“The first time I heard “Johnny B. Goode”, I knew what I wanted to do (for a living)” – Keith Richards
(The Rolling Stones)
“You’re good son, but Chuck is the king of rock and roll” (Mother of Jerry Lee Lewis)
Chuck Berry 1926 – 2017
The universal king and architect of rock and roll, Chuck Berry, died of natural causes at his home in Wentzville, Missouri, on Mar. 18.
He was 90 years-old.
Berry was known for crafting the blueprint of rock and roll in the 1950s, a blueprint that has not really changed in the 60 years of its existence.
The 1960s British Invasion and psychedelic rock borrowed heavily from his rhythm as did the heavy metal and punk rock of the 1970s. The big hair rock of the 1980s still continued to imitate his riffs and the Seattle grunge of the 1990s used his rhythm guitar patterns unabashedly.
Modern rock in the millennial doesn’t even try to mask his influence on them.
Jimi Hendrix, Prince, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Alice Cooper, Brian May of Queen, Slash of Guns N Roses, Ice-T have all cited his influence on them.
Born Charles Edward Anderson Berry October 18, 1926, in St. Louis, Missouri, to Henry and Martha Berry, Chuck was raised in a strict Baptist household, where both his parents sang in the choir. His mother was a school teacher, his father a carpenter.
Chuck was raised on the sacred music of Negro spirituals.
But when his parents weren’t watching, he sneakily took in the sounds of Mississippi Delta blues courtesy of Muddy Waters, as well as Big Maceo, Lonnie Johnson, Tampa Red, and also the slick big band styles of legends such as Nat “King “ Cole and Louis Jordan.
Berry especially enjoyed the unique guitar styles of T-Bone Walker, Charlie Christian and Sister Rossetta Tharpe.
Chuck was also fond of country and western music (he would be later inducted into The Nashville Songwriters Hall Of Fame in 1982) to the point where when he began performing songs in the country style before Black audiences in St. Louis he was nicknamed “The Black Hillbilly.”
After serving 3 years of a maximum 10-year sentence at age 18 at the Algoa Correctional Center for a series of armed robberies with some childhood friends, Chuck was released and married Themetta Suggs. The couple, who had 3 daughters and a son, remained married until Berry’s death last week.
At the time, Chuck supported his young family by working at an automobile assembly line and as a janitor in the complex where he lived with his new family.
Chuck also became a licensed hairdresser when he attended cosmetology school as evidenced in his always perfect processed coif, even before he became a performer.
His life would change in the summer of 1951 when he purchased a second hand reel to reel magnetic tape recorder from a friend and began recording himself singing and playing a 4-string guitar that he also had recently purchased. Carl Hogan and Charlie Christian were the guitarists whose styles he studied then. The fact that they played in big bands also had an influence on Chuck’s early fat sounds that he eventually mastered on his famed Gibson electric axes.
In 1952, Chuck was asked to sit in with Tommy Stevens’ trio in St. Louis, thus beginning Berry’s moonlighting, which also brought him additional revenue.
He eventually joined pianist Johnnie Johnson’s trio along with drummer Ebby Hardy, called The Sir John Trio.
It was with Johnson’s trio that Berry eventually started making a name for himself around town, even beginning to rival fellow St. Louis native, the already established young Ike Turner.
But it would be on a trek to Chicago to catch a club show by the legendary Godfather of Chicago Blues, Muddy Waters, whom Berry approached afterwards for an autograph and info on where he could make a record, that Waters pointed Chuck towards his own label in Chicago, run by Leonard Chess and his brother Phil on 47th Street and Cottage Street.
Chuck would bring in home demo recordings a week later, which included an up tempo blues/country number about a car called “Ida Red”, which at Chess’ behest he changed to Maybellene. Chess (besides being home to Muddy Waters, also had Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Etta James and Bo Diddley on its roster) signed Chuck immediately and released “Maybellene” backed by the down home blues “Wee Wee Hours” in 1955.
Maybellene” became and instant smash with Berry touring North America to packed houses, often being shortchanged by promoters as well as his own label as Chuck saw his “Maybellene” also credited to radio disc jockey Alan Freed and Chess stationary supplier Russ Frato in a payola scandal that Chuck would only settle decades later.
In 1956, the rock and roll anthems that Chuck seemed to crank out as easily as breathing, kept coming with “Roll Over Beethoven”, “Brown Eyed Handsome Man”, “You Can’t Catch Me” and “Too Much Monkey Business”.
Chuck would headline tours with fellow rock and roll pioneers such as Little Richard, Fats Domino, Jackie Wilson and Jerry Lee Lewis.
The following year, 1957, came “School Day”, “Baby Doll”, “Rock And Roll Music” and “Sweet Little Sixteen”, which The Beach Boys later plagiarized for their smash hit “Surfin’ U.S.A.”, which they later settled out of court with Berry.
That same year came his most recognized anthem, the semi-autobiographical “Johnny B. Goode”, whose riffs would still be duplicated 60 years later.
