Chuck Berry

Summary

Charles Edward Anderson Berry (St. Louis, October 18, 1926 – Wentzville, March 18, 2017), better known as Chuck Berry, was an American singer and songwriter, one of the pioneers of the rock and roll genre. With songs like “Maybellene” (1955), “Roll Over Beethoven” (1956), “Rock and Roll Music” (1957), and “Johnny B. Goode” (1958), Berry refined and developed rhythm and blues into the main elements that made rock and roll distinctive. Writing lyrics focused on teenage life and consumerism, and developing a musical style that included guitar solos and spectacle, Berry became a major influence on subsequent rock music.

Born into a middle-class African-American family in St. Louis, Missouri, Berry had an early interest in music and made his first public performance at Sumner High School. While still a high school student, he was convicted of armed robbery and was sent to reform school, where he stayed from 1944 to 1947. After his release, Berry married and worked in an automobile assembly plant. In early 1953, influenced by the guitar riffs and showmanship techniques of bluesman T-Bone Walker, Berry began performing with the Johnnie Johnson Trio. His breakthrough 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 number one on Billboard magazine’s rhythm and blues chart. By the late 1950s, Berry was an established star, with several successful albums and film appearances and a lucrative touring career. He also established his own nightclub in St. Louis, Berry’s Club Bandstand. However, he was sentenced to three years in prison in January 1962 for offenses under the Mann Act – he had transported a fourteen-year-old girl across the state. After his release in 1963, he had several other hits, including “No Particular Place to Go,” “You Never Can Tell,” and “Nadine.” But these did not achieve the same success, or lasting impact, as his 1950 songs, and by the 1970s he was more in demand as a nostalgic artist, playing his past hits with local backing bands of varying quality. In 1972, however, he reached a new level of popularity when a version of “My Ding-a-Ling” became his only record at the top of the charts. His insistence on being paid in cash got him four months in jail and community service in 1979 for tax evasion.

Berry was one of the first musicians to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at his 1986 debut; he was cited for having “laid the foundation for not just a rock and roll sound, but for rock and roll attitude.” Berry is included on several of Rolling Stone magazine’s “greatest of all time” lists; he ranked fifth on the 2004 and 2011 lists of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s list of 500 songs that shaped rock and roll include three by Berry: “Johnny B. Goode,” “Maybellene,” and “Rock and Roll Music.” Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” is the only rock and roll song included on the Voyager Golden Record. He was dubbed by the National Broadcasting Company as the “Father of Rock and Roll”.

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 people lived. His father, Henry William Berry (his mother, Martha Bell (Banks) (1894-1980), was a certified public school principal. Berry’s education allowed him to pursue his interest in music at an early age. He made his first public performance in 1941, while still a student at Sumner High School; he was still a student in 1944, when he was arrested for armed robbery after robbing three stores in Kansas City, and stealing a car with some friends. Berry’s account in his autobiography is that his car broke down and he robbed a passing car with a toy gun. He was convicted and sent to the Intermediate Reformatory for Boys in Algoa, near Jefferson City, Missouri, where he formed a singing quartet and boxed. The singing group became competent enough that the authorities allowed them to perform outside the detention center.

On October 28, 1948, Berry married Themetta “Toddy” Suggs, who gave birth to Darlin Ingrid Berry on October 3, 1950. Berry helped his family by taking on several jobs in St. Louis, working briefly as a laborer in two automobile assembly plants and as a janitor in the building where he and his wife lived. After that, he trained as a beautician at the Poro College of Cosmetology, founded by Annie Turnbo Malone. He was doing well enough in 1950 to buy a “small three-room brick house with bathroom” on Whittier Street, which is now listed as the Chuck Berry House on the National Register of Historic Places.

In the early 1950s, Berry was working with local bands in clubs in St. Louis as an extra source of income. He had been playing the blues since he was a teenager and was inspired by the guitar riffs and showmanship techniques of bluesman T-Bone Walker. He also took guitar lessons from his friend Ira Harris, who laid the foundation for his style as a guitarist.

