Chuck Berry - Biography

They call Elvis Presley the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll; somehow, Chuck Berry’s honorary title, the Crown Prince of Rock ‘n’ Roll, seems inadequate. Berry attained preeminence at the same time Elvis did in the mid-1950s, but his gifts were many— he excelled as singer, songwriter, guitarist, and showman. His sly, funny, much-covered compositions, which established rock’s teen template for all time, are the basic curriculum of the music. His guitar licks are as critical a foundation as the C chord. And before Michael Jackson’s moon walk came Berry’s duck walk. In truth, rock ‘n’ roll starts here.


Charles Edward Anderson Berry’s life began without great promise. He was born October 18, 1926 in St. Louis, Missouri, the fourth of Henry and Martha Berry’s six children. Raised in a strict Baptist household in the rigidly segregated city’s black Ville neighborhood, he was a troublesome student. At the age of 18, he ran away from home and headed for California with two friends. After three armed robberies, their 1937 Oldsmobile broke down, and the trio stole a car at gunpoint; stopped by a highway patrolman outside Columbia, Missouri, they were arrested. Berry was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in jail. It was not the last time he would see the inside of a cell.


During three years in a juvenile facility in Algoa, Berry sang gospel music and played jump blues in a prison band. After his release on his 21st birthday in 1947, he tried to reintegrate himself into society by enrolling in Poro College, a school for beauticians. In 1948, he met Themetta Suggs; the couple’s marriage, which produced several children, would survive years of fame, misfortune, and Berry’s reputed serial infidelities.


Berry supported his family with a variety of factory, janitorial, and hairdressing jobs, but he turned to music as a sideline in the early 1950s. He worked as a guitarist in former Sumner High classmate Tommy Stevens’ blues and pop combo, adding patron-pleasing country-flavored material to the repertoire. On New Year’s Eve 1952, he accepted a fateful gig, filling in for the ailing saxophonist in the Sir John Trio, a pop-oriented band led by boogie-woogie pianist Johnnie Johnson at the Cosmopolitan Club at 17th and Bond Street in East St. Louis. Soon, the retiring, hard-drinking Johnson was taking a back seat to the guitarist — who first billed himself as “Chuck Berryn” — in his own group.


From all reports, Berry rapidly developed his distinctive guitar style, which was, as he acknowledged in later interviews, an amalgam of several popular players’ approaches. The most obvious influence was Carl Hogan of Louis Jordan’s Tympany Five, whose comic, boozy R&B songs ruled the ‘40s “race music” charts; Hogan’s two-string solos would be meticulously aped on Berry’s early recordings. Charlie Christian, Benny Goodman’s trend-setting electric guitarist, was a principal jazz precursor, while Texan T-Bone Walker’s work supplied a blues foundation.


In August 1954, Berry cut his first session, as a sideman on a local 45 by singer Joe Alexander. Bitten by the recording bug, Berry traveled to Chicago in the spring of 1955, seeking a deal. Turned down by Vee Jay Records, the city’s black-owned independent, he was advised by blues singer Muddy Waters to meet Leonard Chess, the tough Polish co-owner of the South Side imprint Chess Records. The label, which had scored hits by Waters, his harmonica player Little Walter (Jacobs), and vocal group the Moonglows, had recently signed guitarist Ellas McDaniel, whom Chess would shortly rename Bo Diddley. Impressed by a countrified song on Berry’s demo tape, the label operator decided to give the Missouri singer-guitarist a shot in the studio.


Berry’s first session, on May 21, 1955, produced his first major hit. Originally known as “Ida Red,” this country-based piece dated back to 1928, when hillbilly singer Charlie Poole cut it; Texas swing giant Bob Wills also essayed it in 1938. Riding a bounding two-step rhythm, a blaring guitar lick, and Johnnie Johnson’s rolling piano, Berry’s version sported updated lyrics about the highway pursuit of a faithless girlfriend; its pileup of humorous lyrical detail owed much to Louis Jordan’s example. Hunting for a fresh title, Chess was inspired when his eye fell on a bottle of mascara; to avoid conflict with the cosmetics manufacturer, the song was christened with a slightly misspelled handle, “Maybellene.”


