Like Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry's music bridged the gap between R&B/blues and country music, but unlike his contemporary, Berry brought lyrical brilliance and guitar brilliance to the new genre known as rock and roll. Virtually any musician who played guitar in a rock band owed a debt to Berry, whether for his stinging licks, brash stage presence, or unwavering faith in the redeeming power of the beat. His greatest songs, which included "Maybellene," "Roll Over Beethoven," "Johnny B. Goode" and "Rock and Roll Music," inspired generations of future legends to spread his word. Artists ranging from the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, the Beach Boys, Bruce Springsteen and everyone in between praised his talents, with John Lennon going so far as to say that Berry's name was synonymous with the term "rock and roll" itself. And if Berry's life saw more down periods than up over the course of his five-decade career, he could take consolation in the fact that he had been an integral part of a movement that forever changed the world with two chords and a 4/4 beat. When Chuck Berry died at the age of 90 on March 18, 2017, generations of fans and peers around the globe hailed him as one of rock 'n' roll's first true artists.
Born Charles Edward Anderson Berry in St. Louis, MO on Oct. 18, 1926, Chuck Berry was raised in a middle-class neighborhood by his father, a contractor and deacon at the local Baptist church, and his mother, a school principal. He showed an aptitude for poetry and music at an early age, with the blues and country/hillbilly music holding a particular interest for him. Almost immediately, he began impressing audiences with his talents in both fields, but Berry also possessed a wild streak that often landed him in trouble. While still a student at Sumner High School, he was arrested for armed robbery and car theft, which earned him a stint at a reformatory in Jefferson City. After his release, he married Themetta Suggs, who bore him a daughter in 1950. To support his family, Berry worked at a variety of jobs, including factory work and as a beautician, which provided him with a comically sour perspective on the 9-5 existence that was later heard in such songs as "Too Much Monkey Business."
Berry was also a staple of nightclubs throughout the East St. Louis music scene. He picked up the guitar shortly after winning a talent contest in high school, and studied a wide variety of influences, from blues player T-Bone Walker to pop crooner Nat "King" Cole. In 1954, he began performing with local pianist Johnnie Johnson and his trio, and began adding pop songs, country numbers and even calypso and jazz to their set lists. Berry found that the approach not only appealed to black audiences, but also brought white listeners to the clubs. His ability to cross color lines with his music would be among the greatest accomplishments of his career.
The next step for Berry's career was to cut a record, and in 1955, he headed to Chicago, IL, where a brief conversation with his idol, blues singer Muddy Waters, sent him to Chess Records, one of the predominant R&B and blues labels in the country. Much to Berry's surprise, company head Leonard Chess picked his cover of "Ida Red," an old Western swing number by Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, for his first single. In May of that year, Berry and Johnson recorded a blazing take on the song, retitled "Maybellene," that shot to the top of the Billboard R&B charts. Key to the track's appeal was its rawness - drummer Jasper Thomas pounded a relentless beat for Johnnie Johnson and percussionist Jerome Green to pursue, while Berry wrung out a snarling, white-hot solo for 24 epic bars - but its lyrics, which found a gutsy lyricism in a story of an epic road race - appealed to a vast array of listeners. Its follow-up, "Roll Over Beethoven," followed a similar path while making a passionate stand for the legitimacy of rock and roll as a musical form. By 1956, Berry was touring with DJ Alan Freed's package tours, spreading his gospel of rock and roll to fanatic audiences across the country. On stage, he unleashed one of his most potent and lasting images - the duck walk, a stooped, one-legged hop across stages that was one of the most iconic moves in rock and roll.
From 1957 to 1959, Berry was one of the most dominant figures in popular music, producing a slew of hits that came to define the sound of rock and roll in its infancy. Songs like "Back in the U.S.A.," "Johnny B. Goode," "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" and "School Day" were embraced as the sound of Young America, and critics - no matter their stance on rock and roll - could not dismiss the complex and visually arresting wordplay in Berry's songs. Live appearances led to performances on television and even in films, most notably "Go, Johnny, Go!" (1959), where he co-starred as himself alongside Freed. A shrewd businessman as well as a skilled musician, Berry funneled much of his income into real estate in St. Louis, including an integrated nightclub called Berry's Club Bandstand and the groundwork for Berry Park, an amusement park he opened in 1961.
