We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Sideman Daryl Davis has been helping Chuck Berry sound great for two decades—but you’re not supposed to notice.

During his closing number at the 9:30 Club last month—a runaway version of “Reelin’ & Rockin’”—Chuck Berry pushed his keyboard player aside and started hammering away at the keys himself. The keyboardist was a hired hand, a Maryland player who fronts a band that plays the East Coast bar circuit. Since the late ’50s, Berry has toured mostly solo to cut costs and avoid the hassle of chaperoning drunken bandmates, leaving it up to local promoters to put together his backing bands.

A novice Berry backer might have been put off when the legendary performer kicked him off his instrument and handed over his signature cherry-red Gibson ES-335 electric guitar. But not Daryl Davis. The 210-pound keyboardist slipped the guitar’s strap over his head and started picking out trademark Berry lines, trading 12-bar solos with Berry on keys. Ten minutes later, the man who pounded the blues, country, and boogie-woogie into rock ‘n’ roll waltzed offstage and Davis closed out the show—on Chuck Berry’s guitar.

The first time Davis saw Berry play live, at the University of Maryland’s Cole Field House in the spring of 1972, the backing band was a bunch of first-timers, a group led by a then-unknown Bruce Springsteen. Fourteen-year-old Davis arrived early and sneaked backstage, hanging out through Jerry Lee Lewis’ set to catch a glimpse of Berry.

“I didn’t realize that Springsteen’s band was a pickup band and that Chuck Berry didn’t rehearse before his shows. All the guys were looking at their watches, kind of nervous,” Davis recalls, sitting on a brown vinyl-

upholstered couch in his Glenmont living room two weeks after his 9:30 show. “Five minutes before he’s supposed to go on, in walks Chuck. Bruce says hi and asks what songs they were gonna do that night. And Chuck looks at him and says, ‘I think we’re going to do some Chuck Berry,’ and walks up the stairs onto the stage.”

Nine years later, Davis asked Berry a variation of Springsteen’s pre-gig question: “Is there anything in particular you want me to play on the piano?” Davis was in Berry’s dressing room at Baltimore’s Pier 6 Concert Pavilion, changing the high-E string on Berry’s guitar just before their first show together. He’d been mailing letters to Berry—telling his idol about teaching himself to play piano and his dream of wanting to back him up someday—throughout the ’70s. In the dressing room, Berry answered, “Well, you said in your letters that you play piano like Pinetop [Perkins, Muddy Waters’ longtime piano player] and Johnnie Johnson [Berry’s original piano player]. Play like that.”

Before that 1981 gig, immortalized in a framed color photograph mounted on Davis’ wood-paneled living room wall, the only acknowledgment Davis had gotten from Berry was a happy-birthday telegram when he turned 18. Davis got the job by calling the show’s promoter and talking his way into the backup band. He’d graduated from Howard University with a music degree the year before and had seen Berry play live more than a dozen times; short of Berry’s own personnel from St. Louis, Davis told the promoter, he was the most qualified man for the job. Since that first show, Davis has backed Berry up and down the Eastern seaboard, from New York City to Atlanta.

Berry’s agent called Davis in August and asked him to play the Dec. 1 gig at the 9:30 Club. When he booked Berry this past summer, Seth Hurwitz, 9:30’s co-owner and a drummer, had originally planned to put together a band and play drums himself. “Seth’s a good drummer, but I felt it would be better if we had someone with more experience actually playing with Chuck,” Davis says. “Chuck likes his freedom. He created rock ‘n’ roll. And the one thing you don’t want to do is restrict Chuck. You don’t so much need to learn his songs as learn the feeling of his songs.”

As a consolation prize, Davis invited Hurwitz to sit in behind the drums on “Johnny B. Goode” during the 9:30 set. “I went to Daryl’s house before the show, and he taught me how to play with Chuck, which is basically not to play. You have to keep it as simple as it could possibly be,” Hurwitz says. “When you play, you want to be creative, but you have to suppress that with Chuck. It’s like painting a picture the way someone else wants it painted rather than the way you want to paint it. When I hit an extra tom drum at rehearsal [during the sound check], the band told me ‘If you do that, Chuck will throw your ass out of there.’”

This is the particular dilemma of the sideman, the hired player, the session musician: How does the artist express himself when he’s hired to play someone else’s songs? Bands thrive on their members’ musical creativity, but backing players at live gigs aren’t hired for their imaginations—they’re rented out to play songs that are already carved onto records and CDs. A Chuck Berry set list is a collection of decades-old standards: “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Maybellene.”

“My role is to make the person I’m backing up look good. That’s it, period,” says Adolph Wright, the drummer hired for Berry’s 9:30 gig and the director of university bands at Bowie State. “I’m there to complement the artist. But, whether you’re reading music or playing somebody else’s music, you still have to interpret it. You still have to put the music personally.”