In early 1953, Berry was performing with the Johnnie Johnson trio, beginning a long-standing collaboration with the pianist. The band played mostly blues and ballads, but the most popular music among white people in the area was country. Berry wrote, “Curiosity provoked me to put a lot of our country stuff on our predominantly black audience and some of our black fans started whispering ‘who’s that black redneck in Cosmo?’ After they laughed at me a few times they started asking for the redneck stuff and enjoyed dancing.”

Berry’s calculated performance, along with a mix of country and R&B, sung in the style of Nat King Cole, with the music of Muddy Waters, brought in a wider audience, particularly wealthy white people.

1955-1962: Signing with Chess Records: “Maybellene” for “Come On

In May 1955, Berry traveled to Chicago, where he met Muddy Waters, who suggested that he seek out Leonard Chess of Chess Records. Berry thought his blues would interest Chess, but Chess was a big fan of Berry’s version of “Ida Red”. On May 21, 1955, Berry recorded an adaptation of the song “Ida Red” under the title “Maybellene,” with Johnnie Johnson on piano, Jerome Green (from Bo Diddley’s band) on maracas, Ebby Hardy on drums, and Willie Dixon on bass. “Maybellene “sold over a million copies, reaching number one on Billboard magazine’s rhythm and blues chart and number five on the Best Sellers in Stores chart on September 10, 1955. Berry said, “It came out at the right time, when African-American music was spreading into the pop mainstream.”

When Berry first saw a copy of the Maybellene record, he was surprised to see that two other individuals, including DJ Alan Freed, had received credit for writing; this would entitle them to some of the royalties. After a court battle, Berry was able to recover all of the writer’s credit.

In late June 1956, his song “Roll Over Beethoven” reached #29 on the Billboard Top 100 chart, and Berry went on tour as one of the “Most Popular Acts of ’56.” He and Carl Perkins became friends. Perkins said that “I knew when I first heard Chuck that he had been affected by country music. I respected his writing; his records were very, very good.” In late 1957, Berry participated in Alan Freed’s “Biggest Show of Stars of 1957,” touring the United States with the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly and others. He was a guest on ABC’s Guy Mitchell Show, singing his hit “Rock and Roll Music.” The hits continued from 1957 to 1959, with Berry scoring more than a dozen singles on the charts 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: Rock Rock Rock (1956), in which he sang “You Can’t Catch Me”, and Go, Johnny, Go! (1959), in which he acted as himself and performed “Johnny B. Goode”, “Memphis, Tennessee” and “Little Queenie”. His performance of “Sweet Little Sixteen” at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958 was captured in the film Jazz on a Summer’s Day.

The opening guitar riff of “Johnny B. Goode” is strikingly similar to that used by Louis Jordan in his hit Ain’t That Just Like a Woman (1946). Berry acknowledged a debt to Jordan and several sources indicated that his work was influenced by Jordan in general.

By the late 1950s, Berry was an established high-profile star with several hit records and film appearances and a lucrative touring career. He opened a racially integrated St. Louis nightclub, Berry’s Club Bandstand, and invested in real estate. But in December 1959, he was arrested under the Mann Act following allegations that he had sex with a 14-year-old Apache waitress, Janice Escalante, whom he transported across state lines to work as an attendant in his club. After a two-week trial in March 1960, he was convicted, fined $5,000, and sentenced to five years in prison. He appealed the decision, arguing that the judge’s comments and attitudes were racist and prejudiced the jury. The appeal was upheld, and a second trial was heard in May and June 1961, resulting in another conviction and a three-year prison sentence. After another appeal failed, Berry served a year and a half in prison, from February 1962 to October 1963. He continued to record and perform during his trials, but his output declined as his popularity waned; his last single released before his arrest was “Come On.”

