Born Charles Edward Anderson Berry, 18 October 1926, St. Louis, Missouri - Died 18 March 2017, Wentzville, Missouri.
Chuck Berry’s influence, especially as a songwriter and guitarist, is incalculable. His music has transcended generations. Of all the rock & roll pioneers, Berry was by far the most gifted lyricist. He was also the easiest to understand when he sang, because he pronounced every word precisely. And for a good reason : they were good words, witty, ingenious and full of remarkable details (“they bought a souped up jitney, 'twas a cherry red '53”).
Chuck was the fourth of six Berry children, who were steeped in their parents’ religious traditions. Music was a central element and the whole group gathered around the family spinet for choir rehearsals. By the time Chuck was in high school, secular music had won out over the sacred, owing to his radio exposure to people like Louis Jordan, Nat King Cole and Tampa Red. In 1944 Berry and two friends were arrested for armed robbery. After three years in prison, Chuck worked his way through a variety of blue-collar jobs, got married and tried to supplement his income by singing in St. Louis bars. His interest in the guitar, which had begun around age 15, intensified and in 1950 he acquired his first electric guitar. Charlie Christian and Carl Hogan (Louis Jordan’s guitarist) were his main influences. In 1953 Chuck joined the combo of pianist Johnnie Johnson, which developed into the Chuck Berry Trio (Berry on guitar, Johnson on piano and Ebby Hardy on drums).
During a chance visit to Chicago in 1955, Berry met Muddy Waters and asked him what to do if he wanted to make a record. Waters advised him to approach the label for which he recorded, Chess. Berry’s tape of his own hillbilly-styled composition “Ida May” impressed Leonard Chess, who signed him to the label. Retitled “Maybelline”, the song was cut on May 21, 1955, along with the blues “Wee Wee Hours” for the B-side. It was a runaway success, peaking at # 1 on the R&B charts (for eleven weeks) and # 5 on the pop charts. His first royalty statement made Berry aware that Alan Freed and one Russ Fratto were also part composers of “Maybelline”. Leonard Chess told him that the song would get more attention with big names involved. “With me being unknown, this made sense to me, especially since he failed to mention that there was a split in the royalties as well”, writes Berry dryly in his autobiography. But his rise to national stardom had started.
The next two singles, “Thirty Days” and “No Money Down” also made the R&B Top 10, but not the pop charts. Then came the classic “Roll Over Beethoven” (# 2 R&B, # 29 pop), which has been recorded by just about everybody. One pop hit followed after another : “School Day” (# 5), “Rock and Roll Music” (# 8), “Sweet Little Sixteen” (# 2) and the immortal “Johnny B. Goode” (# 8). Money was rolling in, in vast quantities and the fact that he was being ripped off by the various dubious practices of the industry hardly registered with him.
Berry appeared in several early rock and roll films : “Rock, Rock, Rock!” (1956), “Mister Rock and Roll” (1957) and “Go Johnny Go” (1959). The hits continued after “Johnny B. Goode”, with twelve more chart entries in 1958-60 (several of them double-sided hits), but only “Carol” made the Top 20 (# 18, autumn 1958).
On December 23, 1959, Berry was arrested under the Mann Act after questionable allegations that he had sexual intercourse with a 14-year old Apache girl whom he had transported over state lines to work as a hat check girl at his club. After an initial trial in March 1960, he was sentenced to five years in prison. Berry’s appeal that the judge’s comments and attitude were racist and prejudiced the jury against him was upheld and a second trial followed in May-June 1961. Eventually Berry served 20 months in prison (in Springfield, Missouri) , from February 19, 1962 until October 18, 1963 (his 37th birthday).
Berry emerged from prison a moody, embittered man. But in his absence, there had been an important development : the emergence of British “beat” music, headed by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, both of whom based their music on Berry’s style. By the time Berry returned to the studio (January 1964), the British beat boom also began to sweep America and his back catalogue provided a substantial repertoire for the British Invasion groups. Berry’s new songs - “Nadine” (# 23), “No Particular Place To Go” (# 10) and “You Never Can Tell” (# 14) - caught on and not just in the USA. In May 1964 he toured Britain in triumph (with Carl Perkins) and appeared on the big screen with some of his British disciples in the groundbreaking T.A.M.I. show (filmed in Santa Monica, Calif.).
Chuck remained with Chess until 1966, after which he recorded for Mercury for three years, without any chart success. In November 1969 he was back with his old company and began to record material that came closer to his blues roots. He had to wait until the autumn of 1972 for a chart comeback, which became in fact the biggest hit of his career. The forgettable double-entendre novelty “My Ding-A-Ling”, recorded live in Coventry, England, went to # 1 in both the US and the UK. Chess released a live version of “Reelin’ and Rockin’” (also from the Coventry concert) as the follow-up and this would be his final chart entry in both the US (# 27) and the UK (# 18).
After leaving Chess for the second time in 1975, Berry made his last worthwhile recordings in 1979, the album “Rockit” (for Atco, vintage Berry). Also in 1979, he served his third prison sentence, for tax evasion (120 days). The only new recordings released in the 1980s are of live concerts in Japan in 1981/2. He kept on touring, but his live performances became increasingly erratic. He didn’t have a band of his own and always worked with third-rate pickup bands, turning out sloppy, out-of-tune performances which tarnished his reputation with younger fans and oldtimers alike. In 1986 Chuck was among the first inductees of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The next year he published his autobiography. The same year saw the film release of the “rockumentary” "Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll”, which included live footage from a 60th birthday concert, with Keith Richards as musical director and guest appearances by several superstars.
Now approaching his 90th birthday, Chuck Berry is still performing live. The general feeling is that he should have stopped years ago. It’s sad that such a great rock and roll pioneer ends up being a pitiful sight, but his recorded legacy and influence on younger artists who rose to major stardom, more than guarantee his place in the top pantheon of rock and roll legends.
More info : http://www.crlf.de/ChuckBerry/index.html (With discography)
Official website : http://chuckberry.com
CD recommendations :
Acknowledgements : Chuck Berry (The autobiography), Bruce Pegg, Cub Koda, Adam Komorowski.
Dik, February 2016
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