Charles Edward Anderson "Chuck" Berry (born October 18 1926 in St. Louis, Missouri) is an American guitarist, singer and songwriter.
Chuck Berry is an influential figure and one of the pioneers of rock and roll music. According to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's website, "While no individual can be said to have invented rock and roll, Chuck Berry comes the closest of any single figure to being the one who put all the essential pieces together. Cub Koda wrote, "Of all the early breakthrough rock & roll artists, none is more important to the development of the music than Chuck Berry. He is the first and one of its greatest early songwriters and guitarists, the main shaper of its instrumental voice and one of its greatest performers. John Lennon was more succinct: "If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it 'Chuck Berry'.
Berry was among the first musicians to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on its opening in 1986. He received Kennedy Center Honors in 2000 in a "class" with Mikhail Baryshnikov, Plácido Domingo, Angela Lansbury, and Clint Eastwood. In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked Chuck Berry #5 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. He was also ranked 6th on Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame included three of Chuck Berry's songs (Johnny B. Goode, Maybellene, Rock & Roll Music), of the 500 songs that shaped Rock and Roll.
Early life, and first arrest and conviction (1926-1947)
Born in St. Louis, Missouri
Berry was the third 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 St. Louis blacks lived at the time. His father was a contractor and a deacon of a nearby Baptist
church, his mother a qualified principal. His middle class
upbringing allowed him to pursue his interest in music from an early age and he made his first public performance while still at Sumner High School
In 1944, before he could graduate, he was arrested and convicted of armed robbery after taking a joy ride with his friends to Kansas City, Missouri. In his 1987 autobiography, Chuck Berry: The Autobiography, he retells the story that his car broke down on the side of a highway and, not having a way home, flagged down a passing car. Berry attempted to commandeer the man's car at gunpoint with a non functional pistol. The carjacked man called the police from a nearby pay phone who quickly pulled over Berry in the car and arrested him and his friends. Berry was released from the Intermediate Reformatory for Young Men at Algoa, near Jefferson City, Missouri on his 21st birthday in 1947.
Early career (1948-1955)
Chuck Berry had been playing the blues
since his teens and according to the 1987 Taylor Hackford
film "Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll,", and used both guitar riffs and grandstanding done earlier by jump blues player T. Bone Walker
. By early 1953 Berry was performing with the Johnnie Johnson Trio, a band that played at a popular club called The Cosmopolitan, in East St. Louis, Illinois
and whose namesake would become Berry's long-time collaborator. Although the band played mostly blues and ballads, the most popular music among whites in the area was hillbilly. Berry wrote, "Curiosity provoked me to lay a lot of our country stuff on our predominantly black audience and some of our black audience began whispering 'who is that black hillbilly at the Cosmo?' After they laughed at me a few times they began requesting the hillbilly stuff and enjoyed dancing to it."
Berry's calculated showmanship began luring larger white audiences to the club. He also began singing the songs of Nat "King" Cole and Muddy Waters. "Listening to Nat Cole prompted me to sing sentimental songs with distinct diction," he said at Blueberry Hill. "The songs of Muddy Waters impelled me to deliver the down-home blues in the language they came from. When I played hillbilly songs, I stressed my diction so that it was harder and whiter. All in all, it was my intention to hold both the black and the white clientele by voicing the different kinds of songs in their customary tongues."
In May 1955, Berry traveled to Chicago where he met Waters himself, who suggested he contact Leonard Chess of Chess Records. Berry thought his blues material would be of most interest to Chess, but to his surprise it was an old country and western recording by Bob Wills, entitled "Ida Red" that got Chess's attention. At that time, Chess had seen the blues market shrink and was looking to move beyond the rhythm and blues market, and he thought Berry might be that artist who could do it. So on May 21, 1955 Berry covered "Ida Red" (renamed "Maybellene") with Johnny Johnson, Jerome Green (from Bo Diddley's band) on the maracas, Jasper Thomas on the drums and blues legend Willie Dixon on the bass. "Maybellene" sold over a million copies, reaching #1 on Billboard's Rhythm and Blues chart and #5 on the Hot 100.
