Elvis may have been the first rock ‘n’ roll heart throb and Rocket 88 by Jackie Brenston may be accepted as the first rock ‘n’ roll record, but Chuck Berry was the master and the first true pioneer that so many musicians, to this day, hold in the highest regard.
The thousands of Tweets accurately say it all; Sting said, “Without Chuck Berry, there’s no Rolling Stones, there’s no Beatles, there’s no me. He was an incredibly influential musician and amazing lyricist,” Bruce Springsteen said, “Chuck Berry was rock’s greatest practitioner, guitarist, and the greatest pure rock ‘n’ roll writer who ever lived,” Rod Stewart concurred, “It started with Chuck Berry. He inspired us all,” and John Lennon once said, “If you try to give rock and roll another name you might call it Chuck Berry.”
Charles Edward Anderson Berry was born in October 1926 in St. Louis, Missouri into middle-class African-American family. His first ‘public’ performance came in 1941 at Sumner High school. He also found himself in trouble with the law at an early age too because in 1944 he was arrested for armed robbery when he tried to rob three stores in Kansas City and then stole a car at gunpoint. He served three years at the Intermediate Reformatory for Young Men at Algoa. Whilst inside he took up boxing and formed a singing quartet that became so competent that the centre allowed them out to play the occasional gig. He was released on his 21st birthday in 1947.
After his release he began playing local clubs in St. Louis and his guitar riffs are ‘borrowed’ from his friend and fellow musician T-Bone Walker. He also copied a technique which involved bending two strings at once giving it a rough sound that became the Chuck Berry lick. By the mid-fifties, when he 30, Chuck was beginning to write his own songs, but it was accepted which was strange because Bill Haley was the same age when (We’re Gonna) Rock Around The Clock came out and before long he was considered too old, but Chuck’s song were lively, exciting and appealed to the teenagers at the time. His first hit was Maybelline, a song that evolved out of Ida Red, a hillbilly song that was first recorded by Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys. Berry had heard it on a local radio station and reworked it with some new lyrics about his hobby, fast cars and changed the title to Ida Mae to stop anyone claiming copyright. In early 1955 Berry went to New Orleans to see his friend Muddy Waters, whilst there he went to see Leonard Chess, the owner of Chess records who listened to some of his songs and chose Ida Mae, but then changed the title to Maybelline. Some copies of the record were send to DJ Alan Freed and he liked it. Chess agreed to add Freed’s name as a co-writer so he got a share of the publishing royalties. He was also given some cash as an incentive to play the song on his radio programme. It was deals like this that led to the payola scandal of the early sixties.
Roll Over Beethoven (1956), School Day (Ring Ring Goes the Bell) and Rock & Roll Music (1957) and Sweet Little Sixteen and Johnny B. Goode (1958) were all top 10 hits in America. School Day and Sweet Little Sixteen were Berry’s first two UK hits reaching 24 and 16 respectively. Arguably his best known song, Johnny B. Goode failed to chart in this country, however, Jimi Hendrix (1972), Peter Tosh (1983) and Judas Priest (1988) all did chart with it, but none reached the top 30. Other well-known Chuck Berry songs that charted for other artists in the UK are; Brown Eyed Handsome Man (Buddy Holly), Come On (Rolling Stones), Memphis Tennessee (Dave Berry), Reelin’ And Rockin’ (Dave Clark Five), Hey Good Lookin’ (Bo Diddley), Promised Land (Elvis Presley), Roll Over Beethoven (E.L.O) and Tulane (Steve Gibbons Band).
Throughout the fifties, Berry toured regularly and showcased his famous duck-walk which involved kicking one leg forward and hopping on the other in a crouched position which thrusting the guitar forward at the same time, audiences were stunned, just like they were when Michael Jackson showcased his moonwalk in 1983.
In 1957, Berry bought 30 acres of land in Wentzville, Missouri where he built an amusement park and called it Berry Park which house his own restaurant called the Southern Air. The following year he opened Club Bandstand in the theater district of St. Louis.
In 1959 Berry was arrested again, this time for transporting a teenage girl, who had worked in his Club Bandstand, across state lines for sexual purposes. He was tried twice and found guilty both times, but the first verdict was overturned due to a racist remark made by the judge. There was a third trial and a couple of appeals and he was eventually released in October 1963. On the upside, within six months of his release he made the top 10 on both sides of the Atlantic with No Particular Place to Go. Three months later he was back in the chart with You Never Can Tell.
Probably the biggest surprise of his career came in 1972 when a cover of Dave Bartholomew’s 1952 song Little Girl Sing Ding-a-Ling which Chuck claimed he toned down and called it My Ding-A-Ling. It was recorded live at the Coventry Lanchester Polytechnic, now known as Coventry University, as part of the Lanchester Arts Festival. The song was full of sexual innuendoes and all about a boy discovering his penis. It was recorded for a live album, inexplicably called The London Sessions and Berry used Roy Young’s band for the concert who included Owen McIntyre and Robbie McIntosh, later of the Average White Band. The album version was over 12 minutes long but it was edited into a four minute single and it is unlikely that it would have done so well if Mary Whitehouse and her Festival Of Light had not objected to it so vehemently. As Chuck says, “There’s nothing wrong with sex. It’s just the way you handle it.” Mind you, the concert nearly did not happen as Chuck Berry turned up an hour and half late in a rather inebriated state. Although you’d never be able to hear her, one of the audience members was Lene Lovich.
In 1979, he appeared as himself in the film American Hot Wax, and a couple of months later performed for President Jimmy Carter at the White House. Three days later he was in trouble again when he was sentenced to 120 days in federal prison and four years’ probation for income tax evasion.
That wasn’t the end of his trouble, in 1990 the police raided his home and found over 60 grams of marijuana as well as videotapes from a secret camera he installed in the women’s toilet in his restaurant. He was spared jail after he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanour count of marijuana possession, with a suspended jail sentence and two years’ probation.
In 1995, he performed at an inaugural concert at the opening of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum opened in Cleveland and was backed by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. Between 1996 and 2014, Berry played 209 monthly concerts in the Duck Room of the Blueberry Hill restaurant in St. Louis.
In the 2000s Berry continued to tour and it became well-known that he insisted on cash for each gig and paid upon his arrival or he didn’t perform. In 18 October 2016, the day of 90th birthday he announced that he was planning to release his first studio album in almost 40 years. The album, will be called Chuck and scheduled for release in June this year and comprises mainly new compositions.
Unlike Vera Lynn who has just turned 100 and lived to see her new album, Vera Lynn 100, make the chart, Chuck won’t be around to see if his career was to get a new lease of life because he died of natural causes on 18th March. He knows he wasn’t always a good boy as he noted in his memoir “Every 15 years, in fact, it seems I make a big mistake.”