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Chuck Berry's passing triggers memories of an unlikely meeting

Only four decades ago, the rock 'n' roll legend's international celebrity status was trumped by his skin colour in one of Canada's more multi-racial cities.
chuck berry
Chuck Berry performs on NBC's Midnight Train in 1973.

All over Nova Scotia, people are cranking up their stereos in tribute to Chuck Berry and to revisit rollicking Johnny B. Goode and that heartbreaker Maybellene.

Best to have a few Berry tunes playing in the background for this story, which is about how the black guitarist from St. Louis provided some naive Canadian teenagers with a lesson about the depths of racism in Canada in the early 1970s.

Berry's passing Saturday, after a reported bout with pneumonia, triggered memories of a post-concert meeting with the rock 'n' roll legend at an unlikely location in Hamilton.

The musician had just topped off a wild show at a packed auditorium at McMaster University with a charged medley of fan favourites and lots of stage antics, including his signature duckwalks back-and-forth across the stage and the recital of a lengthy poem that puzzled just about the entire audience.

After the show, our little entourage of three vehicles, filled with a multi-racial assortment of middle-class kids from suburban Toronto, landed at an all-night diner near the massive steel mill that dominated Hamilton's east end.

That's when we spotted Berry sitting alone, having something to eat at a table at the absolute back of the diner next to a swinging door leading to the kitchen.

We were a high-spirited crew, but most of us wanted to show our guitar hero some respect and remain outside of his personal space.

However, an outspoken member of our group invited Berry to join us at the front of the diner by the window, and commented loudly about this being Canada, where people sat where they wanted, regardless of skin colour.

A tough-looking waitress gruffly indicated things were just fine as they were, so far as seating was concerned in the otherwise-empty establishment. She seemed capable of handling any disruption that might occur in her personal space.

Berry responded with a shrug and a wave to indicate all was well.

Then a dark-skinned gal in our group locked eyes on our waitress and started singing those classic lyrics:

"Maybellene, why can't you be true?

Oh Maybellene, why can't you be true?

You've started back doing the things you used to do."

Our entire crew quickly joined in, and the guy who wrote Maybellene and Johnny B. Goode and helped invent rock 'n' roll, nodded and smiled. Moments later, we had all converged on his table at the back of the diner.

Our waitress was clearly flummoxed and even the more thick-skulled of us were upset with the racial implications of the scenario. However, our relaxed guitar hero only wanted to talk about music.

He listened patiently as some of the more serious musicians in our young group peppered him with questions about guitar riffs and tunings for various songs.

Berry's driver eventually appeared to signal it was time to hit the road and members of our motley crew were soon waving goodbyes in the parking lot as a big Buick with New York state plates disappeared into the darkness, bound for a hotel in Buffalo and a show the next night. 

Racism sucks was the theme of our discussion on that early-morning drive home.

A bunch of kids with last names reflecting their Irish, Greek, Italian, Chinese, Polish, Middle Eastern and Pakistani heritages had just huddled with one of the more significant individuals in rock 'n' roll history, but it happened at the back of a diner where people of colour were required to sit at a table by the door to the kitchen.

I don't know why we were all so ridiculously oblivious about racism up until that point in our young lives. Actually, I'm still trying to figure that out. Hey, I'm still trying to figure racism out.

Berry's career took a bit of a dive in years subsequent to that Hamilton show but he bounced back and was recently touring and continuing to attract new fans up until his death Saturday at 90.

So, today we all mourn the passing of a rock 'n' roll original, and I remember this chance encounter that illustrates how only four decades ago international celebrity status was trumped by skin colour in one of Canada's more multi-racial cities.

Rest in peace, Chuck Berry. And thank you for the lessons.


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