Hand color tinted photo of Chuck Berry, July 13th 1987
Charles Edward Anderson “Chuck” Berry (born October 18, 1926) is an American guitarist, singer, and songwriter, and one of the pioneers of rock and roll music. With songs such as “Maybellene” (1955), “Roll Over Beethoven” (1956), “Rock and Roll Music” (1957) and “Johnny B. Goode” (1958), Chuck Berry refined and developed rhythm and blues into the major elements that made rock and roll distinctive, with lyrics focusing on teen life and consumerism and utilizing guitar solos and showmanship that would be a major influence on subsequent rock music.
Born into a middle class family in St. Louis, Missouri, Berry had an interest in music from an early age and gave his first public performance at Sumner High School. While still a high school student he served a prison sentence for armed robbery between 1944 and 1947. On his release, Berry settled into married life and worked at an automobile assembly plant. By early 1953, influenced by the guitar riffs and showmanship techniques of blues player T-Bone Walker, he was performing in the evenings with the Johnnie Johnson Trio. His break came when he traveled to Chicago in May, 1955, and met Muddy Waters, who suggested he contact Leonard Chess of Chess Records. With Chess he recorded “Maybellene”—Berry’s adaptation of the country song “Ida Red”—which sold over a million copies, reaching #1 on Billboard’s Rhythm and Blues chart. By the end of the 1950s, Berry was an established star with several hit records and film appearances to his name as well as a lucrative touring career. He had also established his own St. Louis-based nightclub, called Berry’s Club Bandstand. But in January, 1962, Berry was sentenced to three years in prison for offenses under the Mann Act—he had transported a 14-year-old girl across state lines.
After his release in 1963, Berry had several more hits, including “No Particular Place To Go”, “You Never Can Tell”, and “Nadine”, but these did not achieve the same success, or lasting impact, of his 1950s songs, and by the 1970s he was more in demand as a nostalgic live performer, playing his past hits with local backup bands of variable quality. His insistence on being paid cash led to a jail sentence in 1979—four months and community service for tax evasion.
Berry was among the first musicians to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on its opening in 1986, with the comment that he “laid the groundwork for not only a rock and roll sound but a rock and roll stance.” Berry is included in several Rolling Stone “Greatest of All Time” lists, including being ranked fifth on their 2004 list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll included three of Chuck Berry’s songs: “Johnny B. Goode”, “Maybellene”, and “Rock and Roll Music”. Today – at the age of 84 – Berry continues to play live.
Early life and apprenticeship with Johnnie Johnson (1926–54)
Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Berry was the fourth child in a family of six. He grew up in the north St. Louis neighborhood known as “The Ville,” an area where many middle class St. Louis people lived at the time. His father, Henry, was a contractor and deacon of a nearby Baptist church, his mother Martha a certified public school principal. His middle class upbringing allowed him to pursue his interest in music from an early age and he gave his first public performance in 1941 while still at Sumner High School. Just three years later, in 1944, while still at Sumner High School, he was arrested and convicted of armed robbery after robbing three shops in Kansas City and then stealing a car at gunpoint with some friends. Berry’s own account in his autobiography is that his car broke down and he then flagged down a passing car and stole it at gunpoint with a non-functional pistol. Berry was sent to the Intermediate Reformatory for Young Men at Algoa, near Jefferson City, Missouri, where he formed a singing quartet and did some boxing.
After his release from prison on his 21st birthday in 1947, Berry married Themetta “Toddy” Suggs on 28 October 1948, who gave birth to Darlin Ingrid Berry on 3 October 1950. Berry supported his family doing a number of jobs in St. Louis: working briefly as a factory worker at two automobile assembly plants, as well as being janitor for the apartment building where he and his wife lived. Afterwards he trained as a beautician at the Poro College of Cosmetology, founded by Annie Turnbo Malone. He was doing well enough by 1950 to buy a “small three room brick cottage with a bath” in Whittier Street, which is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
By the early 1950s, Berry was working with local bands in the clubs of St. Louis as an extra source of income. He had been playing the blues since his teens, and he borrowed both guitar riffs and showmanship techniques from blues player T-Bone Walker, as well as taking guitar lessons from his friend Ira Harris that laid the foundation for his guitar style. By early 1953 Berry was performing with Johnnie Johnson’s trio, starting a long-time collaboration with the pianist. Although the band played mostly blues and ballads, the most popular music among whites in the area was country. Berry wrote, “Curiosity provoked me to lay a lot of our country stuff on our predominantly black audience and some of our black audience began whispering ‘who is that black hillbilly at the Cosmo?’ After they laughed at me a few times they began requesting the hillbilly stuff and enjoyed dancing to it.”
