Rock pioneer Chuck Berry in 1957.
||Charles Edward Anderson
||October 18, 1926
||St. Louis, Missouri
||Rock & roll
||1955 - present
Charles Edward Anderson "Chuck" Berry (born October 18, 1926 in St. Louis, Missouri) is an American guitarist,
singer, and composer.
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". He 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 in St. Louis, Missouri, 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 blacks 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
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 Bob Wills song, "Ida Red," under the title, "Maybellene."
The song 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.
Touring as Chuck Berry the legend
In the 1970s Berry toured off his earlier success. He did release a hit single, recorded years earlier as a novelty
track, "My Ding-a-Ling". Despite its lightweight nature, it was Berry's only #1 charting single ever. 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
Recognized for his Contributions
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, Eric Clapton, Etta James, Robert Cray, and Linda Ronstadt, among
others, appear with Berry on stage and film. During the concert Berry plays on a Gibson ES 355, the luxury version
of the ES 335. Richards plays a black Fender Telecaster Custom, Cray plays a Fender Stratocaster and Clapton plays
a large hollow body electric from Gibson. Image Entertainment will release on DVD a new and improved version of the
film called Hail, Hail in late June of 2006.
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.
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. 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 scandals, such as Jerry Lee Lewis's 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 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.
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 acknowleged 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!". 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 management, namely Morris Levy. Nevertheless, they became good
friends, and played together on more than one occasion. Lennon once commented: "If you tried to give Rock & Roll
another name, you might try calling it Chuck Berry". 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
While there is debate about who recorded the first rock and roll record, Chuck Berry's early recordings, including
"Maybellene" (1955) are perhaps 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 30 Top Ten records, and his songs have
been 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 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.
- "Rock and Roll Music" - one of the first tunes recorded by The Beatles
- "Sweet Little Sixteen" - with new lyrics, it became a hit for The Beach Boys as "Surfin' USA"
- "Roll Over Beethoven" - ("tell Tchaikovsky the news"), referred to in AC/DC's "Let There be Rock"
- "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.
His other hits, many of them novelty narratives, include:
- "Maybelline" - car, girl, rival, jealousy-based on the country tune "Ida Red" performed originally by
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
- "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, frustration
- "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 made famous by the movie Pulp Fiction. Also covered by 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 Nat King Cole, it is commonly associated with Berry
- "Things I Used to Do" by Louisiana's Guitar Slim
His songs are collected on albums like:
- The Great Twenty-Eight>, Berry's definitive Greatest Hits album.
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!"
- Rock Rock Rock (1957)
- One Dozen Berry's (1958)
- After School Session (1958)
- Berry Is on Top (1959)
- Rockin' at the Hops (1960)
- New Juke-Box Hits (1961)
- Chuck Berry Twist (1962)
- Chuck Berry's Greatest Hits (1964)
- Two Great Guitars (with Bo Diddley) (1964)
- Fresh Berry's (1965)
- From St. Louie to Frisco (1968)
- Back Home (1970)
- San Francisco Dues (1971)
- The London Chuck Berry Sessions (1972)
- St. Louie to Frisco to Memphis (1972)
- Johnny B. Goode (1972)
- Bio (1973)
- Sweet Little Rock and Roller (1973)
- Wild Berrys (1974)
- Flashback (1974)
- Chuck and His Friends (1974)
- Chuck Berry (1975)
- Rock It (1979)
- Alive and Rockin' (1981)
- Toronto Rock 'N' Roll Revival 1969 Vol. II (1982)
- Toronto Rock 'N' Roll Revival 1969 Vol. III (1982)
- "Retro Rock" - Chuck Berry - Broadcast Week (1982)
- Reelin' and Rockin' (1982)
- Chuck Berry (1982)
- Chuck Berry on Stage (1963)
- St. Louis to Liverpool (1964)
- Chuck Berry in London (1965)
- Chuck Berry in Memphis (1967)
- Live at the Fillmore Auditorium (1967) (bonus tracks included on 1994 re-release)
- Concerto in B. Goode (1969)
- Chuck Berry Live in Concert (1978)
- Hail! Hail! Rock 'N' Roll (1987)
- Live! (2000)
- Live on Stage (2000)
- Chuck Berry - In Concert (2002)
- Chuck Berry's Golden Decade (1967)
- Chuck Berry's Golden Hits (1967)
- Chuck Berry's Golden Decade Vol. 2 (1973)
- Chuck Berry's Golden Decade Vol. 3 (1974)
- Chuck Berry's Greatest Hits (1976)
- The Best of the Best of Chuck Berry (1978)
- Chuck Berry's 16 Greatest Hits (1978)
- Chuck Berry All-Time Hits (1979)
- The Great Twenty-Eight (1982)
- 20 Hits (1983)
- Rock 'N' Roll Rarities (1986)
- The Chess Box (Box Set) (1988)
- On the Blues Side (1994)
- Roll Over Beethoven (1996)
- Let It Rock (1996)
- The Best of Chuck Berry (1996)
- Guitar Legends (1997)
- Chuck Berry - His Best, Vol. 1 (1997)
- Chuck Berry - His Best, Vol. 2 (1997)
- The Latest & The Greatest / You Can Never Tell (1998)
- Live: Roots of Rock 'N' Roll (1998)
- Rock & Roll Music (1998)
- 20th Century Masters - The Best of Chuck Berry (1999)
- Johnny B. Goode (Legacy) (2000)
- Anthology (2000)
- Blast from the Past: Chuck Berry (2001)
- Johnny B. Goode (Columbia River) (2001)
- Gold (2005) - Simply 2000's Anthology Repackaged
- The Definitive Collection (2006)
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