Chuck Berry Biography

Charles Edward Anderson Berry, 18 October 1926, San Jose, California, USA (although Berry states that he was born in St. Louis, Missouri). A seminal figure in the evolution of rock ‘n’ roll, Chuck Berry’s influence as songwriter and guitarist is incalculable. His cogent songs captured adolescent life, yet the artist was 30 years old when he commenced recording. Introduced to music as a child, Berry learned guitar while in his teens, but this period was blighted by a three-year spell in Algoa Reformatory following a conviction for armed robbery. On his release Berry undertook several blue-collar jobs while pursuing part-time spots in St. Louis bar bands. Inspired by Carl Hogan, guitarist in Louis Jordan’s Timpani Five, and Charlie Christian, he continued to hone his craft and in 1951 purchased a tape recorder to capture ideas for compositions. The following year Berry joined Johnnie Johnson (piano) and Ebby Hardy (drums) in the house band at the Cosmopolitan Club. Over the ensuing months the trio became a popular attraction, playing a mixture of R&B, country/hillbilly songs and standards, particularly those of Nat ‘King’ Cole, on whom Berry modelled his cool vocal style. The guitarist also fronted his own group, the Chuck Berry Combo, at the rival Crank Club, altering his name to spare his father’s embarrassment at such worldly pursuits.

In 1955, during a chance visit to Chicago, Berry met bluesman Muddy Waters, who advised the young singer to approach the Chess Records label. Berry’s demo of ‘Ida May’, was sufficient to win a recording contract and the composition, retitled ‘Maybellene’, duly became his debut single. This ebullient performance was a runaway success, topping the R&B chart and reaching number 5 on the US pop listings. Its lustre was partially clouded by a conspiratorial publishing credit that required Berry to share the rights with Russ Fratto and disc jockey Alan Freed, in deference to his repeated airplay. This situation remained unresolved until 1986. Berry enjoyed further US R&B hits with ‘Thirty Days’ and ‘No Money Down’, but it was his third recording session that proved even more productive, producing a stream of classics, ‘Roll Over Beethoven’, ‘Too Much Monkey Business’ and ‘Brown-Eyed Handsome Man’. The artist’s subsequent releases read like a lexicon of pop history - ‘School Days’ (a second R&B number 1), ‘Rock And Roll Music’ (all 1957), ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’, ‘Reelin’ And Rockin’, ‘Johnny B. Goode’, ‘Around And Around’, ‘Memphis Tennessee’ (all 1958), ‘Little Queenie’, ‘Back In The USA’, ‘Let It Rock’ (all 1959), ‘Bye Bye Johnny’, ‘Jaguar And Thunderbird’ (all 1960), ‘Nadine’, ‘You Never Can Tell’, ‘No Particular Place To Go’ and ‘The Promised Land’ (all 1964) are but a handful of the peerless songs written and recorded during this prolific period. In common with contemporary artists, Berry drew from both country and R&B music, but his sharp, often piquant, lyrics, clarified by the singer’s clear diction, introduced a new discipline to the genre. Such incomparable performances not only defined rock ‘n’ roll, they provided a crucial template for successive generations.

Both the Beatles and Rolling Stones acknowledged their debt to Berry. The former recorded two of his compositions, taking one, ‘Roll Over Beethoven’, into the US charts, while the latter drew from his empirical catalogue on many occasions. This included ‘Come On’, their debut single, ‘Little Queenie’, ‘You Can’t Catch Me’ and ‘Around And Around’, as well as non-Berry songs that nonetheless aped his approach. The Stones’ readings of ‘Route 66’, ‘Down The Road Apiece’ and ‘Confessin’ The Blues’ were indebted to their mentor’s versions, while Keith Richards’ rhythmic, propulsive guitar figures drew from Berry’s style. Elsewhere, the Beach Boys rewrote ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’ as ‘Surfin’ USA’ to attain their first million-seller, while countless other groups scrambled to record his songs, inspired by their unique combination of immediacy and longevity.

Between 1955 and 1960, Berry seemed unassailable. He enjoyed a run of 17 R&B Top 20 entries, appeared in the movies Go, Johnny, Go!, Rock Rock Rock and Jazz On A Summer’s Day, the last of which documented the artist’s performance at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, where he demonstrated the famed ‘duckwalk’ to a bemused audience. However, personal impropriety undermined Berry’s personal and professional life when, on 28 October 1961, he was convicted under the Mann Act of ‘transporting an underage girl across state lines for immoral purposes’. Berry served 20 months in prison, emerging in October 1963 just as ‘Memphis, Tennessee’, recorded in 1958, was providing him with his first UK Top 10 hit. He wrote several compositions during his incarceration, including ‘Nadine’, ‘No Particular Place To Go’, ‘You Never Can Tell’ and ‘The Promised Land’, each of which eventually reached the UK Top 30. Such chart success soon waned as the R&B bubble burst, and in 1966 Berry sought to regenerate his career by moving from Chess to Mercury Records. However, an ill-advised Golden Hits set merely featured re-recordings of old material, while attempts to secure a contemporary image on Live At The Fillmore Auditorium (recorded with the Steve Miller Band) and Concerto In B. Goode proved equally unsatisfactory.

Berry returned to Chess Records in 1969 and immediately re-established his craft with the powerful ‘Tulane’. Back Home and San Francisco Dues were cohesive selections and in-concert appearances showed a renewed purpose. Indeed, a UK performance at the 1972 Manchester Arts Festival not only provided half of Berry’s London Sessions album, but also his biggest-ever hit. ‘My Ding-A-Ling’, a mildly ribald double entendre first recorded by Dave Bartholomew, topped both the US and UK charts, a paradox in the light of his own far superior compositions, which achieved lesser commercial plaudits. It was his last major hit, and despite several new recordings, including Rockit, a much-touted release on Atco Records, Berry became increasingly confined to the revival circuit. He gained an uncomfortable reputation as a hard, shrewd businessman and disinterested performer, backed by pick-up bands with whom he refused to rehearse. Tales abound within the rock fraternity of Berry’s refusal to tell the band which song he was about to launch into. Pauses and changes would come about by the musicians watching Berry closely for an often-disguised signal. Berry has insisted for years upon pre-payment of his fee, usually in cash, and he will only perform an encore after a further negotiation for extra payment.

Berry’s continued legal entanglements resurfaced in 1979 when he was sentenced to a third term of imprisonment following a conviction for income tax evasion. Upon release he embarked on a punishing world tour, but the subsequent decade proved largely unproductive musically and no new recordings were undertaken. In 1986, the artist celebrated his 60th birthday with gala performances in St. Louis and New York. Keith Richards appeared at the former, although relations between the two men were strained, as evinced in the resultant documentary Chuck Berry Hail! Hail! Rock ‘N’ Roll, which provided an overview of Berry’s career. Berry was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame the same year.

Sadly, the 90s began with further controversy and reports of indecent behaviour at the singer’s Berry Park centre. Although the incident served to undermine the individual, Berry’s stature as an essential figure in the evolution of popular music cannot be overestimated.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.