Ascent to stardom (1956-1959)
At the end of June 1956, his song "Roll Over Beethoven
" reached #29 on the Billboard Top 100
In 1956 Berry toured as one of the "Top Acts of '56". He and Carl Perkins
became friends. Perkins said that "I knew when I first heard Chuck that he'd been affected by country music. I respected his writing; his records were very, very great." As they toured, Perkins discovered that Berry not only liked country music, but knew about as many songs, and Jimmie Rodgers
was one of his favorites. "Chuck knew every Blue Yodel", and most of Bill Monroe
's songs as well. Perkins remembered, "He told me about how he was raised very poor, very tough. He had a hard life. He was a good guy. I really liked him."
In the autumn of 1957 Berry joined the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, and other rising stars of the new rock and roll to tour the United States. The hits continued from 1957 to 1959, with Berry scoring over a dozen chart singles during this period, including the top 10 U.S. hits "School Days," "Rock and Roll Music," "Sweet Little Sixteen," and "Johnny B. Goode." Author/producer Robert Palmer wrote that Berry’s songs tended to feature country and western inflected light blues melodies, along with plenty of guitar twang. He also had a taste for the "Spanish tinge", as in "La Juanda" and "Havana Moon".
Berry appeared in two early rock 'n' roll movies. The first was Rock Rock Rock, released in 1956. He is shown singing "You Can't Catch Me. He had a speaking role as himself in the 1959 film Go, Johnny, Go! along with Alan Freed, and was also shown performing his songs "Johnny B. Goode," "Memphis, Tennessee," and "Little Queenie."
Second jail term (1959-1963)
By the end of the 1950s, Berry was an established star with several hit records and film appearances to his name, as well as a lucrative touring career. He had also established his own St. Louis-based nightclub, called Berry's Club Bandstand.
But in December 1959, Berry encountered legal problems after he invited a 14-year-old Apache waitress whom he met in Mexico to work as a hat check girl at his club. After being fired from the club, the girl was arrested on a prostitution charge and Berry was arrested under the Mann Act. After a trial and retrial, Berry was convicted, fined $5,000, and sentenced to five years in prison. This event, coupled with other early rock and roll scandals such as Jerry Lee Lewis' marriage to his 13-year-old cousin and Alan Freed's payola conviction, gave rock and roll an image problem that limited its acceptance into mainstream U.S. society.
Career resurgence (1963-1965)
When Berry was released from prison in 1963, his musical career enjoyed a resurgence due to many of the British invasion
acts of the 1960s — most notably the Beatles
and the Rolling Stones
— releasing cover versions of Berry's songs. Additionally, The Beach Boys
' hit "Surfin' USA
", while originally credited as composed by Brian Wilson
, is in large part a direct copy of Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen
". Berry has since been given full writer credit (both lyrics and music) on the track.
In 1964–65 Berry resumed recording and placed six singles in the U.S. Hot 100, including "No Particular Place To Go" (#10), "You Never Can Tell" (#14), and "Nadine" (#23).
Exit and return to Chess (1966-1972)
In 1966 Berry left Chess Records, moving to the Mercury
label. During his brief time at Mercury, he recorded several albums, including an album of re-recordings of his Chess hits, and an album dominated by an 18-minute-long instrumental, "Concerto in B. Goode".
For a variety of reasons—including changing musical tastes and different production techniques—the hits dried up for Chuck during the Mercury era.
He was still a top concert draw, however, and in July 1969 Berry was the headliner of the Schaefer Music Festival in New York City's Central Park, along with The Byrds, Miles Davis, Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin, B.B. King, The Beach Boys, Frank Zappa and Patti LaBelle. In the same year he also played the Toronto Rock 'N Roll Revival festival which also included, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bo Diddly, Little Richard, and John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band with Eric Clapton on lead guitar, and Alan White on drums.
After a hitless four-year stint at Mercury, Berry returned to Chess from 1970 to 1973. Although his 1970 Chess effort Back Home yielded no hit singles, in 1972 Chess released a new live recording of "My Ding-a-Ling", a song Berry had initially recorded years earlier as a novelty track. The track became Berry's only No. 1 single, and it remains popular today. A live recording of "Reelin' And Rockin'" was also issued as a follow-up single that same year and would prove to be Berry's final top-40 hit in both the U.S. and the UK. Both singles were featured on the part-live/part-studio album "The London Chuck Berry Sessions" which was part of a series of several albums by that title which included other Chess mainstay artists Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf.
Berry's second tenure with Chess ended with the 1973 album Bio, after which he did not make a studio record for 6 years.
