I was 17 years old, and starting out as a female rock drummer, when I met the legendary Chuck Berry. We performed together throughout my teens. His death, at the age of 90, brings back memories of that magical evening, when we first played together at Hunter College, New York.
It came out of the blue on a Friday night in 1977, when I received an invite from The William Morris Agency asking if I would be available to feature as Chuck Berry’s drummer at Hunter College.
I remember when the phone call arrived. I was sitting in our family kitchen, and my mother picked up the phone. At the time, I was studying for my high-school exams, due to take place the following day. Hearing my mother speaking over the phone, in a solemn tone, I pricked up my ears.
She said, ‘You want Joanne to perform? Where? When? What time?’
I raised my head from the books and looked over at my mother.
She turned her head, and said, ‘Joanne, I have William Morris on the phone. They’re asking would you be available to perform tonight with Chuck Berry at Hunter College.’
I knew right away what this meant, and without a moment’s hesitation, I replied, ‘Let’s do it!’
In my heart, I knew that this was no accident – it was a gift from the universe. Within 20 minutes my mother and I were dolled up and driving towards Manhattan from New Jersey.
Arriving at the venue, I was greeted by the William Morris Agency, and hurried off to Chuck Berry’s dressing room for a personal introduction. The door opened, and his eyes lit up as I walked in. I was 17 years old. He greeted me with a beautiful big hug.
Chuck said, ‘I will introduce you on stage, and you will be featured in the spotlight, with me!’
It was like all my Christmases had come at once. With my mother anxiously clutching my hand backstage, I waited for an onstage introduction. At last, I heard Chuck calling out my name, that was my cue to enter. The whole stage was lit up, and the roadie walked me over to the drums, which were raised centre with the band behind. The venue was sold out, packed from floor to ceiling. Chuck turned around, winked at me and strummed the first four chords for ‘My Ding-A-Ling’. Naughty! But that was our first song together.
After that we covered ‘Maybellene’, ‘No Particular Place To Go’, ‘Carol’, ‘Rock And Roll Music’, ‘Nadine’ and finally ‘Sweet Sixteen’. I have a natural affinity for rhythm, and I knew all those numbers well from listening to records, so I could pick up the arrangements quickly, and follow wherever Chuck was going. My training in New York with Jo Morello of the Dave Brubeck Band also stood me in good stead that night.
Within a few numbers, the audience was jumping up onto the stage, and Chuck and I were surrounded by a wave of exhileration. It was electrifying to witness such pure positive energy lighting up the whole hall.
Chuck leant over and said to me, ‘You’re a star!’ We did a high five in mid-air and finished the performance with ‘Johnny B. Goode’. The picture shows the sheer joy we felt!
I continued throughout the rest of my teenage years and on into my early twenties performing with Chuck Berry, a period for which I am immensely grateful.
That first night stays in my memory like a brilliant white light. Chuck Berry was my mentor and guide, he taught me how to listen, how to keep my ear fresh, how to make sure the music stayed sweet and current. He told me that I had a natural gift for rhythm.
At times, Chuck could be brusque with other members of his band. When I arrived that first night, Chuck commanded the previous drummer to leave the scene immediately, and the roadie whisked him off stage without any ceremony. I felt bad for the guy but I was too happy to be distracted for long. I knew I had to get straight in and perform to the best of my ability, I had to be outstanding, here I was playing with a rock and roll legend, there were no second chances!
In the end, Chuck was always encouraging, said I had a pedigree style. I like to think he saw me as a musician worthy of respect. He wrote me a personal letter from prison in 1979. He said I was never to doubt myself. Back then, Chuck was doing time for IRS issues, due to errors made by his accountants. In the letter, he also told me ‘whatever you do, always keep tabs on your books’. It’s advice that I’ve kept all these years.
I feel very blessed to have known Chuck Berry when I did. He has passed from this world and there’ll never be another like him, but I feel certain that his rock and roll spirit will endure forever.