Charles Edward "Chuck" Berry (born October 18, 1926) is an American guitarist, singer, and songwriter.
Chuck Berry is 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 its greatest songwriter, the main shaper of its instrumental voice, one of its greatest guitarists, possessing the clearest diction, and one of its greatest performers." John Lennon said: "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, Pl?cido 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, being the 3rd individual singer behind Bob Dylan and Elvis Presley. 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 and Roll Music"), of the 500 songs that shaped Rock and Roll.
Early life, and first arrest and conviction (1926?47)
Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Berry was the fourth 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; they 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?55)
After his release from prison Berry married Themetta "Toddy" Suggs on October 28, 1948 and pursued a number of jobs in St. Louis. He worked briefly as a factory worker at two automobile assembly plants, and he also took on the position of janitor for the apartment building where he and his wife lived. Afterwards he trained as a beautician at the Poro College of Cosmetology, founded by Annie Turnbo Malone. He also considered a career as a photographer.
Berry began moonlighting as a guitarist for various bands in St. Louis as an extra source of income. He had been playing the blues since his teens, according to the 1987 Taylor Hackford film Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll, and he borrowed both guitar riffs and grandstanding techniques from 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 country (typically referred to as hillbilly at the time). 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," said Berry. "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 recorded an adaptation of "Ida Red" - "Maybellene" - which featured Johnny Johnson on piano, Jerome Green (from Bo Diddley's band) on the maracas, Jasper Thomas on the drums and 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?59)
At the end of June 1956, his song "Roll Over Beethoven" reached #29 on the Billboard Top 100 chart.
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 as he did. 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. He also guest starred on ABC's The Guy Mitchell Show, having sung his hit song "Rock 'n' Roll". 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."
Berry performed "Sweet Little Sixteen" at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958 and the performance was included in the motion picture Jazz on a Summer's Day.
Second jail term (1959?63)
Berry in Deauville France in 1987
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. It was an integrated venue catering to black and white customers. Berry, a shrewd businessman, even considered opening an Amusement park, according to Allmusic.com.
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.
Researchers have questioned whether the trial was a fair one due to often racist, sensationalist coverage in the press and the racial bias of the judge. In the book Shades of Freedom, Aloyisus Leon Higginbotham describes the District Court trial judge as "hostile and racially motivated" and says that the court noted that the judge commented on Berry's race. Berry would later criticise his lawyer, Merle Silverstein, for not objecting to the judge's centering of the trial on the race of the defendant saying he had little faith in Silverstein.
Career resurgence (1963?65)
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 (musically) of Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen". Berry has since been given partial writer credit for the music on the track. Chuck Berry did not write the lyrics for Surfin' USA. (It is credited as Berry-Wilson)
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?72)
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 and Roll Revival festival, which also included Jerry Lee Lewis, Bo Diddley, Little Richard, and John Lennon, Yoko Ono and the Plastic Ono Band, with Eric Clapton on lead guitar, Klaus Voorman on bass 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 six years.
1970s: touring as Chuck Berry the legend
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. Allmusic 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. In 1977, he made an appearance as a musical guest on Saturday Night Live, playing "Johnny B. Goode", "Memphis, Tennessee", and "Carol".
Among the many bandleaders performing a backup role with Chuck Berry 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.
1979: third jail term, White House performance and final studio album
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.
1980?2000: the post-studio era
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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.
Berry performing live in 1997
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.
Highlights of the film include a testy exchange between Richards and Berry on how to set an amplifier for a guitar, and Berry needling of Richards on his playing of the intro to his "Oh, Carol" during a rehearsal.
1980s-1990s: Berry's business enterprises
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 Wentzville 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.
2000: writing credit dispute
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, Norway, Finland, England, the Netherlands, Ireland, Switzerland, Poland, and Spain. In the summer of 2008, he played at Virgin Festival in Baltimore, MD.
He presently lives in Wentzville, Missouri, approximately 30 miles west of St. Louis.
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A pioneer of rock and roll, Chuck Berry was a significant influence on the development of early rock and roll guitar techniques. His guitar style is legendary and many later guitar musicians acknowledge him as a major influence in their own style. 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 Show.
Jerry Garcia, of The Grateful Dead, cited Chuck Berry as a major influence. The Grateful Dead have recorded "Johnny B. Goode", "Around and Around" and "Promised Land". Jerry Garcia performed "Let It Rock" on his Compliments in 1974.
Another guitarist who has cited Berry as a major influence is Joe Perry of Aerosmith, who claims that one of Berry's albums was the first record he ever bought.
Angus Young of AC/DC also credits Chuck Berry as a big influence. Young also uses the Duck Walk, which Berry made famous, in each of AC/DC's concerts several times, and in many of AC/DC's music videos.
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 2008, Berry was portrayed by rapper and actor Mos Def in the biopic Cadillac Records.
The band Buckcherry derived their name from his, switching around the first letters of each name.
Rolling Stone Magazine lists
Berry has made it into many of Rolling Stone Magazine's "Greatest of All Time" lists.
In September 2003, Rolling Stone named him number 6 in their list of the "100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time".
In November 2003, his compilation album The Great Twenty-Eight was ranked 21st in the magazine's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list. .
In March 2004, Berry was ranked 5th in Rolling Stone's list of "The Immortals - The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time".
In December 2004, six of his songs were included in magazine'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).
In June 2008, his song Johnny B. Goode ranked 1st place in the "100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time"
In November 2008, the magazine ranked Berry at number 41 in their list of 'The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time".