Touring as Chuck Berry, the legend (1970s)
In the 1970s Berry toured on the basis of his earlier 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 no matter where he went. The All Music Guide has said that in this period his "live performances became increasingly erratic, [...] working with terrible backup bands and turning in sloppy, out-of-tune performances" which "tarnished his reputation with younger fans and oldtimers" alike.
Among the many bandleaders performing this backup role were Bruce Springsteen and Steve Miller when each was just starting his career. Springsteen related in the video Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll that Berry did not even give the band a set list and just expected the musicians to follow his lead after each guitar intro. Berry neither spoke to nor thanked the band after the show. Nevertheless, Springsteen backed Berry again when he appeared at the concert for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995.
Third jail term, White House performance and final studio album (1979)
Berry's type of touring style, traveling the "oldies" circuit in the 1970s — where he was often paid in cash by local promoters — added ammunition to the Internal Revenue Service
's accusations that Berry was a chronic income tax
evader. Facing criminal sanction for the third time, Berry pleaded guilty to tax evasion
and was sentenced to four months imprisonment and 1,000 hours of community service — doing benefit concerts
— in 1979.
At the request of Jimmy Carter, Chuck Berry performed at The White House on June 1, 1979. Also in 1979, Berry released Rockit for Atco Records, his last studio album to date.
The post-studio era (1980-2000)
Berry continued to play 70 to 100 one-nighters per year in the 1980s, still travelling solo and requiring a local band to back him at each stop.
In 1986, Taylor Hackford made a documentary film, Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll, of a celebration concert for Berry's sixtieth birthday. Keith Richards was the musical leader. Eric Clapton, Etta James, Julian Lennon, Robert Cray and Linda Ronstadt, among others, appeared with Berry on stage and film. During the concert, Berry played a Gibson ES-355, the luxury version of the ES-335 which he favored on his 1970s tours. Richards played a black Fender Telecaster Custom, Cray a Fender Stratocaster and Clapton a Gibson ES 350T, the same guitar Berry used on his early recordings.
One of the highlights in the film version was a testy exchange between Richards and Berry on how to set an amplifier for a guitar. Image Entertainment released a new version of the film in June 2006, which contains the original movie and bonus material such as rehearsals and documentaries.
Berry's business enterprises (1980s-1990s)
In the late 1980s, Berry owned a restaurant in Wentzville
, Missouri, called The Southern Air. He also owns a custom built estate in Wentzville, which he dubbed Berry Park. For many years, Berry hosted rock concerts throughout the summer at Berry Park. However, he eventually closed the estate to the public due to the riotous behaviour of many of the guests.
In 1990 Berry was sued by several women who claimed that he had installed a video camera in the ladies' bathrooms at two of his St. Louis restaurants. A class action settlement was eventually reached with 59 women on the complaint. Berry's biographer, Bruce Pegg, estimated that it cost Berry over $1.2 million plus legal fees. It was during this time that he began using Wayne T. Schoeneberg as his legal counsel.
Writing credit dispute (2000)
In November 2000, Berry was sued by his former pianist Johnnie Johnson
, who claimed that he co-wrote over 50 songs, including "No Particular Place to Go", "Sweet Little Sixteen" and "Roll Over Beethoven", that credit Berry alone. The case was dismissed when the judge ruled that too much time had passed since the songs were written.
Currently, Berry usually performs one Wednesday each month at Blueberry Hill
, a restaurant and bar located in the Delmar Loop
neighborhood in St. Louis
. In 2008, Berry toured Europe, with stops in Sweden, Finland, England, Holland, Ireland, Switzerland and Spain. In the summer of 2008, he played at Virgin Festival
in Baltimore, MD.
A pioneer of rock and roll, Chuck Berry was a significant influence on the development of early rock and roll guitar techniques. He was the first to define the classic subjects of rock and roll in his songwriting; cars, girls and school. His guitar style is legendary and many later guitar musicians acknowledge him as a major influence in their own style. When Keith Richards inducted Berry into the Hall of Fame he said, "It's hard for me to induct Chuck Berry, because I lifted every lick he ever played!" Richard Berry
(no relation) drew on Chuck Berry's "Havana Moon
" as an inspiration for his own song, the now classic "Louie Louie
". John Lennon borrowed a line from Berry's "You Can't Catch Me
" for his song "Come Together
", and was subsequently sued by Berry's music publisher Morris Levy
. Nevertheless, they became good friends and played together on more than one occasion, famously on the Mike Douglas
Jerry Garcia, of The Grateful Dead, cited Chuck Berry as a major influence along with other musicians such as Wes Montgomery and Bill Monroe. The Grateful Dead have played and recorded "Johnny B. Goode", "Around and Around" - AKA - Reelin' and Rockin' and "Promised Land", at least and possibly others. Jerry Garcia performed "Let It Rock" on his Compliments - 1974. Both his and the Dead's efforts may have been a little more laid-back, because of the nature of their improvisational approach, but musically they were pretty much in the same vein.
