Chuck Berry - Biography

Chuck BerryCharles Edward Anderson "Chuck" Berry (born October 18, 1926) is an American guitarist, singer, and song writer.

Chuck Berry is an immensely influential figure, and one of the pioneers of rock & roll music. 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, 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.

Born October 18, 1926 in St. Louis, Missouri, -although some biographies establish San Jose, California as his birthplace-, Berry was a third child in a family of six. He grew up in an area of St. Louis known as the Ville, one of the few areas of the city where black people could own property, which consequently made it synonymous with black prosperity. His father was a contractor and a deacon of a nearby Baptist church, his mother a qualified schoolteacher. His middle class upbringing allowed him to pursue his interest in music from an early age and he made his first public performances while still in high school. Before he could graduate he was arrested and convicted for attempted burglary in 1944, 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 so not having a way home, he flagged down a passing car and when he got in, he pulled the muzzle of a gun out of his coat (it wasn't a working gun; just the metallic part with no handle) and told the man to get out. The man went to a nearby payphone and called the police, who quickly pulled over Berry in the car and arrested him and his friends.

Early career

Chuck Berry had been playing a form of the "blues" since his teens and by early 1953 was performing with "Sir John's Trio," a band that played at a popular club in St. Louis. The group included Berry's long-time collaborator, and the group's namesake, piano man Johnnie Johnson.

In May of 1955, Berry traveled to Chicago where he met Muddy Waters who suggested he contact Chess Records. Signed to a contract, that September he released a unique version of the traditional fiddle tune "Ida Red", under the title "Maybellene". The song, which featured a new set of modern lyrics and a driving beat, eventually peaked at #5 on the Billboard charts. At the end of June 1956, his song "Roll Over Beethoven" reached #29 on the Billboard charts. Berry's early LP records sometimes contained well-delivered blues standards to round out the customary dozen tracks. 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 US hits "School Days", "Rock and Roll Music", "Sweet Little Sixteen," and "Johnny B. Goode."

Career scandals

In December 1959, after scoring a string of hit songs and touring often, Berry had legal problems after he invited a 14-year-old Apache waitress he met in Mexico to work as a hat check girl at Berry's Club Bandstand, his nightclub in St. Louis. After being fired from the club, the girl was arrested on a prostitution charge and Berry was arrested under the Mann Act (interstate transport of females for immoral purposes). 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 thirteen year old cousin, and Alan Freed's payola conviction, gave rock and roll an image problem that limited its acceptance into mainstream society. However, 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 classic Berry hits. In 1964/65, Berry resumed recording and placed 6 singles in the US Hot 100, including "No Particular Place To Go" (#10) and "You Never Can Tell" (#14).

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. A Miami distributor is currently marketing video footage purporting to show Berry urinating on a young woman in a bathtub. Although the voice heard sounds similar Berry's face is never visible on the tape making his positive identification impossible.

Exit and Return to Chess

Berry left Chess Records in 1965, moving to the Mercury label. For a variety of reasons (including changing musical tastes, and different production techniques) the hits dried up for Chuck during the Mercury era. He returned to Chess from 1970-1975.

He did release a hit single in 1972 for Chess, a live recording of a song he had initially recorded years earlier as a novelty track: "My Ding-a-Ling." Despite its lightweight nature, it was Berry's only No. 1 charting single ever. 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 US and the UK.

Touring as Chuck Berry, the legend

In the 1970s Berry toured off his earlier successes. Berry toured 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.

Among the many bandleaders performing this backup role were Bruce Springsteen and Steve Miller when each was just starting their careers. Springsteen related in Hail! Hail Rock and Roll that Berry did not even give the band a set list and just expected the musicians to follow his lead after each opening guitar intro. He also did not speak to or thank 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. This type of touring style, traveling the "oldies" circuit in the 1970s, where he was often paid in cash by local promoters, added ammunition for the Internal Revenue Service's indictment that Berry was a chronic income tax evader. The third time Berry would face criminal sanction was after he pled guilty to tax evasion and was sentenced to four months imprisonment and 1,000 hours of community service, doing benefit concerts in 1979.

Also in 1979, Berry released Rockit for Atco Records, his final studio album to date.

The post-studio era

In 1986, a documentary by Taylor Hackford Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll was made about Berry to document a celebration concert for his sixtieth birthday. Keith Richards was the musical leader, Eric Clapton, Etta James, Robert Cray, and Linda Ronstadt, among others, appear with Berry on stage and film. During the concert Berry plays a Gibson ES 355, the luxury version of the ES 335. Richards plays a black Fender Custom Telecaster, Cray plays a Fender Stratocaster and Clapton plays a Gibson ES 350T, the same guitar Berry used on his early recordings. 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.

