Crown Prince of Rock and Roll
Chuck Berry may not be the king, but there is no doubt that, at the very least, he is one of the crown princes of Rock and Roll. His legacy as one of the founders and architects of the entire genre is indisputable. His influence over all the generations that have since picked up guitars and learned how to play, is indubitable. His lineage can be traced in myriad ways, through the Beach Boys, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Ramones, Bruce Springsteen, the Police and legions of bands that have subsequently followed after.
Beyond that, Chuck Berry was an innovative performer and a gifted songwriter- both as a composer and as a lyricist. His lyrics were a sublime combination of sly sophistication and adolescent naivete, filtered through a wry sense of humor, a rapier wit and a devilish sense of irony. John Lennon is reputed to have once said, “If you tried to give Rock ‘n Roll another name, you might call it “Chuck Berry.’”
Charles Edward Anderson Berry was born in on October 18th, 1926, in San Jose, California, the third of six children. Shortly after his birth, the family moved to St. Louis, Missouri, to 2520 Goode Avenue, in an area known as “the Ville,” a relatively affluent Black section of St. Louis. His mother was a schoolteacher His father was a contractor and became a deacon at a nearby Baptist church.
As a teen, Berry was instructed on guitar by local musician, Ira Harris; at first, learning on a four-string tenor guitar. Chuck began to explore his interests in the Blues and Jazz, influenced, to some extent, by the likes of guitarists Charlie Christian and Carl Hogan of Louis Jordan’s Tympani Five. In his spare time, He helped his father at his contracting business. Chuck’s cousin, Harry Davis, taught him about the art of photography. Chuck also began to develop an interest in poetry.
While attending Sumner High School, the first black high school west of the Mississippi, Chuck appeared in various school musical functions, first appearing in the All Men’s Review of 1941, singing Jay McShann’s “Confessin’ The Blues.” However, in 1944, before he could graduate from high school, Berry ran afoul of the law on a joyride to Kansas City.
He was arrested, along with two friends, found guilty of armed robbery and sentenced to 10 years at the Intermediate Reformatory near Jefferson, Missouri. While in prison, Chuck sang in the gospel choir and entertained the notion of a career in boxing, which he quickly abandoned.
Berry was released from prison on his 21st birthday in October of 1947. In 1948, he married Themetta Suggs. For the next seven years, he held a variety of jobs: auto assembly worker, freelance photographer, hairdresser and cosmetologist (he received a degree in cosmetology, taking night classees at Poro School); as well as occasionally helping out with his father’s contracting business.
All the while, Chuck maintained his interest in the guitar, switching to a six-string model sometime around 1950. At that time, he began to play professional engagements in St. Louis-area clubs, mixing Hillbilly and Country styles with Blues and R&B. His biggest musical influences were T-Bone Walker, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, while he patterned his vocal style after the satin smoothness of Nat King Cole. In 1951, Berry recorded some of his first compositions on a home tape recorder.
On New Years Eve in 1952, Chuck joined forces with Sir John’s Trio, a Blues and R&B group, led by pianist Johnnie Johnson, which included drummer Ebby Hardy. He quickly took the band over, with his humorous stage antics and dazzling showmanship, stealing the spotlight. Soon the band was renamed the Chuck Berry Combo. The Combo eventually became a topbill attraction at the illustrious Cosmopolitan Club in St. Louis. Before long the Chuck Berry Combo was rivaling Ike Turner and Albert King in local popularity. It was Berry’s unique melding of such diverse musical elements as Country and Hillbilly music with Blues and R&B that made the band different from the others, creating a sensation across the region.
In May of 1955 Berry traveled to Chicago with a home-made demo tape, seeking to make record label connections for his band. Upon the advice of Muddy Waters, who told him to see Leonard Chess, Chuck met with the owner of Chess Records, a prestigious Blues label, that specialized in the recordings of artists such as Waters and Little Walter. One of the songs Berry’s on demo tape that stood out to Leonard Chess and house producer Willie Dixon, was “Ida Red,” a reworking of a Hillbilly standard.
Leonard Chess later recalled, “It was something new. I liked it. 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.” Chess also suggested a name change for the tune.
Chuck changed the name of the song to “Maybellene,” the name of the protagonist in his car chase, young love tale. Berry’s cosmetological background popped up with that song- Maybellene has long been a well-known line of cosmetics. As with nearly all of his songs, there was a distinct autobiographical component to “Maybellene.”
A few days later, on May 21, 1955, Berry, under the auspice of Willie Dixon (who also played bass for the session), was joined by Jasper Thomas on drums and Chuck’s right hand man, Johnnie Johnson, on piano. The group recorded “Maybellene” and another track, “Wee Wee Hours.”
Leonard Chess sent the song to notorious disc-jockey Alan Freed (who mysteriously received cowriting credit as his “reward” in the arrangement), who played it extensively on his WINS radio show in New York City– going so far as to play it for two hours straight one night. Thus, Chuck Berry scored his first hit, with the record going on to sell over a million copies. It reached Number One on the Billboard R&B charts and Number Five on the Hot 100 in 1955. Chuck Berry, nearly thirty years old, married, with two children, had a hit record.
Chuck’s songs- with their emphasis on adolesent concerns, such as love, school and cars, music, parents and growing up- resonated with the youth of America, regardless of their race or gender. His music became a staple of Top 40 radio stations across the country, in essence becoming the soundtrack for the lives of an entire generation.
