Berry, Chuck(actually, Charles Edward Anderson)

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Berry, Chuck(actually, Charles Edward Anderson)

Berry, Chuck(actually, Charles Edward Anderson), American rock ’n’ roll songwriter, singer, and guitarist; b. St. Louis, Mo., Oct. 18, 1926. Berry’s songs, such as “Roll over Beethoven,” “Rock & Roll Music,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Johnny B. Goode,” and “Memphis, Tennessee,” with their articulate, teen-oriented lyrics and distinctive guitar chords, created a basic repertoire for rock ’n’ roll. He was an immediate influence on the Beach Boys, The Beatles, and the Rolling Stones, all of whom recorded his songs, and through them and others on all subsequent rock music. As a performer and recording artist himself, despite a career bedeviled by legal problems, he was an international concert attraction for more than 40 years, able to use pickup groups wherever he went because all rock musicians knew his material. He placed numerous recordings of his own compositions in the charts from the 1950s to the 1970s.

Berry was the son of Henry and Martha Berry; his father was a carpenter. He sang in a church choir as a child, began studying the piano at eight, and took up the guitar at the start of his teens, studying with Ira Harris. He attended Sumner H.S. in St. Louis, receiving instruction from the music teacher, Julia Davis. He was playing in local groups, notably one led by Ray Bands, by 1942. In 1944 he was convicted of armed robbery, and he spent three years in a reformatory. Upon his release in 1947, he went to work in an automobile manufacturing plant while studying cosmetology at the Poro School of Beauty Culture at night; upon graduation, he became a hairdresser. On Oct. 28, 1948, he married Themetta Suggs Toddy, with whom he had four children, among them a daughter named Ingrid who later sang with him.

In 1952, Berry began playing local clubs with a trio including pianist Johnnie Johnson and drummer Ebby Hardy. In 1955 he went to Chicago and auditioned for Chess Records, which released his debut single, “May-bellene” (music and lyrics credited to Chuck Berry, Russ Frato, and Alan Freed, though Berry was the sole author); it topped the R&B charts in August and peaked in the pop Top Ten in September, launching Berry’s career. (”Maybellene” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1988.) Before the end of the year, he was back in the R&B Top Ten with “Thirty Days (To Come Back Home)/” and “No Money Down” reached the R&B Top Ten early in 1956, but he didn’t score another pop hit until his fourth single, “Roll over Beethoven,” which was in the pop Top 40 in June 1956. (”Roll over Beethoven” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1990.) Both sides of his next single, “Too Much Monkey Business”/”Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” reached the R&B Top Ten without crossing over to the pop charts. In December 1956 he appeared in the film Rock, Rock, Rock!, singing his next, noncharting single, “You Can’t Catch Me.”

Zeroing in on teen concerns, Berry’s seventh single, “School Day,” hit #1 on the R&B charts in April 1957 and peaked in the pop Top Ten in May. His less successful eighth single, “Oh Baby Doll,” was featured along with its B-side, “La Jaunda,” in his next film appearance, Mr. Rock and Roll in October. “Rock & Roll Music” was a return to form, peaking in the pop Top Ten in December. “Sweet Little Sixteen” did even better, topping the R&B charts and peaking in the pop Top Ten in March 1958. (His performance of it at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival that July turned up in the September 1959 concert film Jazz on a Summer’s Day.)”Johnny B. Goode” was his third consecutive pop Top Ten in June.

Berry’s record sales cooled in the second half of 1958, but he reached the R&B Top Ten and the pop Top 40 with “Carol” later in the year and achieved similar success with “Almost Grown” in the spring of 1959. He sang both the B-side of the latter single, “Little Queenie,” and “Memphis, Tennessee,” the B-side of his next single, the Top 40 hit “Back in the U.S.A.,” in the film Go, Johnny, Go!

Berry was arrested and indicted in December 1959 for transporting a minor across state lines for immoral purposes, a charge originating with a girl he had brought from Tex. to work in his St. Louis nightclub who had been arrested for prostitution. After two trials he was convicted in October 1961, given a two-year sentence, and sent to prison in February 1962. Mean while, his songs were taken up by various performers. The Velaires reached the charts with “Roll over Beethoven” in August 1961; Jerry Lee Lewis revived “Sweet Little Sixteen” for a chart entry in September 1962; and in May 1963 the Beach Boys hit the Top Ten by borrowing the music from “Sweet Little Sixteen” for “Surfin’ U.S.A.” (lyrics by Brian Wilson). Two months later, Lonnie Mack’s instrumental treatment of “Memphis, Tennessee” was in the Top Ten. Chess Records capitalized on Berry’s growing popularity with the album Chuck Berry on Stage, actually consisting of studio recordings with audience sounds overdubbed, which became his first chart LP in August.

British performers also recorded Berry songs, notably the Rolling Stones, whose first single, “Come On,” which entered the U.K. charts in July 1963 and made the Top 40, was a cover of a noncharting 1961 Berry single. Dave Berry, who borrowed his stage name from his idol, made the British charts in September with “Memphis, Tennessee,” which also got into the Top 40. In October a Chuck Berry single containing the 1960 B-side “Let It Rock” and “Memphis, Tennessee” entered the U.K. charts on its way to the Top Ten. In November The Beatles’ cover of “Roll over Beethoven” appeared on their second British album, With the Beatles; released as a single in North America in December, it made the U.S. charts in March 1964.

