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Chuck Berry defied Ulster Workers' Council strike to play to 20 Belfast fans

Chuck Berry at the ABC in 1977, photographed by Terence Bowman
Chuck Berry at the ABC in 1977, photographed by Terence Bowman
Chuck Berry
Chuck Berry at the ABC in 1977, photographed by Terence Bowman
Paul Clark
Allan Preston

By Allan Preston

Chuck Berry - who has died aged 90 - played to an audience of just 20 people during the Ulster Workers' Council strike.

Berry died on Saturday at his home in Missouri, but his gig at the old ABC cinema in 1974 - now Jury's hotel on Great Victoria Street - will never be forgotten by one of the fans there that night, UTV news anchor Paul Clark.

"I was a working journalist so the Ulster Workers' strike was my baptism of fire in broadcasting," recalled Clark, then aged 21. "I'd just started working for the BBC and nothing, but nothing, was moving in Belfast.

"I was actually living in the BBC, broadcasting in Ormeau Avenue, on a camp bed."

He added: "This was an icon coming to town.

"I walked to the concert, but there was only 20 of us there.

"It had been a sell out, but no one saw the strike being as effective as it was.

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"It was incredible to be sitting with that rock god playing in front of 20 people.

"But he played as if he was in front of thousands."

That night even the world famous Berry was not immune to the disruption caused by the loyalist general strike at the height of the Troubles.

Ulster Workers Council Strike. 28/5/1974
Ulster Workers Council Strike. 28/5/1974
The Ulster Workers' Council Strike
The Ulster Workers’ Council Strike in 1974
Crowds during the Ulster Worker's Council strike. 28/05/74
Crowds at Stormont during the Ulster Worker's Council strike. 28/05/74

"He played for 60 minutes, I remember that," said Clark.

"I remember him telling us that he always wanted a particular brand of speaker, as others hurt his ears. They couldn't get the speaker to Belfast, though, as nothing was moving.

"Because he wasn't getting the brand he wanted he told us he charged extra to play."

The set list was peppered with with genre-defining hits like Johnny B Goode and Roll Over Beethoven.

"It was all there, it was rock n' roll history," said Clark.

"He played everything."

Making the evening even more unique, Berry played a solo show with no support band. "He could make that guitar talk and we felt immensely privileged."

In 1977 Berry played the ABC Cinema again.

Terence Bowman, a journalist at the time with the Mourne Observer in Newcastle, also took concert photos as a hobby.

"He played two shows, one at 6pm and the other at 9pm," Mr Bowman said.

"There was such a small audience for the first show he actually brought the audience up to the front of the stage and sang all his greatest hits.

"The second show was packed out and people were hanging from the rafters.

"It was nothing short of amazing, as Belfast was something of a wasteland for big acts.

"In the 1970s the Troubles were affecting everything and it wasn't an easy life, but to go to concerts made a big difference."

Yesterday tributes rolled in around the world for the rock legend.

Beatles drummer Ringo Starr wrote: "Just let me hear some of that rock 'n' roll music any old way you use it I am playing I'm talking about you. God bless Chuck Berry."

Bruce Springsteen tweeted: "Chuck Berry was rock's greatest practitioner, guitarist, and the greatest pure rock 'n' roll writer who ever lived. This is a tremendous loss of a giant for the ages."

Pink Floyd star Roger Waters said: "Great man, among many other things he lit the fire under The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. He sort of unwittingly discovered little England and freed us."

Belfast Telegraph


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