1963-1969: “Nadine” and move to Mercury

When Berry was released from prison in 1963, his return to recording and performing was made easier because invading British bands-notably the Beatles and the Rolling Stones-kept interest in his music by releasing cover versions of his songs, and other bands reworked some of them, such as the Beach Boys’ 1963 hit “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” which used the melody from Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen.” In 1964 and 1965 Berry released eight singles, including three that were commercially successful, reaching the top 20 on the Billboard 100: “No Particular Place to Go” (a humorous reworking of “School Days,” about the introduction of seat belts in cars), “You Never Can Tell,” and the rock song “Nadine.” Between 1966 and 1969, Berry released five albums for Mercury Records, including his second live album (for the live album, he was backed by the Steve Miller Band.

Although this period was not a success for studio work, Berry was still a major concert attraction. In May 1964, he toured the UK successfully, but when he returned in January 1965, his behavior was erratic and temperamental, and his touring style of using unrehearsed local backing bands and a strict non-negotiable contract was earning him a reputation as a difficult and uninteresting performer. He also played major events in North America, such as the Schaefer Music Festival in New York’s Central Park in July 1969, and the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival festival in October.

1970-1979: Back to chess:

1970-1979: Back to Chess: “My Ding-a-Ling” Concert at the White House

Berry returned to Chess from 1970 to 1973. There were no hit singles from the 1970 album Back Home, but in 1972 Chess released a live recording of “My Ding-a-Ling,” a new song he recorded in a different version as “My Tambourine” on his 1968 LP From St. Louie to Frisco. The track became his only number one single. A live recording of “Reelin’ and Rockin'”, released as a follow-up single the same year, was his last Top 40 hit in the US and UK. Both singles were included on the album part live and part studio The London Chuck Berry Sessions (other albums from the London sessions were recorded by Chess’ main 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 album until Rockit for Atco Records in 1979, which would be his last studio album in 38 years.

In the 1970s, Berry toured based on his previous 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 wherever he went. AllMusic said that in this period his “live performances became increasingly erratic, … working with terrible backing bands and turning into clumsy, out-of-tune performances” that “tarnished his reputation with younger and older fans.” In March 1972, he was filmed, at the BBC Television Theatre in Shepherds Bush, for Chuck Berry in Concert, part of a 60-date tour supported by the band Rocking Horse. Among the many bandleaders playing a backup role with Berry in the 1970s were Bruce Springsteen and Steve Miller when each was just beginning his career. Springsteen reported in the documentary Hail! Salute! Rock ‘n’ Roll that Berry did not give the band a set list and expected the musicians to follow his lead after each guitar introduction. Berry did not speak to the band after the show. However, Springsteen supported Berry again when he appeared at the show for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995. At Jimmy Carter’s request, Berry performed at the White House on June 1, 1979.

Berry’s touring style, traveling the “oldies” circuit in the 1970s (often being paid cash by local promoters) added ammunition to Internal Revenue Service charges that Berry had avoided paying income tax. Facing criminal sanction for the third time, Berry pleaded guilty to evading nearly $110,000 in federal income tax due on his 1973 earnings. Newspaper reports in 1979 put his combined 1973 income (with his wife) at $374,982. He was sentenced to four months in prison and 1,000 hours of community service – performing benefit concerts – in 1979.

1980-2017: Last Years on the Road

Berry continued to play 70 to 100 nights a 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, Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll from a concert celebrating Berry’s sixtieth birthday, organized by Keith Richards. Eric Clapton, Etta James, Julian Lennon, Robert Cray, and Linda Ronstadt, among others, appeared with Berry on stage and in the film. During the concert, Berry played a Gibson ES-355, the luxury version of the ES-335 that he favored on his tours in the 1970s. Richards played a black Fender Telecaster Custom, Cray a Fender Stratocaster, and Clapton a Gibson ES 350T, the same model Berry used on his early recordings.

In the late 1980s, Berry bought Southern Air, a restaurant in Wentzville, Missouri.

In November 2000, Berry faced legal issues when he was sued by his former pianist Johnnie Johnson, who claimed to have co-written over 50 songs, including “No Particular Place to Go”, “Sweet Little Sixteen” and “Roll Over Beethoven” , this one credited only to Berry. The case was dismissed when the judge ruled that too much time had passed since the songs were written.

