I get better and better at fighting off the urge to write, but I’ll give in tonight, just to get thoughts out of my head.
Social media tells me this is #NationalConcertDay, and I could claim that as an excuse for tonight’s ramble.
But truthfully, I’ve just been thinking, at great length and without reason, about Chuck Berry’s taste in amplifiers.
If you’ve read this far you probably already know the legend about Chuck’s concert rider from the ’60s and ’70s. (We will banish from our minds, for the length of this post, the knowledge that Chuck continues to perform. I don’t know what he asks promoters for nowadays. Christ’s mercy, maybe.)
I have never actually seen Chuck’s concert rider, so I’m going strictly on whisper-down-the-lane.
But the long-repeated legend says Chuck would swoop into town demanding three things from the promoter: Cash up front, a backing band familiar with his music, and two unaltered Fender Dual Showman Reverb amplifier sets.
Although Chuck demanded a band familiar with his repertoire, he was notorious for doing his utmost to make them look like beginners — usually by not bothering to tell them what tune he was starting, or what key he was playing in.
This makes his demand for unmodified Dual Showman Reverbs somewhat baffling. Why would a man who clearly did not give a rat’s ass about the quality of his performance be so picayune about his amplifiers?
There’s also the fact that the Dual Showman Reverb is not Fender’s most celebrated product. From my days devouring guitar magazines, I don’t remember any players drooling over the Dual Showman Reverb the way they fetishized other amps, like Fender’s Bassman and Twin Reverb, Vox’s AC30 or Marshall’s vintage “plexi” 100-watt amp heads.
The Dual Showman isn’t a bad amp by any means. Hendrix reportedly used one sometimes, as did Peter Green, and most anything old and tube-based that says Fender on it is probably going to sound good.
Still, having all of ampdom at your fingertips and choosing a Dual Showman Reverb is sorta like opening a ’66 Ford catalog and choosing a Torino. Nice ride, reasonably muscular, attractive in its own way … but not a Mustang.
(It says something that when you Google “Fender Dual Showman Reverb,” you can still find discussion threads where people post things like, “What can you tell me about these amps? A guy in my town wants $450 for a ’68. Is that a good deal?” Clearly, these amps are not legendary, despite their age and pedigree.)
After reading testimonials from Dual Showman owners, I think I’ve come up with the two reasons Chuck Berry asked for them by name:
They move air. This review describes the 80-watt Dual Showman as “not suited as a bedroom amp” and “too loud for small venues,” while a participant in this discussion jokes that the “TFL” code used in some model names stands for “Too Freaking Loud.”
I think that, no matter how crappy the PA system was on any given night, or how loud his bandmates du jour were, Chuck knew he could reach the back wall of the gym with a Dual Showman Reverb. No hastily assembled bunch of clowns from Peoria was going to keep the people from hearing Chuck Berry.
(I assume the second amp was requested as a backup to the first. I can’t imagine many venues where anyone would need two at once.)
They’re clean. All the reviews I’ve read say Dual Showman Reverbs don’t distort or break up, even at high volume levels. (“One of the cleanest, richest tones you’ll ever hear,” says the first review linked a few paragraphs above.)
When I see YouTube videos of people test-driving Dual Showman Reverbs, they seem to rely on distortion pedals to add grit to their tone.
Chuck developed his guitar style before distortion became a fact of rock n’ roll life, and it sounds as if he wasn’t a fan. So (I’m guessing) he specifically sought out the loudest amp he could find that wouldn’t make him sound like Mark Farner.
I wonder how many Dual Showman Reverb sets used by Chuck Berry in his travels across America are still in harness today. That would be a mildly cool rock n’ roll relic to own.
Even if you know in your heart of hearts that, on the day he played it, Chuck spent more time thinking about his gas gauge than his amp settings.