Berry’s calculated showmanship, along with mixing country tunes with R&B tunes, and singing in the style of Nat “King” Cole to the music of Muddy Waters, brought in a wider audience, particularly affluent white people.
Signing with Chess: “Maybellene” to “Come On” (1955–62)
In May 1955, Berry traveled to Chicago where he met Waters, who suggested he contact Leonard Chess of Chess Records. Berry thought his blues material would be of most interest to Chess, but to his surprise it was an old country and western recording by Bob Wills, entitled “Ida Red” that got Chess’s attention. Chess had seen the rhythm and blues market shrink and was looking to move beyond it, and he thought Berry might be the artist for that purpose. So on May 21, 1955 Berry recorded an adaptation of “Ida Red”—”Maybellene”—which featured Johnnie Johnson on piano, Jerome Green (from Bo Diddley’s band) on the maracas, Jasper Thomas on the drums and Willie Dixon on the bass. “Maybellene” sold over a million copies, reaching #1 on Billboard’s Rhythm and Blues chart and #5 on the 10 September 1955 Billboard Best Sellers in Stores chart.
At the end of June 1956, his song “Roll Over Beethoven” reached #29 on the Billboard Top 100 chart, and Berry toured as one of the “Top Acts of ’56”. He and Carl Perkins became friends. Perkins said that “I knew when I first heard Chuck that he’d been affected by country music. I respected his writing; his records were very, very great.” As they toured, Perkins discovered that Berry not only liked country music, but knew about as many songs as he did. Jimmie Rodgers was one of his favorites. “Chuck knew every Blue Yodel and most of Bill Monroe’s songs as well,” Perkins remembered. “He told me about how he was raised very poor, very tough. He had a hard life. He was a good guy. I really liked him.”
In late 1957 Berry took part in Alan Freed’s “Biggest Show of Stars for 1957” United States tour with the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, and others. He also guest starred on ABC’s The Guy Mitchell Show, having sung his hit song “Rock ‘n’ Roll Music”. The hits continued from 1957 to 1959, with Berry scoring over a dozen chart singles during this period, including the top 10 U.S. hits “School Days”, “Rock and Roll Music”, “Sweet Little Sixteen”, and “Johnny B. Goode”. He appeared in two early rock and roll movies. The first was Rock Rock Rock, released in 1956. He is shown singing “You Can’t Catch Me.” He had a speaking role as himself in the 1959 film Go, Johnny, Go! along with Alan Freed, and was also shown performing his songs “Johnny B. Goode,” “Memphis, Tennessee,” and “Little Queenie.” His performance of “Sweet Little Sixteen” at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958 is captured in the motion picture Jazz on a Summer’s Day.
By the end of the 1950s, Berry was an established star with several hit records and film appearances to his name, as well as a lucrative touring career. He had established a racially integrated St. Louis-based nightclub, called Berry’s Club Bandstand, and was investing in real estate. But in December 1959, Berry was arrested under the Mann Act after an allegation that he had sex with a 14-year-old Apache waitress whom he had transported over state lines to work as a hat check girl at his club. After an initial two-week trial in March 1960, Berry was convicted, fined $5,000, and sentenced to five years in prison. Berry’s appeal that the judge’s comments and attitude were racist and prejudiced the jury against him was upheld, and a second trial was heard in May and June 1961, which resulted in Berry being given a three-year prison sentence. After another appeal failed, Berry served one and one half years in prison from February 1962 to October 1963. Berry had continued recording and performing during the trials, though his output had slowed down as his popularity declined; his final single released before being imprisoned was “Come On”.