In 2008 Berry toured Europe, with stops in Sweden, Norway, Finland, the UK, the Netherlands, Ireland, Switzerland, Poland, and Spain. In mid-2008, he played the Virgin Festival in Baltimore. During a 2011 New Year’s Day show in Chicago, Berry, suffering from exhaustion, collapsed and had to be helped off the stage.

Berry lived in Ladue, Missouri, approximately 10 miles (16 km) west of St. Louis. He also had a house in “Berry Park” near Wentzville, Missouri, where he lived part-time from the 1950s and was the house in which he died. This house, with its guitar-shaped swimming pool, is seen in scenes near the end of the movie “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll.” He performed regularly one Wednesday a month at Blueberry Hill, a restaurant and bar located in the Delmar Loop neighborhood of St. Louis, from 1996 to 2014.

Berry announced on his 90th birthday that his first new studio album since Rockit in 1979, titled Chuck, would be released in 2017. His first new album in 38 years, includes his children, Charles Berry Jr. and Ingrid, on guitar and harmonica , with songs “covering the spectrum from dogged rockers to moving and thought-provoking time capsules of a life’s work” and dedicated to his beloved wife of 68 years, Toddy.

In 1987, Berry was accused of assaulting a woman at the Gramercy Park Hotel in New York City. He was accused of causing “lacerations to the mouth, requiring five stitches, two loose teeth bruising the face.” He pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of harassment and paid a $250 fine. In 1990, he was sued by several women who alleged that he had installed a video camera in the bathroom of his restaurant. Berry claimed that he installed the camera to capture a worker who was suspected of stealing from the restaurant. Although his guilt was never proven in court, Berry opted for a class action settlement. One of his biographers, Bruce Pegg, estimated that with 59 women it cost Berry more than $1.2 million plus legal fees. His lawyers said he was the victim of a conspiracy to profit from his wealth. During this time, Berry began using Wayne T. Schoeneberg as his attorney. Allegedly, a police raid on his home found intimate videotapes of women, one of whom was apparently a minor. Also found in the operation were 62 grams of marijuana. Criminal charges of drug and child abuse were filed. Since the child abuse charges were dropped, Berry agreed to plead guilty to misdemeanor charges of carrying marijuana. He was sentenced to six months of suspended prison, two years of unsupervised probation, and was required to donate $5,000 to a local hospital. Later, the videos Berry recorded of himself urinating on a woman and another of her defecating on him would surface.

On March 18, 2017, police from Saint Charles County, Missouri, were called to Berry’s home near Wentzville, where he was found unconscious. He was pronounced dead at the scene, at the age of 90, by his personal physician. TMZ has posted an audio recording on its website in which the police on-call operator can be heard responding to a “cardiac arrest” call at Berry’s home.

Berry’s funeral was held on April 9, 2017, at The Pageant in Berry’s hometown of St. Louis, Missouri. He was remembered with a public service by family, friends, and fans at The Pageant, a music club where he often performed, with his cherry-red guitar attached to the inside lid of the casket and with flower arrangements that included one sent by the Rolling Stones in the shape of a guitar. A private wake was later held at the club, celebrating Berry’s life and musical career, with the Berry family inviting 300 members to the ceremony. Gene Simmons of the band Kiss gave an impromptu and unpublicized eulogy during the ceremony, while Little Richard was scheduled to lead the funeral procession, but was unable to attend due to his health condition. The night before, many St. Louis area bars held a mass toast at 10 p.m. in honor of Berry.

One of Berry’s lawyers estimated that his estate was worth $50 million, including $17 million in royalties. Berry’s music publishing accounted for $13 million of the estate’s value. Berry’s estate owned approximately half of his songwriting credits, while BMG Rights Management controlled the other half; Most of Berry’s recordings are currently owned by Universal Music Group. In September 2017, the Dualtone label, which released Berry’s last album, Chuck, agreed to publish all of his compositions in the United States.