Angus Young, of AC/DC, who has cited Berry as one of his biggest influences, is famous for using Berry's duck walk as one of his gimmicks.
Berry was also a large influence on such second generation rockers as The Who and Bob Dylan. In the 1980s, George Thorogood created a reasonable career out of what was essentially a Chuck Berry tribute show. Covering a number of Chuck Berry songs and appropriating the duckwalk, Thorogood toured relentlessly as a high-energy, rock and roll revival act.
While there is debate about who recorded the first rock and roll record, Chuck Berry's early recordings, including his cover of the 1938 country hit "Ida Red", entitled "Maybellene" (1955), are among the first fully synthesized rockabilly singles, combining blues and country music with lyrics about girls and cars.
Most of his famous recordings were on Chess Records with pianist Johnnie Johnson from Berry's own band and legendary record producer Willie Dixon on bass, Fred Below on drums, and Berry's guitar. It should be noted, however, that Lafayette Leake, not Johnnie Johnson, played the piano on "Johnny B. Goode", "Reelin' and Rockin'", "Sweet Little Sixteen", and "Rock and Roll Music". Additionally, Otis Spann played the piano on "You Can't Catch Me" and "No Money Down".
As quoted in the liner notes of Berry's album 28 Greatest hits, Leonard Chess recalled:
- "I told Chuck to give it a bigger beat. History, the rest, you know? The kids wanted the big beat, cars and young love. It was a trend and we jumped on it."
Clive Anderson wrote for the compilation Chuck Berry — Poet of Rock 'n' Roll:
- While Elvis was a country boy who sang "black" to some degree ... Chuck Berry provided the mirror image where country music was filtered through an R&B sensibility.
Throughout his career Berry recorded both smooth ballads like "Havana Moon" and blues tunes like "Wee Wee Hours". He recorded more than a dozen Top Ten R&B chart hits, crossed over to have a strong impact on the pop charts with seven top ten U.S. pop hits and four top ten pop hits in the UK and he found his songs being covered by hundreds of blues, country and rock and roll performers.
Berry was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1984.
In 2003, Rolling Stone named him number six on their list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.
His compilation album The Great Twenty-Eight was also named 21st on the magazine's list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. .
In 2004 six of his songs were included in Rolling Stone's "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time" list, namely "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).
Also in 2004, Berry was rated #5 in Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Artists of All Time and in 2008 his song Johnny B. Goode won first place in the 100 greatest guitar songs according to Rolling Stone Magazine.
Chuck Berry songs
Many of his songs are among the leading rock and roll anthems:
- "Johnny B. Goode" - the autobiographical saga of a country boy ("colored boy" in the original lyrics) who could "play a guitar just like ringing a bell". It was given the honor of being the only rock and roll song included on the Voyager Golden Record, which are actual gold-plated records attached on the Voyager I & II space probes with the intent to convey greetings, sounds and images from humanity to any extraterrestrial life encountering the spacecraft as they travel beyond our solar system. The song was also featured in the feature film Back to the Future; during the song, "Marvin Berry" calls his cousin "Chuck" and has him listen to Marty singing this song, telling him to listen to this "new sound". The band The Grateful Dead recorded this song in the 1970s. The punk band NOFX has covered this song a few times live. Judas Priest did so as well in the 80's. (Johnny Winter's version boasts "he could play a guitar like a bat out of Hell".) Chuck Berry wrote a sequel song, "Bye Bye Johnny", in 1960. This song was covered on the 1975 album On the Level by Status Quo and played live by The Rolling Stones in the 1960s. Johnny Hallyday-the French rocker-covered Johnny B. Goode :"Johnny,reviens!" The song was also often performed by Jimi Hendrix in his live performances.
- "Rock and Roll Music" - recorded by The Beatles on their 1964 album Beatles for Sale and by the Beach Boys on their 1976 album 15 Big Ones.