The number reached Billboard’s R&B chart on Aug. 6, 1955, and spent 16 weeks there, taking the No. 1 slot for 11 weeks. It also crossed to the pop singles chart, thanks to spins from the influential New York disc jockey Alan Freed, and peaked at No. 5. Chuck Berry had his first smash — and his first lesson in the ways of the indie record business: He was surprised to learn that his song had been copyrighted not only in his name, but also in the name of Freed (who was on Chess’ under-the-counter payroll) and Chess’ landlord Russ Fratto.


Until the DJ took the fall during the federal payola investigation of the late ‘50s, Freed would enjoy a symbiotic relationship with Berry. Soon after the release of “Maybellene,” Berry appeared on Freed’s first, riotous rock ‘n’ roll package show at the Paramount Theatre in New York. In 1956, the musician duck-walked through “You Can’t Catch Me” in Rock, Rock, Rock, the first of three low-budget exploitation films toplining Freed and featuring Berry and other top chart talent of the day.


Berry initially groped for a crossover follow-up to “Maybellene.” The ’56 singles “Thirty Days” and “No Money Down” were more adult R&B material. It wasn’t until the rock ‘n’ roll anthem “Roll Over Beethoven” scraped into the pop top 30 in mid-1956 that he began to truly mine the songwriting format that would stand him in good stead.


He told director Taylor Hackford 30 years later, “As long as the music has something to do with your walk of life, I think the people will listen. That’s why I wrote about schools — half of the young people go to school. Half of the people have cars — I wrote about cars. And mostly all of the people, if they’re not now, they’ll soon be in love, and those that have loved, if they are out of love, remember love, so I write about love. So I wrote about all three, and I think I hit a pretty good capacity of the people.”


This simple philosophy resulted in a string of iconic hits between 1957 and 1959: “School Day” (No. 3 pop, No. 1 R&B), “Rock & Roll Music” (No. 8 pop, No. 6 R&B), “Sweet Little Sixteen” (No. 2 pop, No. 1 R&B), the self-referential “Johnny B. Goode” (No. 8 pop, No. 2 R&B), “Carol” (No. 18 pop, No. 9 R&B), “Almost Grown” (No. 32 pop, No. 3 R&B). He also penned such lesser singles as “Sweet Little Rock and Roller,” “Back in the U.S.A.,” and the Christmas tune “Run Run Rudolph,” all cornerstones of the rock ‘n’ roll repertoire, all sporting snapping, immediately identifiable guitar riffs and detailed, richly funny plot lines.


Berry became a popular touring attraction, and, in an incident on the road, his roving eye got him into career-derailing trouble. In El Paso, Texas, on Dec. 1, 1959, Berry met Janice Escalanti, a mature-looking 14-year-old Apache prostitute fresh out of the drunk tank. She accompanied Berry back to St. Louis, where he gave her a job at Club Bandstand, his local music venue. Quickly fired for incompetence, Escalanti contacted police in Yuma, Arizona; three days before Christmas 1959, Berry was arrested in his hometown and charged with violation of the Mann Act, an antiquated federal statute prohibiting the interstate transportation of a minor for “immoral purposes.” A second, separate Mann Act charge relating to Berry’s prior relationship with a 16-year-old girlfriend was also lodged.


Berry beat the latter rap, and a conviction in the Escalanti case was thrown out on appeal due to the obvious racial bias of the presiding judge. But his second trial also resulted in a conviction, and in April 1961 — months before the opening of Berry Park, his entertainment and studio complex in the St. Louis suburb of Wentzville — Chuck Berry was sentenced to three years in prison.


He served nearly two years in the federal pen, and emerged in early 1964 a changed man — suspicious, wary, intensely private. He re-entered the music business with a 1964 run of minor hits in the classic manner for Chess: “Nadine,” “No Particular Place to Go,” “You Never Can Tell,” “Promised Land.” But he was held in high esteem by the new generation of rock bands: The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, among many others, established themselves with covers of his biggest hits. (He would successfully claim part of the copyright for The Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” which borrowed the tune of “Sweet Little Sixteen” with uncredited impunity.)