In the late 1980s, Berry owned a restaurant in Wentzville, Missouri, called The Southern Air. Berry also owns an estate in Wentzville called Berry Park. For many years, Berry hosted rock concerts throughout the summer at Berry Park. He eventually closed the estate to the public due to the riotous behavior of many guests. Although in his late 70s, Berry continues to perform regularly, playing both throughout the United States and overseas. He performs one Wednesday each month at Blueberry Hill, a restaurant and bar located in the Delmar Loop neighborhood in St. Louis.

Influence

A pioneer of rock and roll, Chuck Berry was a significant influence on development of early rock and roll guitar techniques and a major catalyst in rhythm and blues to rock & roll transition. His guitar skill is legendary, and many later guitar musicians acknowledged it 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, another devotee of Berry, 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. Angus Young of AC/DC, who has cited Berry as one of his biggest influences, is famous for using Berry's duckwalk as one of his gimmicks. Berry was also a large influence on many other artists such as Elvis Presley, The Living End and Bob Dylan. The Beach Boys' hit Surfin' USA resembled Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen" so closely that they were forced to give Berry a co-writing credit in order to avoid a lawsuit. In the '80s, 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 show.

While there is debate about who recorded the first rock and roll record, Chuck Berry's early recordings, including "Maybellene" (1955) are perhaps among the first fully synthesized rock and roll singles, combining blues and country music with teenaged lyrics about girls and cars, with impeccable diction alongside distinctive electric guitar solos and an energetic stage persona. Chuck Berry also popularized use of the boogie in rock and roll.

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, arguably the epitome of an early rock and roll band. 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 & Roll Music". Additionally, Otis Spann played the piano on "You Can't Catch Me" and "No Money Down".

Producer Leonard Chess recalled laconically:

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.

Berry's musical influences included Nat King Cole, T-Bone Walker, Louis Jordan, and Muddy Waters — who was both the singer and guitarist vital in the transformation of Delta blues into Chicago blues and the man who introduced Berry to Leonard Chess at Chess Records.

Throughout his career Berry recorded both smooth ballads like "Havana Moon" and blues tunes like "Wee Wee Hours" but it was his own mastery of the new form that won him fame. 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 US pop hits and four top ten pop hits in the UK, and found his songs being covered by hundreds of blues, country, and rock and roll performers.

In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine 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 the Rolling Stone magazines 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), "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" (# 374).

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 chosen as one of the greatest achievements of humanity for the Voyager I collection of artifacts. The song was also prominently featured in the feature film Back to the Future. (Johnny Winter's cover version boasts "he could play a guitar like a bat out of Hell".)
  • "Rock and Roll Music" - Recorded by The Beatles on their 1964 album Beatles For Sale. John Lennon loved Chuck Berry's music
  • "Sweet Little Sixteen" - with new lyrics, it 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 announced a change of formaat 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 covered 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.
  • "School Days" - its chorus, "Hail! Hail! Rock and 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.
  • "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 an off-schedule train comin’ two miles about" into a Dionysian cry.

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" - teenaged 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" play on title
  • "Promised Land" - Cross country journey in song, from Norfolk, Virginia to the Promised Land, California
  • "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".
  • "No Particular Place To Go" - car, girl, "parking way out on the ko-ko-mo", frustration because he can't get the safety belt loose.
  • "Memphis" - unique beat, sweet story. Lonnie Mack and Johnny Rivers both built entire careers starting with this song.
  • "My Ding-a-Ling" - his only #1, a New Orleans novelty song that he had been singing for years and fortuitously included on a live recording in London in 1970.
  • "Run Rudolph Run" - his top Christmas song
  • "You Never Can Tell" - song included in the movie Pulp Fiction. Also covered by Emmylou Harris, and Bob Seger on his Greatest Hits album, under the title "C'est la Vie."

Among his blues tributes:

  • "Confessing the Blues" - signature tune of the famed Kansas City, Missouri jazz band of Jay McShann
  • "Merry Christmas, Baby" - originally by Charles Brown
  • "Route 66" - written by Bobby Troup and originally performed by Nat King Cole
  • "Things I Used to Do" by Louisiana's Guitar Slim
  • "Wee Wee Hours", his own blues song, B-side to "Maybellene".

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 a more complete overview.

References in popular culture

  • In the 1985 film Back to the Future, Marty McFly performs "Johnny B. Goode" at a 1955 school concert. During the performance, one character is shown on the phone saying "Chuck, it's your cousin Marvin Berry. Remember that new sound you are looking for, well listen to this!"

Chuck Berry Official Website

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