala, might join him (if the promoter paid extra). "Musicians are a pain in the ass; he didn't want to babysit them, and as a businessman, it didn't make sense," says Baldori. "When you hired Chuck, you got Chuck, the guitar and the duck walk."
It fell to the local promoter to dig up two Fender Dual Showman amps for Berry -- or risk a $2,000 penalty -- and a backup band, which, if none of the rocker's sidemen showed up, would have to accompany the headliner without a sound check, setlist or much direction. "He wouldn't tell you the key. He wouldn't tell you what song it was. He would just start playing," says Southside Johnny Lyon, who took part in the now-famous 1973 gig in which Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band backed Berry at the University of Maryland.
Even then, Berry had a reputation for firing musicians onstage, and Lyon, who that night was playing harmonica in the shadows, cringed when Berry zeroed in on him and dragged his mic stand front and center. "I was like, 'Oh, Jesus, he's going to humiliate me in front of everybody,' " he says. Instead, after listening to a few bars, Lyon says Berry turned to the only other black man on the stage, saxophonist Clarence Clemons, and said, "This brother has been hanging across town!"
Although Holley would go on to play with Berry seven more times (after seeking advice from Marsala, who told him how to simplify his drumming), he says the Mexico City gig left him "miserable" because Berry kept changing the tempo. "He messed with me for the whole show," says Holley with a laugh. At gig's end, Berry paid Holley $300 instead of the $500 he doled out to musicians who met his approval, and when the promoter complained that the show had lasted 55 minutes instead of the contractually agreed upon hour, Holley recalls, "Chuck, without missing a beat said, 'It would have been an hour if the drummer hadn't sped everything up.' "
The musicians weren't the only ones who suffered. Berry's revolving-door approach to backup bands, his perverse treatment of them onstage and his tendency to play only as long as his contract stipulated, meant that fans experienced frustratingly uneven performances.
Why he did this yields no definitive answer. Baldori says most of the lore is "bulls--t": "If Chuck was harsh, then the band was f---ing up." Pianist Daryl Davis, who played with Berry from 1981 to 2014, says too many bands made the mistake of learning Berry's greatest hits "note for note" when "Chuck liked to change them up and add nuances."
When Berry clicked with a band or an artist, the clouds would part. Saxophonist Arno Hecht, co-founder of the Uptown Horns, says that after Berry played a disastrous gig at the Ritz (now Webster Hall) in New York in the '80s, during which the bassist and drummer were fired onstage and Berry finished the show with the surviving pianist, he was asked to recruit a band for Berry's return to the venue. The group, which included keyboardist Charlie Giordano, now a member of the E Street Band, knew the repertoire so well, "Chuck would do songs he generally never did in concert," says Hecht. Berry used the band for shows throughout the New York area, and, uncharacteristically, "showed up for soundcheck, just to jam."
Lyon offers a much simpler explanation: "I met Chuck a couple of other times, and he was a mean son of a bitch," he says. "But sometimes nasty guys make great things."
In 1996, the year he turned 70, Berry started gigging with a more consistent group of musicians, including his daughter Ingrid Berry Clay and son Charles Jr. -- who appear on the forthcoming posthumous Berry album, Chuck -- when he began a residency at the St. Louis club Blueberry Hill.
Guitarist Billy Peek, who worked with Berry on and off for more than 40 years, backed the legend on his last four shows. "You could tell he was failing," says Peek. "Finally it just got to the point where at his last gig in October , he even told his son ... 'I'm hanging up my rock'n'roll shoes.' "
Additional reporting by Jem Aswad, Ed Christman, Frank DiGiacomo and Rebecca Milzoff.
This article appears in the April 1 issue of Billboard.