Rock & Roll Icon, Chuck Berry


Chuck Berry
Date: 
Mon, 1926-10-18

On this date in 1926, Chuck Berry was born. He was an African American Rock & Roll musician and songwriter.

Charles "Chuck" Edward Berry was born in San Jose, California, and grew up in St. Louis. In the early 1950s, Berry led a popular blues trio at night and worked as a beautician by day. He made friends with Muddy Waters, who introduced him to Leonard Chess, head of Chicago-based Chess Records. It was the song on his audition tape called "Ida Red" that won the record company"Maybellene."

Released on August 20, 1955, Maybellene went to Number 5 in Billboard and established Berry as a black artist who successfully crossed over to the white pop charts. He made the transition when many other deserving and talented black artists in the 50s didn’t, and theories as to why are multiple. His fame had a lot to do with his knack for language. Berry offered persuasive statements to the experience of being a teenager in the changing world of the 50s. He explained the boredom of classroom-bound students in "School Days" ("Soon as three o'clock rolls around/You finally lay your burden down").

He described the liberating appeal of rock and roll itself in "Rock and Roll Music" ("It's got a backbeat, you can't lose it"). In his own words, “Everything I wrote about wasn't about me, but about the people listening.” Berry gave rock and roll a classic character in "Johnny B. Goode" and was responsible for one of its most recognizable stage moves, his "duckwalk.” All the while, his catalog, hits and lesser-known songs like "Little Queenie" and "Let It Rock," were being mastered by eager wannabes on the other side of the ocean--Keith Richards, John Lennon, and others. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and many other British Invasion acts covered Chuck Berry at a time when the master himself was locked up for two years in prison on what now appear to be trumped-up charges.

Released in 1964, Berry released "No Particular Place to Go," "You Never Can Tell," and "Promised Land." All the while, even groups like the Beach Boys plundered Berry for inspiration. Their 1963 hit "Surfin' U.S.A." so deliberately copied the melody and rhythm of Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen" that he sued and won a songwriting credit. Ironically, Berry got his one and only Number 1 hit, "My Ding-a-Ling," a risqué novelty song he'd long been performing in adult nightclubs in 1972. By this time, his music had grown so well established that on tour he preferred to recruit pickup musicians in each new town.

In 1979, Berry headed back to prison, this time for income tax evasion. Upon release this time, he appeared as himself in the film "American Hot Wax," and was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but he refused to record. In addition, his live performances became increasingly erratic. In 1987, he published his first book, "Chuck Berry: The Autobiography," and the same year saw the film release of "Hail! Hail! Rock'n'Roll."

For all of his offstage exploits and seemingly ongoing troubles with the law, Chuck Berry remains the embodiment of Rock & Roll, and his music will endure. Chuck Berry died on March 18th 2017.

Reference:
ACSAP Biographical Dictionary
R. R. Bowker Co., Copyright 1980
ISBN 0-8351-1283-1

Heart & Soul
A Celebration of Black Music Style in America, 1930-1975
by Merlis Davin Seay, Foreword by Etta James
Copyright 2002, Billboard Books
ISBN 0-8230-8314-4

To Become a Musician or Singer

Person / name: 

Berry, Chuck