A pioneer of rock and roll, Berry was a significant influence on the development of 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), Berry refined and developed rhythm and blues with elements that made rock and roll distinctive, with lyrics intended to appeal to the early teenage market using graphic and humorous descriptions of teenage dancing, fast cars, school life, and consumer culture, and using guitar solos and stage performances that would be quite influential in subsequent rock music. Thus Berry, the songwriter, according to critic Jon Pareles, invented rock music as “a song of teenage wishes fulfilled and good times (even with cops in pursuit).” Berry contributed three things to rock music: an irresistible arrogance, a focus on the guitar riff as the primary melodic element, and an emphasis on composition as narrative. His records are a rich storehouse of essential lyrical, theatrical, and musical components of rock and roll. In addition to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, a large number of important popular musicians have recorded Berry’s songs. Although not technically accomplished, his guitar style is distinctive – he incorporated electronic effects to mimic the sound of blues guitarists and drew inspiration from guitarists such as Carl Hogan and T-Bone Walker to produce a clear, exciting sound that many later guitarists would recognize as an influence on their own style. Berry’s stage performance influenced other rock guitarists, particularly his one-legged hop routine, which he first used as a child when he walked “bent over with his knees fully bent” but with his back and head upright “under a table to catch a ball and his family found it amusing; he used it when he “performed in New York for the first time and some journalists labeled it the “duck walk.”

On July 29, 2011, Berry was honored at the dedication of an 8-foot moving statue of Chuck Berry in the Delmar Loop in St. Louis, across the street from Blue Berry Hill. He said, “It’s glorious – I appreciate it the most, no doubt. That kind of honor is rarely bestowed. But I don’t deserve it.”

Rock critic Robert Christgau considers Berry “the greatest of rock and roll,” and John Lennon said, “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you could call it ‘Chuck Berry. Ted Nugent said, “If you don’t know all the licks of Chuck Berry, you can’t play rock guitar.” Bob Dylan called Berry “the Shakespeare of rock ‘n’ roll”. Bruce Springsteen wrote, “Chuck Berry was the greatest rock practitioner, guitarist, and the greatest writer of pure rock ‘n’ roll that ever lived.”

Among the honors Berry has received were the Grammy Award for Contribution to Life in 1984 He was ranked seventh on Time magazine’s 2009 list of the 10 best guitarists of all time. On May 14, 2002, Berry was honored as one of the first icons of Broadcast Music, Inc. at the fiftieth annual BMI Pop Awards. He received the award along with BMI affiliates Bo Diddley and Little Richard. In August 2014, Berry was the recipient of the Polar Music Prize.

Berry is included in several of Rolling Stone magazine’s “greatest of all time” lists. In September 2003, the magazine ranked him sixth on its list of the “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time”. In November, his compilation album The Great Twenty-Eight was ranked 21st in the “500 greatest albums of all time.” In March 2004, Berry was ranked fifth on “the immortals – the 100 greatest artists of all time” list. In December 2004, six of his songs were included in the “500 greatest songs of all time”: “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” was ranked first in the “100 best guitar songs of all time”.

Journalist Chuck Klosterman has argued that in 300 years Berry will still be remembered as the rock musician who most closely captured the essence of rock and roll. Time magazine stated, “There was no one like Elvis. But there was ‘definitely’ no one like Chuck Berry. Rolling Stone magazine called him “the father of rock & roll” who “gave the music its sound and its attitude, even while fighting racism – and his own crimes – all the way through,” reporting that Leonard Cohen said,” We are all footnotes to Chuck Berry’s words.” Kevin Strait, curator of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., said Berry is “one of the major sonic architects of rock and roll.”

On June 25, 2019, The New York Times magazine listed Chuck Berry among hundreds of artists whose material was allegedly destroyed in the 2008 Universal Studios fire.

According to Cleveland.com, “Chuck Berry didn’t invent rock and roll all by himself. But he was the man who took the rhythm and blues and turned them into a new genre that would change popular music. Songs like “Maybellene,” “Johnny B. Goode,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” and “Rock and Roll Music” would show the main elements of what rock and roll would become. The sound, the format and the style were built on the music created by Berry. To some extent, all who followed him were imitators.”

Studio Albums

Sources

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  2. Chuck Berry
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