His stupendously successful career backed by songs aimed at teens with topics such as love, cars, dancing and romance continued, producing more classics throughout 1958 and 1959 with gems like “Carol”, “Sweet Little Rock And Roller”, “Almost Grown”, “Little Queenie”, “Memphis Tennessee” and another anthem “Back In The U.S.A.”, that Linda Ronstadt would storm the charts with 20 years later.
The King Of Rock And Roll’s reign would come to a screeching halt in 1959 when he was arrested and charged with violation of the Mann act.
Berry was convicted in separate trials in 1961 to 3 years in prison, for which he served half the time.
Many believed they were trumped up charges by an American judicial system steeped in white supremacy and racism against a successful Black icon who had achieved some fame and riches.
When Berry was released in 1963, the British Invasion [of English bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones] introduced Berry’s music to a whole new generation.
On their 1963 sophomore album “With The Beatles”, the Liverpool foursome covered his classic “Roll Over Beethoven.”
On The Rolling Stones self-titled debut they covered Berry’s “Carol” and on their second album “The Rolling Stones No.2” they featured his “You Can’t Catch Me”, as well as his “Around And Around” on their 2nd American set “12 x 5”.
In 1972, Chess released the album “The London Chuck Berry Sessions”, a collection of studio recordings done in the U.K., as well as some live performances in Coventry, England, that Chuck did not even know were being recorded. The live portion of the album ends with Chuck performing “Bye Bye Johnny”, where at the end of the performance features a riot by the young British audience who wanted Chuck to return for an encore, in the process not allowing England’s headliners Pink Floyd to take to the stage.
“The London Chuck Berry Sessions” went platinum with Chess releasing the live version of the sexually risqué double entendre ditty “My Ding-A-Ling”, which became Chuck’s first No. 1 pop hit.
Chuck would only release three more albums, 1973’s “Bio”, 1975’s Self Titled and 1979’s “Rock It”.
The same year “Rock It” was released Berry served 3 months at the Lompoc Federal Correctional Institution in Lompoc, California, for tax evasion based on monies received from a U.K. tour 6 years prior.
However, Chuck would perform around the world incessantly. Most of the times with pickup bands which would either produce hot or cold results, but audiences around the globe never seemed to mind as his historical lyrics and singing, signature guitar riffs and famous duck walk dance and splits made him one of the most popular live acts on the planet.
I saw Chuck for the first time in 1971 at The Steel Pier Music Hall Theater in Atlantic City, New Jersey, when I was just a few months shy of my second birthday, when my father put me on stage with Chuck and I did the duck walk with the King Of Rock And Roll in front of a sold out audience.
The following day my family and I were walking along the Boardwalk when a tall stranger accidentally bumped into my grandmother who hollered out, “Why don’t you watch where you’re going?” Chuck Berry smiled at my grandmother and said “I’m very sorry ma’am.”
Years later when I asked my grandmother how she felt when she realized it was Chuck Berry who bumped into her she laughingly said, “I wanted to kiss him!”
Six months later, on December 31, 1971, I was with my parents at The Montreal Forum, watching “Alan Freed’s Rock And Roll Revival Revue” featuring Little Richard, Bill Haley And His Comets (whom my father hated with an unmatched passion), Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chubby Checker, Fats Domino, and of course headlined by Chuck Berry. The latter engaged in a show ending guitar duel with Diddley.
In 1997, with my daughter Jessica barely a month old, I took her, along with my father, to a free outdoor Chuck Berry concert in downtown Montreal as part of the Grand Prix festivities.
I hoisted my daughter onto my shoulders and brought her to the front of the stage where Chuck was performing “Reelin And Rockin’” and told her: “Behold the king.” I knew it wouldn’t mean much at her age, but when I told her this story last week after Chuck’s passing, she replied, “You did that? Good.”
Chuck released his autobiography simply called “Chuck” – The Autobiography, published in 1987 by Harmony Books.
That same year, Universal Pictures released the documentary film, “Hail Hail Rock ‘N’ Roll”, directed by Taylor Hackford, and largely produced by Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones.
The film, which was based on rehearsals for two concerts held at The Fox Theater in St. Louis, features interviews with Berry, Richards, The Everly Brothers, Bo Diddley, Roy Orbison, Little Richard and Bruce Springsteen (who early in his career with his E Street band backed up Berry) who talked about the influence that Chuck’s music had on their careers. The film also features Chuck performing alongside Robert Cray, Julian Lennon (John’s eldest son), Etta James and Linda Ronstadt.
Other Berry classics included, “No Particular Place To Go”, “30 Days”, “Havana Moon”, “Let It Rock” and “Nadine.”
Berry’s music has also been covered by Rod Stewart, Prince, Gerry & The Pace Makers, Jimi Hendrix, AC/DC, Paul Anka, Johnny Paycheck, Count Basie, The Animals, David Bowie, Elvis Presley, Conway Twitty and Bob Seeger, just to name a few.
Chuck continued to perform up to once a week at the Blueberry Hill Club in St. Louis, almost up to his death.
Chuck recorded an album in 2016 simple called “Chuck”, which also features guest appearances by some of his children.
The album, his first in almost 40 years, will be released this summer.