Tuesday, December 29, 2020

The Riot at the Chuck Berry Concert

 I don't know about you, but when I think of people rioting at a concert,   I don't think of Chuck Berry.   When I think of a Chuck Berry concert, I picture people dancing in the aisles and in their seats.   I don't think of Chuck Berry fans as being rowdy, but boy oh boy what happened on February 19, 1967 proved me wrong. 

There was a resurge of interest in 1950s Rock n Roll in the U.K.  in the early months of 1967.   Teenagers were once again dressing like Teddy Boys and jiving with their girls that wore full skirts.   The music of that time was also gaining popularity again and you can't think of 50's Rock n Roll without having Chuck Berry.    Chuck got a group from Canada to back him and went on a U.K. tour.    On February 19 the tour brought him to London, England, and the Savile Theater.   

Chuck and his band backstage during the tour in 1967 (photo by Barry Cassson)

The Beatles' manager, Brian Epstein had owned the Savile Theater since 1965 and would rent it out for play productions during the week.   The weekends, however, were reserved for concerts.   The Sunday night rock concerts at the Savile became a tradition for many in London during the time.   Chuck Berry's concert one of those Sunday nights. .  Over 1,000 fans came to see the show.   Most of them came dressed for the occasion.  Many of the guys wore Zoot Suits and winkle-picker boots.  

Several famous musicians were in the audience as well.   Tom Jones was there and so were John Lennon and Ringo Starr, who were sitting in a box with Brian Epstein.   

There were several warm-up acts that performed before Chuck Berry hit the stage.  Bands including Big Taste and Hamilton's Movement were booed while performing.   Those in the audience were screaming "Get off the stage!"  and "We want Chuck Berry!"     Del Shannon performed and the audience's reaction was a little better.   They especially liked it when he sang one of his big hit numbers, "Runaway."  

Finally, Chuck Berry came out and started to sing the classics  "Nadine,"  "Roll Over Beethoven" and "School Days"  The Savile Theater was rocking out.   People started to jive in the aisles.  Others were dancing in their seats.   25 minutes into the 40-minute concert, one guy jumped on the stage to dance next to Chuck Berry.    Since having an audience member on the stage was against the Greater London Council's regulations, the theater manager pulled the safety curtain.    

John and Ringo must have known what that felt like.   They had their share of people running on the stage during a concert and their share of concerts stopped in the middle because of the audience.    

When the concert was abruptly stopped, the Chuck Berry fans lost it.   A microphone stand was thrown, and so was a fire extinguisher.   They started to tear the seats apart.  Stuffing from the cushions was flying around and the entire seats were thrown.    They were tearing the Savile Theater apart.   They were yelling and demanding to see Chuck Berry.

When it became obvious that they weren't going to get what they came for, they turned their anger towards the Beatles box and started to boo and jeer them while throwing things up towards the box.  Ringo and John ran out of the place and into a car to leave the riot.   

Cynthia, John and Ringo leave during the riot.  You can see Brian checking to make sure they are alright.

50 policemen arrived at the theater.  They got the concert-goers to move outside.   On the sidewalk in front of the theater, they began tearing down the posters that advertised the Chuck Berry concert and were screaming, "We want our money back!"    Things didn't break up until arrests were made.  

One of the guys in the band, Barry Casson remembers the riot like this,  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.”

Brian was not happy about the situation at all.  He said,  "The bringing down of the safety curtain was an action which appalled and annoyed me, it was entirely unnecessary and a full investigation of those taking the action will be made and those responsible will accept the consequence of possible dismissal."  He went on to say that he hoped there were no hard feelings and he wanted Chuck to return to perform.   

 A month later, Chuck did just that and there was not a riot the second time around.   In an interview backstage, he had this to say about the Beatles,  "Talking about the Beatles, three or four of their songs are amongst the best ever written in pop music. Especially 'I Wanna Hold Your Hand'. I put that one with songs like my 'Sweet Little Sixteen' – and I'm not saying that just because I wrote it. I'll never write another song like that."


  1. According to the Beatles Recording Sessions book, they recorded "Mr. Kite" on Monday Feb. 20th.
    That would make the 19th a Sunday.

    1. Well so it is -- that is what I get for asking Google!

  2. The Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields single came out two days before this show.

  3. Wow great story, I had not heard this! Imagine in the middle of all that Sgt Peppers peace and love a riot breaking out lol!

  4. Great story, not seen it before. Btw it's spelt Saville not Savile (as in Savile Row). And Brian didn't own it, he just leased it on Sundays for pop shows. I went there a few times including three weeks earlier on January 29th when all the Beatles went to see Jimi Hendrix supporting The Who, my first ever major rock gig (at the age of 14) and an incredible night. You can read the story and many others in my just-published book "It's All Too Much", more info at www.itsalltoomuch.net