With Chuck Berry in their stable, Chess Records instantly migrated from the Blues and R&B idiom toward the mainstream. And, nearly overnight, Chuck Berry became a star. However, despite his popularity on radio, with the exception of “Roll Over Beethoven,” which reached the Top 40 on the Hot 100 in May of 1956, none of Berry’s other releases in ‘55 or ‘56 crossed over to the Pop charts. Still, songs such as “Thirty Days,” “No Money Down,” “You Can’t Catch Me,” Too Much Monkey Business,” and “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” did well on the Billboard R&B charts.
Twenty years later, “You Can’t Catch Me” was the subject of a copyright infringement suit leveled against John Lennon for his borrowing of two lines of lyric for his song “Come Together,” which the Beatles recorded on Abbey Road. Lennon vaguely referred to Berry’s original lyric: “Here come a flat-top/He was movin’ up with me,” but was found guilty; despite the fact that Berry was referring to a car in his lyric, whille Lennon was referring to a person in his. Berry won the suit. As a part of his settlement, Lennon was required to record several of Berry’s songs for his album Rock ‘n’ Roll, released in 1976.
Berry regained his form in 1957, with his first release of the year, “School Days,”which rose to Number Three on the Hot 100 Chart and Number One on the R&B chart. The success of that record led to bookings of over 240 one-night engagements in 1957 alone. With his famous “duckwalk,” signature double-string lead guitar riff and a bushel basket full of hit songs, Berry tirelessly toured the mid-’50s concert circuit.
He also appeared in such Alan Freed released films as Rock, Rock, Rock, released in 1956, Mr. Rock and Roll, in 1957 and Go, Johnny, Go, released in 1959. The film “Jazz On A Summer Day,” recorded live at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, captured Chuck Berry in all his duckwalking, goosenecking glory.
Succeeding releases in 1957 were hits on both the R&B and Hot 100 charts. In fact, with the exception of “Beautiful Delilah,” released in May of 1958, Berry had an unbroken string of crossover chart hits for the next two and a half years. Songs such as “Rock and Roll Music,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Johnny B. Goode” and “Carol” all made the Top Ten of the Billboard Hot 100. At least ten other songs charted during that span.
Being the sole composer of so many hit songs afforded Berry the opportunity to invest his newfound wealth. Early in 1957, he purchased thirty acres of land, located in Wentzville, an area about twenty miles west of St. Louis.
A year later Chuck opened Club Bandstand in a part of St. Louis that had been the city’s segregated theatre district at the early part of the 20th century. The area had become a center for professional offices- a haven for wealthy white attorneys and doctors. The advent in their neighborhood of a racially integrated nightclub, owned by a black Rock and Roll star, was sure to have produced shock among the local gentry. By 1958, Chuck Berry was well used to causing a stir.
But in December 1959, his fortunes took a decided downturn. While playing a show in El Paso, Texas, Chuck met a young, Spanish speaking Apache woman who hailed from Yuma, Arizona. She agreed to accompany him to St. Louis, to become the hatcheck girl at Club Bandstand. However, after only two weeks, she was fired from the job. This set into motion a chain of events that was to alter forever Chuck Berry’s life and career.
To make ends meet, the girl began soliciting for prostitution at a nearby hotel. Anxious to return home, she called the Yuma Police to inquire about a way. Soon, Chuck Berry was charged with a violation of the Mann Act- transporting a woman across state lines for the purposes of committing immoral acts. After the guilty verdict in a brazenly racist first trial was overturned, authorities chose to re-try the case.
In October of 1961, Berry was found guilty in the second trial as well. He was sentenced to three years in prison and fined $10,000. In February 1962 Chuck began serving his sentence at a federal penitentiary in Indiana. While he languished in prison, the entire world of Pop music was drastically altered.
When Berry entered prison, Little Eva’s “Locomotion” and Gene Chandler’s Duke of Earl” were at the top of the charts. A year later, in March of 1963, the Beach Boys initiated the Surf movement in Pop with the release of “Surfin’ USA,” a blatant rip-off of “Sweet Little Sixteen” (Berry was later given full writer’s credit for the song). By the end of 1963 the Beatles and Rolling Stones had hit American radio airwaves and the world of Pop music was irrevocably changed.
By the time Berry was released from prison in October of 1963, the British Invasion was in full force. Ironically, it was bands such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones who introduced Chuck Berry to another generation of music lovers. The Rolling Stones’ first single release was a cover of “Come On.” Chuck Berry songs were a mainstay of the Beatles’ stage show in the band’s early years. They later set “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Rock and Roll Music” onto early album releases.
Capitalizing on the renewed interest in his music, Chuck wasted no time in recording a series of Hot 100 hits. Within a year, between February 1964 and March 1965, he had released “Nadine,” which reached Number Twenty-Three on the charts, “No Particulasr Place To Go,” ((Number Ten), “You Never Can Tell” (Number Fourteen) and “Promised Land (Number Forty-One).
From there, Berry’s career promptly took a nosedive, He was not heard from again for seven years, until 1972, when he resurfaced with the Number One hit (the only Number One hit of his career), the novelty song “My Ding-A-Ling,” which became his best selling song ever.
However, in 1979 Chuck served a one-hundred day term in prison for tax evasion. In 1988 he paid a $250 fine, settling a $5 million dollar lawsuit filed by a woman whom Berry allegedly punched in the mouth. In 1990 police raided his home, confiscating sixty-two grams of marijuana.
Despite his various problems, Berry was justifiably among the first inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. As a tribute to his contribution to popular culture, a portion of Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” was chosen for representation on the laser-disc placed onboard the Voyager I spacecraft.As the archetypal Rock and Roller, Chuck Berry was never far from a bad boy image. But his impact upon popular music and American culture cannot be overstated. As one of the pioneers of popular music, Chuck Berry is assured of remaining a true legend and cultural icon for countless generations to come: a crown prince of Rock and Roll.