Berry, Chuck (1926—)

views updated

Berry, Chuck (1926—)

Singer, songwriter, and guitarist Charles Edward Anderson Berry, better known as Chuck Berry, epitomized 1950s rock 'n' roll through his songs, music, and dance. "If you tried to give rock 'n' roll another name, you might call it 'Chuck Berry,"' commented John Lennon, one of the many artists influenced by Berry's groundbreaking works—others included the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys. A consummate showman with an electrifying stage style, he originated such classic songs as "School Days," in which he proclaimed "hail, hail, rock and roll" and "long live rock and roll"; and "Rock and Roll Music," in which he sang: "It's gotta be rock and roll music, if you want to dance with me." Berry was the first black rock 'n' roll artist to cross the tracks and draw a significant white audience to his music. His career was sidetracked, however, with his arrest and imprisonment on morals charges in 1959.

Berry captured the exuberant teenage spirit of the 1950s in his music. In the early part of that decade, the precursors of white rock 'n' roll and the purveyors of black rhythm and blues lived on opposite sides of the tracks, with the music of each being played on small radio stations for their respective audiences. Berry combined black rhythm and blues, white country music, jazz, and boogie woogie into his style, and his music and lyrics became the catalyst for the music of the Rolling Stones, Beatles, and Beach Boys. His composition "Nadine" was a mirror of the later style of the Rolling Stones. Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen" was adapted as "Surfin' USA" by the Beach Boys, becoming a million dollar single.

Berry was born on October 18, 1926 in St. Louis, Missouri. (Some sources attribute San Jose, California as his place of birth based on false information he originally gave his longtime secretary for a biographical sketch.) As a teenager, Berry was interested in photography and poetry, until he began performing. He came from a good home with a loving mother and father but strayed from his home training, first encountering the juvenile-justice system for a bungled armed robbery, serving two years in reform school. Upon his release in 1947, Berry returned home and began work at General Motors while taking up hair dressing and cosmetology. By 1950, he was married with two children and had formed a trio with pianist Johnny Johnson and drummer Ebby Harding. Their group played at the Cosmopolitan Club in East St. Louis, Illinois, gaining a considerable reputation in the surrounding area. He also studied and honed his guitar technique with a local jazz guitarist named Ira Harris. The trio played for a largely black audience, but with the drop of a cowboy hat, Berry could switch to country and hillbilly tunes.

Berry traveled to Chicago in 1955, visiting bands and inquiring about recording. Muddy Waters suggested that he contact Leonard Chess, president of Chess records. A week later, Berry was back in Chicago with a demo and subsequently recorded "Maybellene" (originally called "Ida Mae") which rose to the number one spot on the R&B chart and number five on the pop chart. Almost instantaneously, Berry had risen from relative regional obscurity to being a national celebrity with this crossover hit. From 1955 to 1960, Berry enjoyed a run of several R&B top-20 entries with several of the songs crossing over to the pop top-10. "Thirty Days," "Roll Over Beethoven," "Too Much Monkey Business," "School Days," "Rock and Roll Music," "Sweet Little Sixteen," "Johnny B. Goode," and "Almost Grown" were not only commercial successes but well written, engaging songs that would stand the test of time and become classics.

Berry's musical influences were diverse. Latin rhythms are heard in "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man" and in "Rock and Roll Music"; black folk-narrative styles in "Too Much Monkey Business"; polka and the Italian vernacular in "Anthony Boy"; the black folk-sermon and congregational singing style in "You Can't Catch Me"; blues á la John Lee Hooker in "Round and Round"; and country music in "Thirty Days." Instrumentally, his slide and single string work was influenced by Carl Hogan, guitarist in Louis Jordan's Tympany Five combo; and by jazz guitarist Charlie Christian and blues guitarist Aaron "T-Bone" Walker, whose penchant for repeating the same note for emphasis influenced Berry. Nat "King" Cole influenced Berry's early vocal style, and Charles Brown's influence is evident in "Wee Wee Hours." Berry makes extensive use of the 12-bar blues form. He occasionally departs from the blues form with compositions such as "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man," "Thirty Days," "Havana Moon," "You Can't Catch Me," "Too Pooped to Pop," and "Sweet Little Sixteen." Berry makes extensive use of stop time as in "Sweet Little Sixteen," creating a tension and release effect.

Berry was a featured performer on Alan Freed's radio programs and stage shows and appeared in the films Go Johnny Go, Mister Rock and Roll, Rock, Rock, Rock, and Jazz on a Summer's Day. He also appeared on Dick Clark's American Bandstand. Berry toured as a headliner on bills with artists such as Carl Perkins, Bill Haley and the Comets, and Little Richard, among others.

His recording success turned Berry into a wealthy businessman and club owner, and a developer of his own amusement park. His quick rise to fame and his robust appetite for women of all races caused resentment among some whites. In 1959 he allegedly transported a fourteen-year-old Spanish-speaking Apache prostitute across state lines to work as a hat checker in his night club outside of St. Louis. Berry fired her and she protested. A brazenly bigoted first trial ensued and was dismissed, but in the second trial, Berry was convicted and sent to prison, serving two years of a three-year sentence. This experience left him extremely embittered, with his marriage ruined. While he survived financially, he became inward, distrustful, and suspicious of people.

By the time Berry was released in 1964, the British Invasion with the Beatles and Rolling Stones was in full force; both groups included Berry's songs on their albums. He continued to tour, often with pickup bands. In 1966, he left Chess Records to record for Mercury, an association that did not yield any best sellers. He returned to Chess in 1971 and had his first gold record with "My Ding-a-Ling," a whimsical, double entendre-filled adaptation of Dave Bartholomew's "Toy Bell." In 1972, Berry appeared as a featured attraction in Las Vegas hotels. By 1979, he had run afoul with the law again and was sentenced to four months and one thousand hours of community service for income tax evasion.

During his incarceration in Lompoc, California, he began work on Chuck Berry: the Autobiography, a book that made extensive use of wordplay, giving insight into his life, romances, comebacks, and context for his songs. For his sixtieth birthday celebration, in 1986, a concert was staged in conjunction with a documentary filming of Chuck Berry: Hail, Hail, Rock and Roll by producer Taylor Hackford. The film featured an all-star cast of rock and R&B artists, including Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones as musical director, plus Eric Clapton, Linda Ronstadt, Robert Cray, Etta James, and Julian Lennon.

In 1986, Berry was inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame. His importance as a songwriter, guitarist, singer, innovator and ambassador of that genre remains unquestioned. To paraphrase one of his lines in "Roll Over Beethoven," Berry's heart beats rhythm and his soul keeps on singin' the blues.

—Willie Collins

Further Reading:

Berry, Chuck. Chuck Berry: The Autobiography. New York, Harmony Books, 1987.

De Witt, Howard A. Chuck Berry: Rock 'n' Roll Music. Fremont, California, Horizon, 1981.