“Nadine” and move to Mercury (1963–69)
When Berry was released from prison in 1963, he was able to return to recording and performing due to the British invasion acts of the 1960s—most notably the Beatles and the Rolling Stones—having kept up an interest in his music by releasing cover versions of his songs; along with other bands reworking his songs, such as the Beach Boys basing their 1963 hit “Surfin’ USA” on Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen”. In 1964–65 Berry released eight singles, including three, “No Particular Place To Go” (a reworking of “School Day”), “You Never Can Tell”, and “Nadine,” which achieved commercial success, reaching the top 20 of the Billboard 100. Between 1966 and 1969 Berry released five albums on the Mercury label, including his first live album Live at Fillmore Auditorium in which he was backed by the Steve Miller Band.
While this was not a successful period for studio work, Berry was still a top concert draw. In May 1964, he did a successful tour of the UK, though when he returned in January 1965 his behavior was erratic and moody, and his touring style of using unrehearsed local backing bands and a strict non-negotiable contract was earning him a reputation as a difficult yet unexciting performer. He also played at large events in North America, such as the Schaefer Music Festival in New York City’s Central Park in July 1969, and the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival festival in October.
Back to Chess: “My Ding-a-Ling” to White House concert (1970–79)
Berry helped give life to a subculture… Even “My Ding-a-Ling”, a fourth-grade wee-wee joke that used to mortify true believers at college concerts, permitted a lot of twelve-year-olds new insight into the moribund concept of “dirty” when it hit the airwaves…
Berry returned to Chess from 1970 to 1973. There were no hit singles from the 1970 album Back Home, then in 1972 Chess released a live recording of “My Ding-a-Ling”, a novelty song which Berry had recorded in a different version on his 1968 LP “From St. Louie to Frisco” as “My Tambourine”. The track became Berry’s only No. 1 single. A live recording of “Reelin’ And Rockin'” was also issued as a follow-up single that same year and would prove to be Berry’s final top-40 hit in both the U.S. and the UK. Both singles were featured on the part-live/part-studio album The London Chuck Berry Sessions which was one of a series of London Sessions albums which included other Chess mainstay artists Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Berry’s second tenure with Chess ended with the 1975 album Chuck Berry, after which he did not make a studio record until 1979’s Rock It for Atco Records, his last studio album to date.
In the 1970s Berry toured on the basis of his earlier successes. He was on the road for many years, carrying only his Gibson guitar, confident that he could hire a band that already knew his music no matter where he went. Allmusic has said that in this period his “live performances became increasingly erratic, working with terrible backup bands and turning in sloppy, out-of-tune performances” which “tarnished his reputation with younger fans and oldtimers” alike. Among the many bandleaders performing a backup role with Chuck Berry were Bruce Springsteen and Steve Miller when each was just starting his career. Springsteen related in the video Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll that Berry did not even give the band a set list and just expected the musicians to follow his lead after each guitar intro. Berry neither spoke to nor thanked the band after the show. Nevertheless, Springsteen backed Berry again when he appeared at the concert for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995. At the request of Jimmy Carter, Chuck Berry performed at the White House on June 1, 1979.
Berry’s type of touring style, traveling the “oldies” circuit in the 1970s (where he was often paid in cash by local promoters) added ammunition to the Internal Revenue Service’s accusations that Berry was a chronic income tax evader. Facing criminal sanction for the third time, Berry pleaded guilty to tax evasion and was sentenced to four months in prison and 1,000 hours of community service—doing benefit concerts—in 1979.
Still on the road (1980–present)
Berry continued to play 70 to 100 one-nighters per year in the 1980s, still traveling solo and requiring a local band to back him at each stop. In 1986, Taylor Hackford made a documentary film, Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll, of a celebration concert for Berry’s sixtieth birthday, organised by Keith Richards, in which Berry reveals his bitterness at the fame and financial success that Richards achieved on the back of Berry’s songs. Eric Clapton, Etta James, Julian Lennon, Robert Cray and Linda Ronstadt, among others, appeared with Berry on stage and film. During the concert, Berry played a Gibson ES-355, the luxury version of the ES-335 that he favored on his 1970s tours. Richards played a black Fender Telecaster Custom, Cray a Fender Stratocaster and Clapton a Gibson ES 350T, the same guitar Berry used on his early recordings.
