Harry Thomason remembers Chuck Berry at Clinton events: Cash only

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ROLL OVER: Harry Thomason tells a tale about Chuck Berry's performance at Bill Clinton's 1993 inaugural ball. - ABC NEWS
  • ABC NEWS
  • ROLL OVER: Harry Thomason tells a tale about Chuck Berry's performance at Bill Clinton's 1993 inaugural ball.

The death of rock 'n' roll legend Chuck Berry has produced an avalanche of Berry stories, but this one from Harry Thomason, the TV mogul/friend of Bill Clinton who staged many of Clinton's campaign, presidential and other events, is a corker. He explains his role in getting Berry to play at the Clinton inaugural in 1993 (I was there for the duck walk, I'm happy to say) and for a subsequent event a few years later. Berry liked Clinton. He also liked cash. Great tale.

From Harry Thomason on Facebook:

I was producing the 1992 Inaugural and I wanted Chuck Berry to perform at an event. I talked to his manager and he said he wasn't sure but that he would talk to Chuck and get back to me. A day later, an excited aide barged into my meeting, "Chuck Berry is on the phone and wants to discuss something with you." I went to my office and picked up the phone. "Hello." Chuck spoke, "Harry, I know it's for the President and I like this guy but I don't perform for free." "I know you don't Chuck and I was going to get you some money." We agreed upon a very fair price and then he added one last requirement, "Now, the other thing is, I have to be paid in cash." "Chuck, that may be hard, with all the election laws and stuff. I can get you a cashier's check" A beat. "Naw, I don't care, it's the government, I have to be paid in cash or I can't do it."

I was waiting in the wings with the full amount in hundred dollar bills as he made his entrance onto the stage. "Harry, not just picking on you son, I always get cash. Too many boys, including the government, have tried to screw me before." "I get it Chuck, I get it." I handed him the cash and he put it in his old guitar case. "Watch it till I get back." He smiled and strode on stage and held the audience, screaming, clapping and on their feet for half an hour.

I thought, it would have been worth twice this much to see a performance like this. Little did I know that chance to see another performance would come a few years later. 1997. The Summit of Eight - a gathering of the most powerful leaders in the world is taking place in Denver and the U.S. State Department asks if I will produce the entertainment event. As I start putting it together, I think of Chuck and call his manager. Chuck calls me back for a few details and I tell him we have very little money and he tells me, "Okay, I'll do it for you for $10,000 you but remember - all cash. I don't trust any of these guys."


I explain the rules and the price to the State Department aides and they can't believe he won't take a U.S. Treasury check but I assure them he won't and that they should get the cash together. They mutter and go off in a slight huff.

Showtime! We have major acts and 5,000 people in a rodeo arena and it is going good! Suddenly, an when face State Department guy is grabbing my arm at the director'r booth in the back of the arena. 'What?" "Harry, it's Chuck and he wants to see you and he says he is not going on!" I scramble backstage to find Chuck in conversation with several State Department aides. "Chuck, what's the problem?" A State Department guy interrupts, "I'll tell you what's wrong, he says he's not going out without cash and I have right here a U.S. Treasury department certified check!" Chuck looks at me and smiles. After a beat, I speak, "Listen, I told you well ahead of time that he only takes cash. What was so hard to understand about that?" "Yeah, but we thought he would take a treasury check." "Well, he won't. How much do you have in the petty cash fund?" Another official speaks, "I think we have about $2700." "0kay, go get it." I ask Chuck to move away with me. "Listen Chuck, I'm sorry. If I get you the $2700 and promise to have the rest to you by the time the show is over, will you go on? I will even give you my wallet with cards, driver's license, and everything in it to hold until you are paid." I handed him the wallet. He took enough beats to make my heart thump. "Yeah, I'll do it." I muttered a thanks and went back to a worried gaggle of State Department aides. "Alright guys, here is what you have to do to save the bacon. Leave here this instant, take your credit cards and go to every ATM machine you can to gather $7200 dollars in in next half hour!" Nobody even spoke they just dashed out! The Denver police were cooperating in every way with us and had at least six patrol cars outside our production offices. Soon, I could hear through the cacophony of music and applause inside the arena, the sound of multiple sirens leaving the area. It did make me smile to think about a lot of panicked young government guys in police cars racing to ATMs.

I walked back over to Chuck, "The money will be here when you come offstage."

He nodded, "Thanks, and I don't need your wallet, buddy" He tossed it to me and walked toward the wing of the stage.
If speed is the mark of an efficient government, these guys were very efficient - within 25 minutes, one of them is handing me a leather brief case with $7300 in twenty dollar bills in it. He speaks breathlessly, "Here it is, tell Mr. Berry to keep the brief with our compliments." Chuck is already performing as I walk to the wing and look out on him. He looks at me and I waggle the briefcase. For just a moment, he smiled and then rolled right into Johnny B. Good.

After the show, I shook his hand, thanked him and walked though the semi-darkness to the backstage of the arena to help wrap. I was rolling up cable when someone tapped me on the shoulder, "Harry, I want to thank you for fulfilling a lifelong dream." I kept rolling the cable but muttered, "Good." "Yes, he is the rock and roller that I have always admired and never thought I would get a chance to meet." By now, I have turned around to see a guy in a Western shirt and boots. That's how I found out who the Prime Minister of England, Tony Blair's, favorite rock and roller was.

We'll all miss you Chuck...



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