photo by Mark Gilliland
As the drummer and founder of the indie rock band American Greed, Michael Mesey wrote and performed on the power ballad “Together,” which hit #1 on two major global charts and was submitted for a Grammy in 2021. Back in the 90s, he recorded and toured with the St. Louis classic rock band Head East, performing with with Sammy Hagar, Boston, ZZ Top, REO Speedwagon, Heart, Cheap Trick and many others. And as the go-to special show and traveling drummer for Chuck Berry for many years, Mesey had a blast creating explosive moments on stage with the legendary musical pioneer all over the country. One of his most cherished memories is a moment on a tour bus, when Berry was listening to a blues tune, turned to him and said, “This is how I want us to play the blues – because when it’s time to rock, you rock me. No, I mean, you REALLY rock me!”
Among the many concerts he’s played during his 40 plus years behind the kit, Berry’s legendary performance on the final night of the Old Rock and Roll Reunion Tour in 1986 sticks with him as a source of endless fascination. Bass Concert Hall at the University of Texas at Austin was on fire. Thousands of fans had just watched some of rock’ most treasured artists - . The Drifters, Coasters, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Chubby Checker and Bruce Channel – start the hit parade. Saving the best for last, Berry - locked in, on fire with enthusiasm, in a great mood, and having a total blast - closed the show with an hour-plus jam for the ages.
Mesey has always known that he needed to figure out how to get the world to hear this performance. He’s finally been able to create a commercially viable album from a recording he’s had since shortly after that concert. He spent the first few months of 2022 in the studio in St. Louis tweaking and mixing everything, then flew to Abbey Road Studios in London for the final mastering with veteran engineer Sean Magee, who said "This is historic". He is proud to have played on and produced it for everyone – or as Berry himself said, “All my Rock Children out there” – to hear.
Besides that magical night in Austin, Mesey’s time with Berry included shows at legendary venues like The Fox Theatre in St. Louis, The Show Boat in Atlantic City, Rock The Bowl at the Bayside Amphitheater in Miami for the Super Bowl, in front of 66,000 at Busch Stadium for the Rams’ first game there and performing “Johnny B. Goode” for a live worldwide broadcast from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena CA for The Voyager project (for Carl Sagan). .
The title of the album is Chuck Rocks Live: All My Rock Children.
How did you first start playing with Chuck Berry?
Mesey: In the early 80s, I was playing in a group called the Gene Edlen Band, Gene was signed to Columbia Records. We were playing a club in St. Louis called the Rainbow Lounge. The owner, Lucille, was good friends with Chuck, who walked in that night, came over to the side of the stage and asked us if we minded if he performed a song or two. He ended up doing four or five songs, with us. He stopped after the first tune, asked the audience, “How about that drummer?” and looked back and smiled at me. After the set, Lucille called me over and he asked me if I wanted to play drums for him. Gene overheard this and made it known that I was his drummer! That was an amazing night for me, Jammin’ and tearin’ it up with Chuck Berry. I had known Chuck’s daughter Ingrid for a long time because I had played in a few band with her. So later in time, I was playing with her again when she did a show with her dad, and after the first show, Chuck put his hand on my shoulder and said you’re playing for me.” This was the beginning of a long and fruitful professional relationship and years of amazing memories and shows. .
What was he like as a boss and also personally?
Whenever there was a show, I would usually see him for a little while before and sometimes see him after the show to eat or hang out a little. I definitely enjoyed every moment but never pushed for more than that, I was just so honored and happy to be playing I didn't want to mess that up. Some have said that Chuck is hard to work with, but he always great to me, and would always say "great show" or "that was fun". I think a lot of people took him wrong because he was a tough businessman who had a contract and wanted things done according to the contract. He was Chuck Berry and did things his way. Once Paul Rodgers was doing a show with my band Head East and said he heard I played drums for Chuck. He asked what it was like to play for Chuck because he heard he could be very difficult to work with. I told him he always treated me great and I'm here talking to Paul Rodgers. How cool is that, all because I was Chuck's drummer. There was something pretty amazing about talking to one legend about working with another!
What did you learn from playing with him?
Some of the greatest moments of my life were playing music with him. I say the word “great” a lot when I talk about Chuck. Sometimes he enjoyed goofing around, but he was always having fun, and just doing what he did. If you listen to the recording of this concert I have been working on, it’s all out, full speed tearing it up. I loved doing that with him. The album is so up tempo, balls out, Chuck Berry rock and roll. The recording shows just how great a vocalist and guitarist he was, plus a side of him just jamming the whole night that has never been caught on tape before.
Tell me about the concert you just mixed – and why the performance itself was so special.
This was the final night of the tour. I think it was the perfect storm for Chuck. The crowd was amazing, Chuck was in a great mood and everybody in the crowd was on fire. He was having so much fun. When Chuck hit the stage, he looked at me and just kicked it in. He was happy, energized and ready to tear it up and he did. Every song was full out. We had an awesome band and they were having a blast also. There are versions of these songs you will never hear on any other recording. At the end of the show, Chuck called up all the other artists on the tour, to dance on a 13 minute version of “Reelin’ and Rockin’. I cut it down to ten and a half for the album. This was the ultimate performance of this song, with Chuck jammin’ on guitar and then the horns kicked in for eight minutes. He just didn’t quit. When I listen to this day, I get happily exhausted hearing his amazing riffs and licks tearing up with the crowd. We were rockin'.
