Biography of Chuck Berry, Rock and Roll Pioneer

Chuck Berry
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Charles Edward Anderson Berry (October 18, 1926 - March 18, 2017) was an American rock and roll musician. As one of the most distinguished pioneers of the sound, he put together elements from R&B and country music to form a new genre that influenced decades of popular music.

Fast Facts: Chuck Berry

  • Full Name: Charles Edward Anderson Berry
  • Occupation: Musician
  • Known For: Pioneering Rock and Roll Music
  • Born: October 18, 1926, in St. Louis, Missouri
  • Died: March 18, 2017, in Wentzville, Missouri
  • Spouse: Themetta Suggs (m. 1948-2017)
  • Children: Ingrid, Aloha, Charles Jr., and Melody Exes
  • Selected Works: "Maybellene" (1955), "Roll Over Beethoven" (1956), "Johnny B. Goode" (1957)
  • Top Achievements: One of the first artists inducted into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He also received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1984 and the Kennedy Center Honors in 2000.
  • Notable Quote: "Don't let the same dog bite you twice."

Early Life and Career

Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Chuck Berry grew up in a middle-class neighborhood called the Ville. His mother was a public school principal, and his father was a building contractor. Berry began playing music at an early age. He performed in public for the first time in 1941 as a student at Sumner High School. He sang Jay McShann's "Confessin' the Blues" for a talent show. Blues was still considered unsophisticated music, and his performance scandalized the faculty of the high school, but Berry's fellow students loved it.

After an arrest for armed robbery in 1944, Chuck Berry spent three years in the Intermediate Reformatory for Young Men in Algoa, Missouri. There he formed a vocal quartet that exhibited enough talent that they were allowed to play outside of the reformatory.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Berry worked a variety of jobs, including factory assembly lines and as a janitor. He continued to pursue music and started performing with pianist Johnnie Johnson in 1953. The band played blues and ballads as well as country songs that were popular at the time.

chuck berry johnnie johnson
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Rock and Roll on Chess Records

In 1955, Chuck Berry traveled to Chicago and met blues legend Muddy Waters. His new friend suggested that Berry meet Leonard Chess of Chess Records. The legendary music executive expressed interest in a country fiddle song called "Ida Red," originally recorded by Bob Wills. In May 1955, Chuck Berry recorded his adaptation titled "Maybellene." The song was a hit, selling over a million copies, and reached #5 on the mainstream pop chart.

In 1956, Berry hit the charts with another classic "Roll Over Beethoven." He met Carl Perkins, another rock and roll pioneer influenced by country music, and they became close friends. They shared a love for artists like Bill Monroe and Jimmie Rodgers.

chuck berry
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The rest of the decade from 1957 through 1959 was a golden era for Chuck Berry. His songs, "Rock and Roll Music," "Sweet Little Sixteen," and "Johnny B. Goode," were all top 10 hits. Berry was one of the first black rock and roll artists to become a major star with white audiences. He appeared in two rock and roll movies, 1956's Rock Rock Rock and 1959's Go, Johnny, Go!

1960s

The 1960s were a difficult decade for Berry. Authorities arrested him in December 1959 under accusations of having sexual relations with a 14-year-oldĀ girl and taking her across state lines. After two trials and two appeals, he served 18 months in prison during 1962 and 1963. While on trial, Berry continued to record new music, but his popularity faded.

chuck berry
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The success of the Beach Boys' rewrite of "Sweet Little Sixteen" as "Surfin' USA" in 1963 and the devotion of British invasion groups like the Beatles and Rolling Stones to Berry's classic songs rekindled public interest. A new round of singles included the classics "No Particular Place to Go" and "You Never Can Tell." Despite the brief resurgence, Berry's popularity faded once again in the latter half of the decade.

1970s Comeback

Chuck Berry returned to Chess Records in 1970. In 1972, he released a live recording of the novelty song, "My Ding-a-Ling." Filled with sexual innuendo, the song became Berry's only #1 pop hit single. With the success of the single, his album "The London Chuck Berry Sessions" hit #1 on the album chart. Buoyed by the commercial success, he toured extensively in the first half of the 1970s.

Later in the decade, Chuck Berry toured on the "oldies" circuit as his commercial recording success faded. The 1979 album "Rockit" earned critical praise, but it failed to sell well. It was Berry's last studio album for 38 years. In June 1979, he performed at the White House at the request of President Jimmy Carter.

Later Years

Berry continued to perform live regularly throughout the 1980s. The Rolling Stones' guitarist Keith Richards organized a legendary pair of concerts in St. Louis to celebrate Chuck Berry's 60th birthday in 1986. Director Taylor Hackford created a documentary film titled Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll to commemorate the event. Eric Clapton and Linda Ronstadt also performed in the concerts.

Living in the St. Louis suburbs, Chuck Berry performed shows one Wednesday a month at the Blueberry Hill club in the city from 1996 through 2014. As part of the celebration of his 90th birthday in 2017, Berry announced the upcoming release of "Chuck," his first new studio album in 38 years. He didn't live to see the release. He died of cardiac arrest on March 18, 2017, and the new album appeared in June.

chuck berry
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Legacy

Chuck Berry's music was a significant influence on almost every important rock artist of the 60s, 70s, and beyond. He centered his music on the guitar and blended influences from both R&B and country music into something new. His descriptions of fast cars, dancing, and teen life in lyrics expanded beyond the typical love songs in mainstream pop and became common themes in rock and roll.

The Beatles recorded cover versions of "Rock and Roll Music," "Roll Over Beethoven," and "Memphis." The Rolling Stones covered multiple Chuck Berry songs. In 1976, the Beach Boys took Chuck Berry's song "Rock and Roll Music" into the pop top 10. An eight-minute reworking of "Roll Over Beethoven" including material from Beethoven's symphonies launched Electric Light Orchestra onto the pop charts in the U.S. in 1973.

Chuck Berry's showmanship, including his trademark "duck walk" while playing the guitar, influenced generations of performers, from R&B's James Brown to guitarists like the Rolling Stones' Keith Richards. Berry said he first did the duck walk as a child when he stooped with bended knees and walked under a table with his back and head upright to retrieve a ball.

In 1977, NASA chose Chuck Berry's recording of "Johnny B. Goode" as one of four songs included on the Golden Record aboard the Voyager 1 spacecraft. It was intended to represent the diversity of human life to any other extraterrestrial life that may find the spacecraft.

Berry earned a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award in 1984. He was one of the first musicians inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. Rolling Stone named him one of the top five recording artists of all time, and he received the Kennedy Center Honors in 2000.

Sources

  • Berry, Chuck. Chuck Berry: The Autobiography. Harmony Books, 1989.
  • Pegg, Bruce. Brown Eyed Handsome Man: The Life and Hard Times of Chuck Berry. Routledge, 2002.