Saturday, December 22, 2007

Favorite John Berg Memory from Charles Berg

Charles asked me to post this for him. (Mary Lou)

There are many things I will remember about John – including him being the sweet little blonde kid with the cowlick in our Christmas-card pictures. One moment in particular comes to mind, however, pertaining to our mutual love of music.

Growing up in Wichita Falls, Texas, we kids listened to the local rock and roll stations – to the horror and displeasure of our classical-music loving father [whose incessant playing of Bach organ music soured me on that to this day]. When I went off to college in Chicago in the fall of 1960, I discovered genres of music I had never known [blues, folk, jazz, etc] – but to this day still enjoy rock music. One of my fellow entering students at the University of Chicago was Elvin Bishop, from Chickashaw, Oklahoma, who had arrived at college with an old Dobro guitar. Elvin and I lived in the now-demolished East House of the "New Dorms" – and I was one of a small group of guys who would sit on the stairs singing songs as Elvin played.

The other two parts of the New Dorms were the women’s residences, West and North Houses, which alternated hosting a two-hour "coffee hour" on Wednesdays. At some point, the end of the coffee hour was followed by some musicians setting up and playing for several hours in the "Central Unit" of the dorm. The group included Elvin and other students [Paul Butterfield and Mark Naftalin] along with some black guys they had met at the nearby blues joints on 43rd Street; they played a mix of blues and pop music [Ray Charles’ "What’d I Say" was a favorite].

This group went on to become the Butterfield Blues Band – who infamously served as the backing band for Bob Dylan’s shocking electric songs at the 1965 Newport Folk Fest. After the band went on to glory, my brothers arrived at the University of Chicago, John briefly as an undergraduate before departing to New Orleans, then back home to Wichita Falls where he became a DJ. During a trip he made to Chicago shortly after that, we heard that the Butterfield Blues Band was going to be playing at the Aragon Theater [in mid-winter, as I recall]. We got in touch with Elvin, whom I had not seen for several years, and made plans to attend – then to hang out with Elvin after the show.

The Aragon, originally a ballroom, had no seating [you sat on the floor] – but did have a bar [off-limits to the mostly under-aged crowd]. Being "of age," we went into the bar – where John spotted a female musical acquaintance. He returned to us shortly to introduce this lady: Janis Joplin!! That was the only time I ever saw her [I never saw her in concert despite loving her music].

Then Butterfield, Bishop and Co. started to play – and we went out to join the crowd. Thirty or so minutes into the set, another guitarist [whom John also knew] showed up – as I recall, from a planned concert that had been cancelled. He went up on stage to play with the band – but, not having his own "ax" with him, picked up one of Elvin’s guitars to play. Well, actually, to restring before playing. Without asking Elvin’s permission, the guy took all the strings off the guitar and put them back on in reverse order: Jimi Hendrix was left handed. THAT was the only time I saw Hendrix play – but not for long: Elvin was so P.O.’d at Hendrix that he unplugged, put the guitar he was playing down and stormed off the stage. Elvin joined John, myself and the others and we left.

As you can image, this was one of the most memorable evenings in my lifetime of listening to music – and John has always been a central figure in that memory. Rest in peace, John. I hope you can track down Janice, Jimi and Paul "out there" and share a few stories – and maybe sing a song or two.
Charles Berg

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