- "Sweet Little Sixteen" - with new lyrics, became a hit for The Beach Boys as "Surfin' USA"
- "Roll Over Beethoven" - and "tell Tchaikovsky the news" a battle yell for rock and roll. In 1973, new owners of New York City classical music station WNCN announced a change of format to rock and roll by interrupting a performance of the Mozart Requiem with "Roll Over Beethoven". The station's classical audience was so outraged they successfully petitioned the FCC to force a return to the previous format. The song is referred to in AC/DC's "Let There Be Rock"; the Beatles recorded it on their 1963 album With the Beatles with George Harrison singing the lead; Jeff Lynne's Electric Light Orchestra made an 8-minute version of this song for their 1973 album's ELO 2. The Sonics also covered the song on their album Here Are the Sonics.
- "School Days" - its chorus, "Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll", was chosen as the title of the documentary concert film organized by Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones as his tribute to Chuck, who appears in the film with many others. It was also recorded by "hard" rock & roll band AC/DC on their second album, T.N.T. (Australia). Also, on an album by Matt Groenings "The Simpsons" called "The Simpsons Sing the Blues", a cover is made of this song as Bart Sing/Rapping.
- "Let It Rock" - fantasia of gambling railroad workers that lives up to the title, written under the pseudonym E. Anderson. It is a rare performer who can turn a line like "There's an off-schedule train comin’ two miles out" into a Dionysian cry. It was famously covered by the Rolling Stones during their 1971 UK Tour and by Yardbirds on their Live at Craw Daddy Club album. Motorhead and the Jerry Garcia Band have also performed it.
- "Around and Around" - describes how "the joint was rockin', goin' 'round and 'round." This song has been recorded by David Bowie, The Animals, The Rolling Stones, The Grateful Dead, The Germs, and Maureen Tucker of The Velvet Underground.
- "Little Queenie" - covered by many artists, notably the Rolling Stones on the live album Get Yer Ya-Yas Out and in 2007 as a duet with Jerry Lee Lewis and Kid Rock on the Lewis DVD Last Man Standing Live. T. Rex borrows the line, "Meanwhile I'm still thinkin", at the conclusion of "Bang A Gong". David Bowie paraphrases the song in his tune The Jean Genie - Go, Go, Go, Little Genie. The British rock supergroup Queen references the song (and themselves) in the song "Now I'm Here" with the line "Go! Go! Go! Little Queenie!"
His other hits, many of them novelty narratives, include:
- "Maybellene" - car, girl, rival, jealousy — tune based on the traditional Bluegrass standard "Ida Red". (Berry was familiar with the 1938 recording of "Ida Red" by western swing band Bob Wills & his Texas Playboys.)
- "Too Much Monkey Business" - teenage attitudes, predecessor to rap, "Same thing every day, gettin' up, goin' to school, no need of me complaining, my objection's overruled". Also inspired the Bob Dylan song, "Subterranean Homesick Blues". Johnny Thunders' "Too Much Junky Business" is a play on the title
- "Promised Land" - Cross country journey in song, from Norfolk, Virginia, to the Promised Land, California, covered by the Grateful Dead, Elvis Presley and The Band.
- "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" - adult attitudes, racism, "arrested on charges of unemployment"
- "Back in the U.S.A." - which inspired The Beatles' "Back in the USSR", covered by the MC5, the Modern Lovers and Linda Ronstadt, which in turn inspired Industrial rock band KMFDM's song "Back in the U.S.S.A." .
- "No Particular Place To Go" - car, girl, "parking way out on the ko-ko-mo".
- "Memphis, Tennessee" - unique beat, sweet story with a twist. Lonnie Mack's biggest hit single was an instrumental take-off on this tune that started the blues-rock guitar style in 1963. A few months later, Johnny Rivers recorded his second-biggest hit single with a version that included both Berry's lyrics and some of Mack's improvisations. Izzy Stradlin also recorded a version on his album 117°, calling it 'Memphis.'
- "My Ding-a-Ling" - his only #1, a New Orleans novelty song that he had been singing for years and included on a live recording in Coventry in February, 1972.
- "Run, Run Rudolph" - his top Christmas song
- "You Never Can Tell" - song included in the movie Pulp Fiction. Also recorded by Emmylou Harris, John Prine, and Bob Seger on his Greatest Hits album, under the title "C'est la Vie."
Among his blues tributes:
His songs are collected on albums like:
- The Great Twenty-Eight is Berry's definitive greatest hits album, but the two-CD Anthology set has better sound and provides a much more complete overview of his musical output.