It was a concert at the end of an old rock and roll tour in 1986. Was it being recorded that night for any specific reason?
The funny thing is, I don’t know who taped it. I had been living in Texas at the time we did that show, and later was preparing to move back to St. Louis. The promoter was talking to me about doing a show with my band he was promoting in Saint louis, and told me he had a tape he wanted me to hear. I went over to his place and we listened and rocked out to the recording. He told me he thought I would like to have it – and just gave it to me! That was so cool, especially since I didn’t know it was recorded. I just put it in my safe and it's been there for years.
How did you rediscover it and why now, five years after Chuck’s passing, is it the right time to mix it and shop it for release?
Maybe half a dozen times over the years, if I was having a party, I would think about the tape, take it out and play for people. It was just so cool to share with people. A few years ago, my friend David Toretta who did a lot of recording with Chuck was involved with a couple releases of Chuck. Then and at the end of last year, they released Live from Blueberry Hill. I had played the tape for a mutual and very good friend Steve Scorfina, he told me that I should take the tape to David, let him hear it and see what he thinks, David thought it was great and thought we could get it released. After seeing Live from Blueberry Hill come out I decided to go ahead and get this whole project done the way I wanted it to.
Tell me about the process of turning the cassette tape of the show into an album.
Starting at the beginning of 2022, I have done a lot of work at Shock City Studios in St. Louis with their chief engineer Sam Maul. We’re using every audio tool known to man to pull out the vocals and from music. It’s hard to do this with a single long running recording, so we cut it into individual songs. We mixed the crowd noise and were able to pull some vocals out of the recording, highlighted those and everything possible to make this the biggest fattest recording we could. From beginning to end, there were some tape problems, often in spots where the sound sped up. Sam and I spent two months fixing those kinds of issues. We didn’t alter anything musically except for having to cut out a few places where there were problems with the tape we couldn't fix. I wanted to make sure it was the best it could be before going to London. Somehow we emerged with an amazing 14 song album!
How did you get in to mix at Abbey Road?
I started doing research on the best mastering places and Abbey Road has a rep for being #1 in the world. I wanted the sound to be the best it could be. We spent all this time at Shock City attending to every detail and the project demanded no less. So I sent an email stating "The greatest live rock recording of Chuck Berry that had never been released and never been heard. Believe it or not, Peach at Abbey Road contacted me saying "That must have been an amazing experience" and sent me all the info of what I would need to do to have it mastered there – including observing COVID restrictions where only one person could be with the mastering engineer at a time. I was so excited that Sean Magee who had mastered The Beatles, John Lennon and Deep Purple was available and on board. I booked a trip to London and they scheduled a single day – which happened to be March 18th – the fifth year anniversary of Chuck’s passing.
On top of everything, what an honor to be able to spend the day with Sean, watching him doing his thing, smiling, rockin’ out and talking about the recording. How Cool!!! Sean said it sounded like a studio album and couldn’t believe the quality of what we did coming off a cassette recording. He also felt as I did like this was rock and roll history. He said he wanted to bring out the guitar and vocals, enhance them and add some bottom end. The result was big and fat and somehow the live recording came off sounding like you were at a concert listening to it live. I believe a whole new generation of rockers and us old Rock n Roll fans can actually hear something that was recorded years ago but is mixed and mastered like something from the present day.
What songs are on the album?
The show starts with “Roll Over Beethoven,” then “School Days,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Maybellene,” “Carol/Little Queeny,” “Every Day I Have the Blues,” “Bio,” “Memphis Tennessee,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Too Much Monkey Business,” “Thirty Days,” “Johnny B. Goode” and of course “Reelin’ and Rockin.’
What is the status of the project now?
I have selectively sent it to people I know at a few labels and the response has been "This is great". One of my long time radio friends told me, quoting Biden , “This is a big F’n deal!” I’m working on trying to get it to the right people at the “big three” labels at Universal Music Group, which owns Abbey Road Studios, Warner and Sony. The goal is to secure a deal to get it released in 2023. I want the world to hear this, and they should.
On a personal level, why is this such an important project for you? Is it for Chuck’s legacy, yours or both?
I want this collection to be the greatest dedication I could ever do to honor Chuck, since it was such an honor to play drums for him so many times. Of course, it’s all the more special to me because I’m playing on it, but the purpose is to celebrate and pay homage to him and his family. I have been very close to Ingrid for a long time and she has always been like family, his son Charles Jr. who played with Chuck was also so great to me. I have spent a lot of time on this and I hope it will be part of my legacy as a drummer. Listening to that night again in such a powerful, enhanced fashion, makes me feel very proud. I feel like if I died tomorrow, I at least finished this and it was mastered at Abbey Road so I could go with a smile on my face. I have spent my life playing music and this is a great reflection of the wonderful career I have been blessed with – plus a legacy recording for my children and grandchildren to enjoy.
Chuck sang during Johnny B. Goode:
"I love you, singin my songs, all my rock children, All My Rock Children out there"
I will always be one of those rock children!
(Photos are from Michael Mesey's personal collection)