Chuck Berry, centre, with Victoria musicians, from left, Michael Stymest, David Foster, Bobby Faulds and Barry Casson during a 1967 tour of England. Photograph courtesy of Barry Casson.

Barry Casson was touring Britain with his Victoria bandmates Bobby Faulds and the Strangers when they received word.

Chuck Berry needs a band for a series of dates in Britain and France, and you’ve got the gig, their booking agent said.

“He liked the fact that we were from North America, and would know the stuff a little better than the Brits at the time,” Casson said.

The Johnny B. Goode hitmaker, who died March 18 at the age of 90, was great to work with during that 1967 tour, according to Casson. Berry had earned a reputation for being difficult after several run-ins with concert promoters, resulting in cash-only contracts from Berry that were deemed revolutionary at the time.

“There was no doubt he was the star and we were the band. But he did his thing and we backed him up. Watching him do his duck-walk, it was pretty cool.”

Casson, a drummer, played in the Victoria-based group with keyboardist David Foster, singer Faulds and bassist Michael Stymest. They were tasked with learning Berry’s catalogue for the series of shows, which also included a concert at the Olympia Theatre in Paris that was broadcast on radio throughout Europe.

Berry frequently toured without a regular backing band, and would pick up musicians as he went along.

The most memorable show of their stint with Berry, Casson recalled, was before 1,000 fans at London’s Saville Theatre, which was owned by Beatles manager Brian Epstein.

The audience — which included Tom Jones and members of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones — was growing impatient and wanted only to see Berry. But the promoter had booked several warmup acts, including Del Shannon, Ben E. King and the Drifters, and the Small Faces.

Casson and Co. played a few songs of their own before Berry joined them. By the third song, someone from the audience rushed the stage, which prompted organizers to close the curtain.

“They ripped up the theatre, ripped the curtains down and ripped the seats right out of the moorings. Fifty police were called out. It was an actual riot. When they lifted the curtain a half-hour later, there was nothing left. It was one of the scariest moments of my life.”

Casson and the group would go on to play shows backing Bo Diddley and the Drifters before returning to Victoria. Foster wrote extensively about the period in his autobiography, Hitman: Forty Years Making Music, Topping the Charts, and Winning Grammys.

“It was a time,” said Casson, who teaches drums at Tempo Trend in Victoria.

“It really was a time.”

Originally published March 20, 2017 by Mike Devlin / Times Colonist