Famously cantankerous in person, Chuck Berry’s legacy will be his seminal influence on modern rock’n’roll. One man who saw both the good and bad sides of the American singer was Irish guitarist Bill O’Brien, who supported Berry on a European tour.
How did it happen that a couple of Cork musicians found themselves in the company of Chuck Berry?
“My previous band, Sleepy Hollow, would’ve been close with Rory Gallagher,” says Bill O’Brien, “and we’d already toured with him quite a lot. Then Rory’s agency Quarry – who also handled Status Quo at the time – got the job of providing the backing band and the support act for Chuck Berry, and they gave the gig to us.
“I say backing band and support act because Chuck never brought his own band with him, he just used whatever musicians were supporting him. So our outfit, called The Sunwheel, landed that role.
“I’m sure everyone’s heard the old stories about Chuck, so I can tell you a few of my own. On the afternoon of our first gig in the midlands, we arrived at the venue and waited for the man himself. Chuck came along, looking sharp as you’d expect, and we had a rehearsal for about half-an-hour. He didn’t talk much, he just told the bass player and the drummer to keep things simple and said to all of us, ‘Always keep your eyes on me’.
“He went through a few of his songs, always playing in odd keys – he rarely did anything in A, it would be B flat or C-sharp – and that was it really. We never knew what he was going to play on the night, because he didn’t have a setlist. He’d just launch into things and we’d have to work out what key he was in, and what song he was playing. So the first few gigs would’ve been fairly ropey at the start, but every musician knows Chuck Berry’s stuff and it’s not that difficult to play.”
A prickly man behind the scenes and notoriously pernickety when it came to money, Bill recalls the Chuck Berry that the audience didn’t see…
“I remember one gig, I think it was in the Isle of Man, where there was a huge delay because of some money issue,” he says. “I can still picture the image of Chuck now; he was backstage leaning against the wall, guitar slung around his shoulder, arms folded, and wasn’t moving until the money arrived. Then eventually, after a 45 minute wait, this guy sprinted up the corridor to him with an attache case, opened it in front of him, and Chuck just nodded and agreed to do the show. “All the stories you hear about his personality are true,” he adds. “In the photos, we look like great buddies, but offstage he’d act like he didn’t know you.
“At the same time, you have to think about how ruthless the industry was that Chuck Berry was working in. A lot of people talk about how he had a tough time and how this might’ve led to him being suspicious of the world he was living in. All I know is, every night we played with him was a great experience, because he was an incredible musician. I’ll always see it as an honour having played with Chuck Berry. After all, he wrote the book on rock ‘n’ roll, didn’t he?”