Berry was released from prison in October 1963 and began to take advantage of the rise in his fortunes brought about by the many covers of his work. His first newly recorded single, “Nadine (Is It You?),” peaked in the Top 40 in May 1964; “No Particular Place to Go” hit the Top Ten in July; and “You Never Can Tell” was a Top 40 hit in September, with “Little Marie” and “Promised Land” both reaching the charts before the end of the year. The LPs Chuck Berry’s Greatest Hits and St. Louis to Liverpool also reached the charts. Meanwhile, Berry revivals continued apace: Tommy Roe reached the charts in April 1964 with “Carol”; Johnny Rivers had a Top-Ten hit with “Memphis, Tennessee” in July and a Top 40 hit with “Maybellene” in September; Dion took “Johnny B. Goode” back into the charts in August; and Bill Black’s Combo had an instrumental chart entry with “Little Queenie” in October. Berry performed that same month at the all-star T.A.M.I. Show, released as a film in November.

Both Berry’s own recording career and the spate of revivals fell off after 1964, as contemporary performers, influenced by The Beatles, began to focus on performing their own compositions, although the Dave Clark Five’s revival of his 1958 B-side, “Reelin’ and Rockin’,” peaked in the Top 40 in May 1965. In 1966, Berry switched from Chess to Mercury Records, for which he recorded several commercially unsuccessful albums. He spent much of his money building Berry Park, an amusement park in Wentzville, Mo., near St. Louis. In July 1969, Buck Owens topped the country charts with a revival of “Johnny B. Goode.” Berry appeared at the Toronto Peace Festival that September, his performance filmed for the 1970 movie Sweet Toronto. Having re-signed to Chess Records, he recorded the album Back Home in December, which featured the single “Tulane.” Johnny Winter revived “Johnny B. Goode” for a chart entry in January 1970.

Berry’s next Chess album, San Francisco Dues, released in September 1971, did not chart, but in February 1972 he traveled to England where his performance at the Lancaster Arts Festival was taped along with some studio recordings for The London Chuck Berry Sessions, released in May. Included on the album was a live take of “My Ding-A-Ling,” a comically smutty sing-along; released as a single in June, it hit #1 in October and sold a million copies, while the LP hit the Top Ten and went gold. His greatest commercial success, this brought several albums of his older recordings into the charts; a live version of “Reelin’ and Rockin’” with new, suggestive lyrics peaked in the Top 40 in February 1973; and Berry’s next album, Chuck Berry/Bio, reached the charts in September 1973.

The resurgence in Berry’s popularity, part of an overall nostalgia for 1950s rock ’n’ roll in the early 1970s, led to another wave of successful revivals of his songs that lasted through the 1970s. The Electric Light Orch. reached the charts in April 1973 with “Roll over Beethoven”; the Beach Boys enjoyed a Top 40 reissue of “Surfin’ U.S.A. in August 1974 and revived “Rock & Roll Music” for a Top Ten hit in August 1976; Elvis Presley took “Promised Land” into the Top 40 in December 1974; Leif Garrett had a Top 40 hit with “Surfin’ U.S.A.” in October 1977; and Linda Ronstadt had a Top 40 hit with “Back in the U.S.A.” in October 1978. In the U.K., a Berry compilation album, Motorvatin’, reached the charts in February 1977 and hit the Top Ten, and the Steve Gibbons Band charted in August 1977 with a cover of “Tulane” that became a Top 40 hit. Berry, meanwhile, was seen performing in the films Let the Good Times Roll (1973), Alice in the Cities (1974), and American Hot Wax (1978).

Berry was convicted of tax evasion in 1979, and he served a 100-day prison sentence that ended in November. While he was incarcerated, his last album of newly recorded material, Rockit, was released by Ateo Records. He continued to tour in the 1980s, and in 1986 his 60th birthday was marked by an all-star concert in St. Louis filmed for the movie biography Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll, released the following year along with his autobiography. Meanwhile, his work continued to draw attention: Peter Tosh had yet another chart version of “Johnny B. Goode” in 1983; and the three-CD box set reissue Chuck Berry—The Chess Box won the 1989 Grammy for Best Historical Album. Berry continued to perform during the 1990s.


C B.: The Autobiography (N.Y., 1987).


Rock and Roll Music (1957); Sweet Little Sixteen (1957); One Dozen Berrys (1958); After School Session (1958); Pickin’ Berries (1959); Chuck Berry Is on Top (1959); Rockin’ at the Hops (1960); New Juke Box Hits (1961); Chuck Berry Twist (1962); Check Berry on Stage (live; 1963); Chuck & Bo, Vols. 1, 2 (1963); This Is Chuck Berry (1963); Latest and Greatest (1963); St. Louis to Liverpool (1964); Promised Land (1964); Chuck & Bo, Vol 3 (1964); You Never Can Tell (1964); Chuck Berry in London (1965); In Memphis (live; 1967); Live at the Fillmore Auditorium (1967); Back Home (1970); San Francisco Dues (1971); The London Chuck Berry Sessions (1972); Chuck Berry/Bio (1973).


H. De Witt, C. B.: Rock ’n’Roll Music (Fremont, Calif., 1981; 2nd éd., rev., 1985); K. Reese, G B.: Mr. Rock n’ Roll (London and N.Y., 1982); D. Cohen and J. Green, Send More C. B. (South Bend, Ind., 1990)

—William Ruhlmann

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Berry, Chuck(actually, Charles Edward Anderson)

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