Trying to put their own stamp on the music is a particular challenge for Berry’s backup players. “The man has over 400 songs, and when he walks on stage he doesn’t even know what he’s going to play,” Davis says. “He doesn’t tell you what key he’s going to play each song in, so [all] you have [is] his four-bar guitar intro to figure it out. He used to play ‘Johnny B. Goode’ in B-flat, but for the last 10 years he’s played it in C. The songs are only three chords; now, who doesn’t know how to play that? But you need to know how Chuck Berry plays the songs today. It’s no longer 1958, and he doesn’t play the songs the same.”

Playing three-chord rock ‘n’ roll without set lists requires a good measure of creativity on the part of Berry’s supporting musicians, even if their muses are checked by a fear of crowding Berry musically. Most other big-name acts that hire locals when they’re in town hand out sheet music to the supporting musicians and tell them to play what’s on the page. There are exceptions, of course: “When Aretha Franklin comes to town, her road manager brings two books with 75 songs in each book, and we’ll rehearse different songs out of the books for an hour,” says Wright, who frequently backs Franklin. “Then in the performance, we might have a whole new list of songs to play, so that you’re always sight-reading.”

But most local musician-for-hire gigs aren’t with Chuck Berry or Aretha Franklin. Despite an invitation, D.C. bass player Wade Matthews couldn’t play Berry’s 9:30 show because he had a much less exciting musical commitment: standing in with the Fabulous Fantoms for a dot-com’s holiday party at Camp Letts in Edgewater, Md. (“Open bar, open buffet!”). The band performed “Can’t Help Falling in Love” and a Jackson 5 medley.

Matthews backed Ben E. King and Ray Price in Las Vegas last summer and has toured Europe with E Street Band alumnus Nils Lofgren’s band, but he plays his share of less prestigious local gigs. Last December, he was hired to do a show with Korean singer Patti Kim at Hylton Memorial Chapel in Dale City, Va. “They handed out the [sheet-music] charts, and it was like playing American pop songs with Korean lyrics,” Matthews says. “The biggest thing is trying to find your identity as a hired gun for everyone else. As a sideman, you have to know when to keep your mouth shut. But you have the sum of all of your previous experience ingrained in you—that’s what you bring to the music. And that’s the trade-off. It’s what you do to make a living when you don’t have a great record deal.”

Davis, who’s backed up the Platters, the Coasters, and the Drifters—groups that the 42-year-old keyboardist was weaned on—shares Matthews’ gotta-pay-the-bills sensibility. “It’s a great honor to play with Sam Moore [of Sam and Dave] or Percy Sledge. It’s certainly a great learning experience, but more than that it’s a networking experience,” he says. “In this business, it’s a lot about who you know.”

Davis’ best networking story begins with a 1997 road trip to New York to hang out with Berry, who was in town to play The Late Show With David Letterman. Davis was sitting in Berry’s dressing room when a producer walked in. Berry introduced Davis as his piano player. “I wasn’t aware Mr. Davis was coming,” the producer said. “Paul Shaffer is slated to play tonight; let me go check this with him.” To which Berry responded, “Like I said, this is my piano player. Daryl, give her your Social Security number so you can get paid.”

“That’s an example of using who you know rather than what you know,” Davis says. “I had the day off and said, ‘Hey, I’m gonna go hang out with Chuck Berry’—and I wound up playing the gig.”

That Berry picked Davis on a whim to play on national television is symbolic. Over the past 10 years, Davis says, promoters have realized that D.C.’s backing musicians are ripe for the picking—not inferior to Big Apple players, as once thought. Wright agrees: “I think people are starting to realize that a lot of the musicians in New York have migrated there from Atlanta, New Orleans, and Washington.”

Clarence E. Knight Jr., a District-based contractor who finds backing musicians for concert promoters, has filled requests for the East Coast tours of Aretha Franklin and Barry White almost entirely with sidemen from the D.C. area. But he says that the demand for backup players is declining everywhere because performers are increasingly employing synthesizers and other programmable electronics in place of live musicians. “Synthesizers are replacing entire horn sections and a lot of the strings I used to hire,” Knight says. He hired players to back up Gladys Knight until she left the Pips in the late ’80s and toured solo, with “a bunch of keyboard players” constituting her entire ensemble.

Besides facing technological competition, Davis has to face the fact that many of the acts he backs probably won’t be playing—or even breathing—for too many more years. But the keyboardist isn’t concerned about his work drying up. “When Madonna turns 50,” he says, “she may not be No. 1, because you got Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera coming up. If she has it in her blood to keep playing but can’t afford to bring her whole entourage, she’s probably going to scale down and rely on mostly local people to back her up.”

Which means that, eight years from now, Davis wouldn’t be at all surprised to find himself switching from pounding out “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” to bouncing along to “Material Girl.” CP