It was a typical early Friday evening at Peacock Alley in 2007 when there was a knock at my office door. As the Beverage Director at the bar, I was coordinating the daily shift change and it was not unusual for the staff to seek my attention during this time. This time though, was different. It was the restaurant host, just out of college, so it was easy to forgive their question: “Who is Chuck Berry and why is he looking for you?” And thus began one of my most memorable evenings during my nearly twelve-year tenure at the Waldorf Astoria.
I immediately rush into the restaurant to find the one and only Chuck Berry, the “Father of Rock and Roll,” standing at the podium with nothing more than a small bag and a guitar case. It turned out that his assistant was delayed on a flight and that the Director of Food and Beverage of the hotel, Grady Colin (who he had met moments before in the lobby by chance), advised that he come to Peacock Alley and ask for me when he was ready and I’d be able to help him. And so, I did.
I escorted him to his room, making some small talk along the way. He told me he drove from his home in St. Louis for a private show in the East Village for a fan’s fiftieth birthday celebration. Once he was quickly settled in, I left him to get a bit of rest and thought it would be last I’d see of this Rock and Roll legend for the night. This was not to be.
I informed Grady that Mr. Berry was securely in his room. To my surprise, he told me that we would need to arrange Mr. Berry’s transportation to and from the show as his manager would not make it to town in time. I immediately arranged for a limousine as the appropriate mode of transportation and again, I thought that my role in this adventure had ended. This was not to be.
About thirty minutes later, Grady appeared in Peacock Alley and asked me if I was ready. I replied, “Ready for what?” He said, “To escort Mr. Berry to his show.” This came as quite the surprise. The next thing I know, we are at Chuck Berry’s room, and I am carrying his guitar down to the parking garage and the waiting limousine. And we were off.
A little bit of back story here. At this point in my life, I was a practicing songwriter in a NYC-based band and in the process of getting our second album together. Being in a limousine with one of my songwriting heroes was not something that was going to go unappreciated. He was very receptive to my geeky, music-based questioning and we hit it off naturally, talking about songs, guitars, and other equipment and such. I asked him why he doesn’t release new material. He responded that the record companies want him to sound like 1957 but he wanted to have a more modern sound. When his next and last album was released in 2017, it was just gritty enough for me to think that he may have gotten his way.
When we arrived at the gig, he let me carry his guitar into the small restaurant that was reserved for this special private event. I immediately went to the sound board to ensure the engineer was aware of the importance of the evening. Good thing I did, as he was nodding off a bit when I met him.
After the show, we escorted Mr. Berry back to the hotel and to his room. By this time, his manager arrived, making more than a few phone calls as I tried to entertain one of the greatest entertainers of all time. I offered some room service and he requested strawberry ice cream. Not a problem, but by this point our small talk had gotten smaller and more and more silence entered between volleys as he sat on the edge of the bed with his manager and Grady busy behind him at the suites desk. At one point, as we were waiting for his ice cream, Chuck turns to me and says, “Hey son, I never asked. What is it that you do here exactly at the hotel?” “Me?”, I replied, “I manage the bar. Are you in the mood for some good whiskey or something?” At that moment, his manager quickly starts flailing her arms around on the other side of the bed and running her hand across her neck in the international sign for “NO WAY!!!” Mr. Berry just laughed and thanked me. He said that he sadly no longer drinks. Just then there was a knock at the door. The ice cream had arrived.