The flood of success dwindled to a trickle in 1959, when Berry was arrested for allegedly transporting a 14-year-old girl across state lines for immoral purposes. This violation of the Mann Ac resulted in a five-year sentence, which he appealed and bargained down to one and a half years. But the world he returned to in October of 1963 was very different from the one he left in February 1962. Many of the pioneers of rock and roll had fallen from their heights of fame: Elvis Presley had been tamed by the Army and his manager, Colonel Parker, while Jerry Lee Lewis's marriage to his young cousin had undone his career. Buddy Holly was dead, and the bottom had fallen out on R&B artists like Little Richard, Fats Domino and many of Berry's Chess contemporaries. In their place were white artists - young bands from California like the Beach Boys, or from England like the Beatles and Rolling Stones, all of whom paid explicit homage to Berry's music with their own records. The Stones, in particular, were devoted acolytes of Berry, and guitarist Keith Richards would carve a four-decade career from deconstructing his elder's work into a slew of generation-defining songs.
Ever the wise businessman, Berry returned to the studio, figuring that if the new rock and roll audiences loved music that sounded like his work, they would respond to the originator. His gambit worked, and from 1964 to 1965, he enjoyed repeated visits to the Top 20 with "You Never Can Tell," "Nadine" and "No Particular Place to Go." He also toured England, where he was received as a conquering hero. Upon his return to the States, he recorded several unremarkable albums for Mercury before reuniting with Chess in 1972. The label released a live track called "My Ding-A-Ling," a ribald children's tune that, to the surprise of nearly all involved, went to the top of the singles charts. Its unexpected success thrust Berry back into the spotlight again, and for the next decade, he toured incessantly behind his old material, arriving at small clubs and large venues with only his guitar in hand, and backed by whatever local group felt it knew enough of his songs. The result was a reputation for highly erratic live performances, though on occasion, such up-and-coming performers as Bruce Springsteen and Steve Miller would earn their chops by trying to keep up with him.
The end of the 1970s brought Berry's second revival to a close. The Internal Revenue Service accused him of income tax evasion, which sent him back to prison for four months and required him to serve 1,000 hours of community service. There was a flicker of reprieve after his release when, following Berry's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, director Taylor Hackford helmed the documentary/concert film, "Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll" (1986), which examined the impact of Berry's music on popular culture while organizing an all-star lineup to perform with him on his 60th birthday. The film showed that Berry could, when required, still summon up the fire of his old recordings, but also revealed a deeply guarded and wounded man who resented the fame and riches reaped by artists like Keith Richards - who served as the band's music director - who had borrowed directly from his songs. Berry kept the interest in his work alive the following year with the release of his eponymous autobiography, but by the end of the decade, he was making headlines for allegedly recording women in the restroom of his restaurant, The Southern Air, in Missouri. The case cost him $1.2 million in legal fees, and earned a six-month suspended sentence.
The ups and downs of the 1980s served as the pattern by which Berry lived his life for the next three decades. For every honor, like the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1984 and the Kennedy Center Honors in 2000, there were legal woes, including the 2000 lawsuit by former pianist Johnnie Johnson, who alleged that he had co-written over 50 of Berry's songs. Undaunted, Berry continued to tour the States and the world, spreading his half-century-old gospel of rock and roll to new and faithful audiences who were more than willing to forgive the occasional bum note or erratic behavior. In 2011, however, he showed signs that the endless touring might have caught up with him when, during a concert in Chicago, the 84-year-old Berry was taken off stage after collapsing. Berry recorded one final album, Chuck, with a band led by his guitarist son Charles Berry Jr. in 2016, but prior to its release, Chuck Berry was found dead at his home near St. Louis on March 18, 2017. He was 90 years old.
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Took part in Alan Freed's "Biggest Show of Stars for 1957" U.S. tour with the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, and more
Co-starred with Alan Freed in the musical feature "Go, Johnny, Go!"
First live album, Live at Fillmore Auditorium; released by Mercury Records
Returned to Chess Records