In 1966, Berry exited Chess for a lucrative three-year deal with Mercury Records that yielded many lesser new versions of his old material and no new hits. By then, he had become primarily a touring act, moving from town to town on strings of one-nighters. Carrying nothing besides his guitar, a comb, and a toothbrush, he demanded cash in advance (a practice that would haunt him later), plus the rental of two preferred Fender Dual Showman amplifiers for his use and a local back-up band that knew his songs. (Bruce Springsteen was among the musicians who supported Berry on one swing through Jersey.) He secured a new young audience via appearances at Bill Graham’s Fillmore auditoriums in San Francisco and New York.


Berry returned home to Chess Records in late 1969. Things were not the same: The company had been sold to a West Coast tape manufacturer in early 1968, and Leonard Chess died of a heart attack two months before his first session. Despite an attempt to update his sound with touches of psychedelia and such songs as the dope-dealing chronicle “Tulane,” his new albums didn’t reach the charts. But the greatest success of his career was around the corner.


After well-received sets cut in England by its blues stars Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, Chess dispatched Berry to Great Britain in early 1972. The half-studio, half-live album The London Chuck Berry Sessions included a 12-minute concert rendition, captured at the Locarno in Coventry, of “My Ding-a-Ling,” a single-entendre 1952 single by New Orleans bandleader Dave Bartholomew that Berry had cut as “My Tambourine” for Mercury in 1968. American disc jockeys seized on the risqué track, and an edited single version became Chuck Berry’s first and only No. 1 pop single in the fall of ’72. (It also topped the R&B chart, and the album became Berry’s only gold long-player.)


A subsequent Chess studio album, Bio (1973), failed to recapture the excitement of the London album, and Berry again parted company with the label. He had already dug a new legal trench for himself. From 1969 through the mid-‘70s, he had been the tempestuous headliner of promoter Richard Nader’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll Revival” shows, geared to freshly-minted fans of the first-generation rockers. As ever, Berry took cash for these dates, and in 1979, after a five-year investigation, the Internal Revenue Service indicted him for tax evasion, alleging that he failed to declare 1973 income from Nader’s shows and some British gigs.


Shortly after completing Rockit (1979), his last studio album, for Atlantic with long-estranged pianist Johnnie Johnson in the fold, Berry pleaded guilty to the tax charges; after a plea bargain, he was sentenced to 120 days in jail. Three days before his hearing, Berry performed in front of President Jimmy Carter at the White House.


After his release from prison in November 1979, Berry finally began to enjoy some of the perquisites of being a legend. In October 1986 — months after Berry became one of the inaugural inductees in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, with The Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards giving the induction speech -- Taylor Hackford mounted and filmed a 60th-birthday concert starring Berry and a host of stars, including Eric Clapton, Linda Ronstadt, and Etta James, at St. Louis’ opulent old Fox Theatre.


The role of leading the band, which included Johnnie Johnson, fell to Richards, one of the star’s best-known acolytes, whom Berry had hit in the mouth backstage at a 1981 New York show. This time around, Richards’ encounter with Berry would provoke psychological pain: The rock elder tormented his musical director unremittingly. The sometimes bitter give-and-take between the two guitarists was captured intimately by Hackford, whose probing interview questions were bluntly sidestepped by Berry. Nonetheless, the 1987 film — released around the same time as Berry’s amusingly written, less-than-candid book The Autobiography -- proved a critical and popular success.


Accolades, including the receipt of the Kennedy Center Honor for career artistic achievement from President Bill Clinton in 2000, would follow. So would a 2000 lawsuit by Johnnie Johnson claiming co-authorship of the Berry song catalog; the suit was ultimately dismissed before Johnson’s death in 2005.


For the last two decades, Chuck Berry has remained a working musician, playing the Blueberry Hill club in his hometown and traveling alone from city to city and pick-up band to pick-up band, like a lone gunslinger itching for one last stand — or a solitary bounty hunter seeking one final reward.


Few men have given more miles, more years, and more important music to rock ‘n’ roll than this complex, oft-difficult, supremely gifted performer, the genre’s inestimable, irreplaceable founding father.

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