Remembering Chuck Berry (1926-2017)

Legendary guitarist and singer Chuck Berry died today at the age of 90. Arguably the most important of rock ‘n’ roll’s founding fathers, the music legend had grown visibly frail of late, and in August 2014 had been too ill to travel to Sweden to accept the prestigious Polar Music Prize. But at the apex of his fame during the 1950s, Berry was an energetic performer whose teen-centric lyrics, distinctive mix of country and blues, two-string solo style and distorted guitar tones served as the blueprints with which rock and roll was built—and his often wild presence and rebellious nature, both on and off the stage, seemed in many ways to embody its spirit. The story of Chuck Berry’s life is a roller coaster ride of musical highs and personal lows, the sum total of which remains a legacy almost beyond measure.

Charles Edward Anderson Berry was born into a middle-class family in northern St. Louis, Missouri, on October 18, 1926. At a young age he began singing in the choir of the church where his father was a deacon, and while in high school he began to learn the guitar. Berry made his first public performance at a school assembly, playing a song called “Confessin’ the Blues.” The song was a hit with the students—and an annoyance to the faculty—igniting Berry’s fledgling desire for performance. In 1944, however, Berry found himself on the wrong side of the law when he and two friends went on a crime spree that led to his arrest for armed robbery. He was sentenced to 10 years at a juvenile facility and would serve three before being released on his 21st birthday in 1947.

Picking up where he had left off, after his release Berry continued to practice guitar and began playing in clubs around St. Louis, while working in an auto plant and as a hairdresser during the day to support himself. In 1953 he formed a group called Sir John’s Trio, and they soon played regularly at the upscale Cosmopolitan Club in East St. Louis. Although the leader of the band was ostensibly its piano player, Johnnie Johnson, Berry’s flair for showmanship soon made him its true star, and they eventually renamed the group the Chuck Berry Combo. Their regular repertoire consisted of jazz and blues numbers that catered to the primarily black audience, but sometimes Berry would perform an upbeat country-influenced number that quickly became a crowd favorite. Before long more whites began to attend the shows.

As his local popularity continued to grow, on a trip to Chicago in 1955, Berry approached his idol Muddy Waters and asked his advice on how to get a recording contract. Waters connected Berry with Leonard Chess of the blues label Chess Records, and soon thereafter Berry returned home to record a demo for Chess. Of the four songs, it was Berry’s rendition of the country standard called “Ida Red” that piqued Chess’s interest and ultimately got Berry his contract. Recorded in May of 1955, the original lyrics were reworked by Berry to describe a car race and an unfaithful woman, and the track was retitled ”Maybellene.” Released in August of that year, “Maybellene” reached No. 5 on the Billboard pop charts, and stayed there for nearly three months, eventually selling more than one million copies, making it a massive crossover hit for a black artist by the standards of the day.

As rock and roll exploded onto the American music scene, Berry continued to churn out the hits, releasing seven more Top 40 singles over the next five years, most notably “Roll Over Beethoven” (1956), “Rock and Roll Music” (1957), “Sweet Little Sixteen” (1958) and “Johnny B. Goode.” He also toured regularly and made numerous appearances in rock and roll television shows and movies, including Rock, Rock, Rock!, Mister Rock and Roll and Go, Johnny, Go! By 1957 he had earned enough money to buy 30 acres of land outside of St. Louis, where he would eventually open an amusement park, and to open a racially integrated nightclub in a prosperous, white section of the city.

Yet despite this flurry of successes, in 1959 Berry found himself in trouble yet again. After bringing a teenage girl from Mexico to work as a coat check in his club, Berry was accused of having sexual relations with her and was arrested by federal authorities. In a 1961 trial he was found guilty, but racist comments made by the presiding judge led to an appeal and a second trial. The verdict was upheld, however, and Berry spent nearly two years in a federal prison.

By the time Berry was released in 1964, the British Invasion was well under way, and many of its biggest acts, including the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, were recording versions of Berry’s songs or covering them during their live performances. Berry himself resumed touring and recording and scored two further hits with “Nadine” and “No Particular Place to Go,” which he purportedly wrote while serving his prison sentence. But as rock music evolved, Berry, like most of his contemporaries, saw his career flounder. Though he continued to tour, Berry’s musical highlights during the 1970s were limited to the 1972 release of the single “My Ding-a-Ling,” a “joke” song that became his only No. 1 hit, and the inclusion of his “Johnny B. Goode” on a record attached to the Voyager 1 satellite that was intended to give other civilizations an idea of what life on Earth was like. But never far from controversy, two years later Berry was charged with income tax evasion and served a three-month prison term.

Despite Berry’s ongoing personal problems, by the 1980s his undeniable contributions to rock music began to earn him accolades. In 1985 he was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Grammy and was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, and in 1986 he was included in the very first group of musicians inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The following year he was the subject of the documentary Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll, and his autobiography, Chuck Berry: The Autobiography, was published by Faber & Faber. Berry continued to accrue honors into the 1990s and beyond, performing at Bill Clinton’s inaugural ball in 1993, and receiving a Kennedy Center Honor in 2000. In 2003, he was No. 6 on Rolling Stone’s list of the greatest guitarists of all time.

In October 2016 on his 90th birthday, the music legend announced plans to release a new album dedicated to his wife of 68 years: “This record is dedicated to my beloved Toddy,” he said in a statement. “My darlin’, I’m growing old! I’ve worked on this record for a long time. Now I can hang up my shoes!”

*Originally published on Biography.



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