In the late 1980s, Berry bought a restaurant in Wentzville, Missouri, called The Southern Air, and in 1990 he was sued by several women who claimed that he had installed a video camera in the ladies’ bathroom. Berry claimed that he had the camera installed to catch red-handed a worker who was suspected of stealing from the restaurant. Though his guilt was never proven in court, Berry opted for a class action settlement with 59 women. Berry’s biographer, Bruce Pegg, estimated that it cost Berry over $1.2 million plus legal fees. It was during this time that he began using Wayne T. Schoeneberg as his legal counsel. Reportedly, a police raid on his house did find videotapes of women using the restroom, and one of the women was a minor. Also found in the raid were 62 grams of marijuana. Felony drug and child-abuse charges were filed. In order to avoid the child-abuse charges, Berry agreed to plead guilty to misdemeanor possession of marijuana. He was given a six-month suspended jail sentence, two years’ unsupervised probation, and ordered to donate $5,000 to a local hospital.
In November 2000, Berry again faced legal charges when he was sued by his former pianist Johnnie Johnson, who claimed that he co-wrote over 50 songs, including “No Particular Place to Go”, “Sweet Little Sixteen” and “Roll Over Beethoven”, that credit Berry alone. The case was dismissed when the judge ruled that too much time had passed since the songs were written.
Currently, Berry usually performs one Wednesday each month at Blueberry Hill, a restaurant and bar located in the Delmar Loop neighborhood in St. Louis. In 2008, Berry toured Europe, with stops in Sweden, Norway, Finland, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Ireland, Switzerland, Poland, and Spain. In mid-2008, he played at Virgin Festival in Baltimore, MD. He presently lives in Ladue, Missouri, approximately 10 miles west of St. Louis. During a New Year’s Day concert in 2011, Berry, suffering from exhaustion, passed out and had to be helped off stage.
A pioneer of rock music, Berry was a significant influence on the development of both the music and the attitude associated with the rock music lifestyle. With songs such as “Maybellene” (1955), “Roll Over Beethoven” (1956), “Rock and Roll Music” (1957) and “Johnny B. Goode” (1958), Chuck Berry refined and developed rhythm and blues into the major elements that made rock and roll distinctive, with lyrics successfully aimed to appeal to the early teenage market by using graphic and humorous descriptions of teen dances, fast cars, high-school life, and consumer culture, and utilizing guitar solos and showmanship that would be a major influence on subsequent rock music. His records are a rich storehouse of the essential lyrical, showmanship and musical components of rock and roll; and, in addition to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, a large number of significant popular-music performers have recorded Berry’s songs. Though not technically accomplished, his guitar style is distinctive – he incorporated electronic effects to mimic the sound of bottleneck blues guitarists, and drew on the influence of guitar players such as Charlie Christian, and T-Bone Walker, to produce a clear and exciting sound that many later guitar musicians would acknowledge as a major influence in their own style. Berry’s showmanship has been influential on other rock guitar players, particularly his one-legged hop routine, and the “duck walk”, which he first used as a child when he walked “stooping with full-bended knees, but with my back and head vertical” under a table to retrieve a ball and his family found it entertaining; he used it when “performing in New York for the first time and some journalist branded it the duck walk.”
The rock critic Robert Christgau considers him “the greatest of the rock and rollers,” while John Lennon said that “if you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’.” Ted Nugent said “If you don’t know every Chuck Berry lick, you can’t play rock guitar.” Among the honors he has received, have been the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1984, the Kennedy Center Honors in 2000, and being named seventh on Time Magazine’s 2009 list of the 10 best electric guitar players of all-time. On May 14, 2002, Chuck Berry was honored as one of the first BMI Icons at the 50th annual BMI Pop Awards. He was presented the award along with BMI affiliates Bo Diddley and Little Richard.
Berry is included in several Rolling Stone “Greatest of All Time” lists. In September 2003, the magazine named him number 6 in their list of the “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time”. This was followed in November of the same year by his compilation album The Great Twenty-Eight being ranked 21st in the Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. The following year, in March 2004, Berry was ranked fifth out of “The Immortals – The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time”. In December 2004, six of his songs were included in the “Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time”, namely “Johnny B. Goode” (# 7), “Maybellene” (# 18), “Roll Over Beethoven” (# 97), “Rock and Roll Music” (#128), “Sweet Little Sixteen” (# 272) and “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” (# 374). In June 2008, his song “Johnny B. Goode” ranked first place in the “100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time”.
A statue 8 feet (2.4 m) tall of Berry, funded by donations, is being erected along the St. Louis Walk of Fame. The dedication ceremony is scheduled for July 29, 2011.