"If you tried to give rock 'n roll another name, you might call it 'Chuck Berry'."
- John Lennon
To millions of Baby Boomers and countless musicians, Chuck Berry is the epitome and father of rock 'n roll. Much as jazz musicians have been influenced by Louis Armstrong, rock 'n roll bands and soloists from the Beatles and Elvis to this day, have been influenced by Berry's music.
Berry burst onto the music scene with the across-the-board appeal of his high-energy, get-down-on-it, rockabilly-style "Maybellene," in 1955. The song reached No. 1 on Billboard's R & B chart and No. 5 on the Hot 100.
For the song to gain a widespread audience, Berry had to "give away the farm." Alan Freed, probably the most influential disc jockey in New York City, played "Maybellene" for two straight hours — only Freed could get away with that — and the tune sold more than a million copies. But to do that, Freed insisted on the song's copyright, which cut into Berry's paycheck.
As it frequently happens in the music business, though, some talent goes from being "Can't Miss Phenoms" to "One-Hit Wonders," virtually overnight. That was nearly the case with Berry.
The early years
Chuck was born in October 1926, to a fairly prosperous black family in a north St. Louis, Missouri, neighborhood known as The Ville. His father, Henry, was a contractor. His mother, Martha, was a teacher.
Chuck attended Sumner High, the first black high school west of the Mississippi. Other noted alumni of Sumner are tennis player Arthur Ashe, comedian Dick Gregory, actor Robert Guillaume, and singers Bobby McFarrin and Tina Turner.
It was at Sumner in 1941 that 15-year-old Chuck got his feet wet in the performing arts. He sang Jay McShann's "Confessin' the Blues" in a talent show, to rave reviews.
But the innocence of youth gave way to the brash cockiness of a 17-year-old, when he and two buddies were arrested and convicted on charges of armed robbery while on a cross-state joyride to Kansas City, Missouri. Berry served three years at the state Reformatory, and joined a gospel group while incarcerated.
Upon his release on his 21st birthday, Berry took a number of jobs to support his new wife, Themetta, including working on an Fisher Body assembly line, freelancing as a photographer, training to be a hairdresser, and assisting his father, before launching his music career.
Berry's first big break was an invitation to join a small combo for a New Year's Eve gig in 1952. Between the Blues and the R & B menu and Berry's hillbilly showmanship, the band earned a place among St. Louis's elite groups, such as those led by Ike Turner and Albert King.
Mr. Berry goes to Chicago
Berry capitalized on the band's popularity to wangle a meeting with legendary amplified-blues musician, Muddy Waters, in Chicago. Waters liked what he heard and suggested that Berry get in touch with Leonard Chess, of Chess Records, and Willie Dixon, Chess's producer. The band, with Dixon added on bass, recorded "Maybellene." Berry and his group were off an' runnin' — or so it seemed.
The feeding frenzy for more rockabilly music was on! However, Berry probably rushed some of his music into publication before polishing and tweaking the tunes to fit the crossover-style between R & B and Rockabilly. With the exception of the hit, "Roll Over Beethoven" (No. 29 on the Hot 100) in May 1956, Berry's efforts included the unremembered "No Money Down" and "You Can't Catch Me," among others. Even the movie Rock, Rock, Rock couldn't help. Berry was hanging on by his fingernails. And then came his stage signature — his now-famous "Duck Walk," which first appeared during a performance that year, to help hide the wrinkles in his rayon suit.
Berry's breakthrough year was 1957. Berry rolled out "School Days," which propelled him to 240 bookings for the year. The snowball was heading downhill. Berry followed up his new hit with "Oh Baby Doll," which reached No. 57, and "Rock and Roll Music," breaking into the Top-10 at No. 8. Along with Freed, he produced another movie, Mr. Rock and Roll.
During a whirlwind concert tour of 75 cities in 75 days that year, Berry met and befriended a young Buddy Holly.
Between gigs, Berry opened an integrated nightspot, Club Bandstand, in a predominately white neighborhood that once was the heart of the St. Louis theater district of the early 1900s. That brazen attempt at desegregation raised the local authorities' hackles and would lead to trouble in a few years.
In 1958, Berry released "Sweet Little Sixteen" (No. 2), "Johnny B. Goode" (No. 8), "Carol" (No. 10), "Sweet Little Rock and Roller" (No. 47), and "Merry Christmas Baby" (No. 71). He toured briefly with Holly and another youngster, Jerry Lee Lewis, on the Freed-promoted "Big Beat" tour. During one concert in Boston, while Berry was on stage, fights broke out in the audience. Freed was jailed for inciting a riot, but the scene supplied the inspiration for the 1978 movie, American Hot Wax.
For Berry, "Anthony Boy" (No. 60), "Almost Grown"(No. 32), and "Back in the USA" (No. 37) continued the hit parade in 1959. Movie No. 3, Go, Johnny, Go, featured Berry in an extended speaking part.
A speed bump on the way to success occurred late in the year. Berry met a young Native woman in El Paso, Texas, who became his hat-check girl back in St. Louis. He was found guilty of transporting a woman across state lines for immoral purposes, after she allegedly set herself up as a prostitute at the motel in which she was staying. Berry was sentenced to three years in jail and a $10,000 fine.
In February of 1962, Berry began to serve his time and was released after serving 18 months. In the meantime, the Beach Boys were rising on the charts, thanks to their version of Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen," which they renamed "Surfin USA;" the Beatles rode remakes of "Roll Over Beethoven" and "Rock and Roll Music" to the top; and the Rolling Stones copied "Carol," "I'm Talkin' About You," and "You Can't Catch Me."
During his time inside, Berry wasn't idle. He created six singles that would be released from February 1964 to March 1965. They included Top-100 songs "Nadine" (No. 23), "Promised Land" (41), "No Particular Place to Go" (10), and "You Can Never Tell" (14). Unfortunately, the ride was nearing the end. "Dear Dad" (95) marked the last of Berry's hits for seven years.
The trouble started when Berry jumped to a larger producer, Mercury Records. Mercury had such a large clientele that they didn't have to jump through hoops to appease him. In addition, the music on the American scene was changing, due in large part to the war in Vietnam.
It was a long and sobering drought for Berry, but his fortunes were about to take an uptick. He re-signed with his old company, Chess. Even though they were going corporate, they managed to pump some life back into Berry's career with "Tulane" and "Have Mercy Judge."
Berry made one final push for music immortality with his only No. 1 song, a silly little remake of his own 1968 song, "My Tamberine," called "My Ding-A-Ling." In a bit of irony, it kept his rival Elvis's tune, "Burning Love," at No. 2.
As his career was coming to an end, Berry's live version from a session in London, "Reelin' and Rockin'," made No. 27.
Berry's induction into the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, is a fitting tribute to the man who made one of the most significant impacts on the genre, and made the Hall possible. The 1987 release of his autobiography and accompanying movie Hail, Hail, Rock and Roll, are a "must-read" and "must-see" for any rock'n rock fan.