Chuck Berry was one of the most influential rock ‘n’ roll musicians of all time. He is well-known for songs such as “Maybellene” and “Johnny B. Goode.”
Chuck Berry: Who Was He?
Chuck Berry, widely regarded as the “Father of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” was exposed to music at a young age through school and church. He was sentenced to three years in jail as a youngster for armed robbery. He started making songs in the 1950s, including 1958’s “Johnny B. Goode,” and earned his first No. 1 hit in 1972 with “My Ding-a-Ling.” Berry became one of the most important people in rock music history thanks to his smart lyrics and distinct style.
Childhood in St. Louis
Charles Edward Anderson Berry was born on October 18, 1926, in St. Louis, Missouri. His parents, Martha and Henry Berry were enslaved people’s grandchildren and were among the numerous African Americans who traveled from the rural South to St. Louis in search of work during World War I. Martha was one of the few Black women of her time to attend college, and Henry was a hardworking carpenter and deacon at the Antioch Baptist Church.
St. Louis was a deeply segregated city at the time of Berry’s birth. He grew up in the Ville, a self-contained middle-class Black suburb in north St. Louis that was a sanctuary for Black-owned companies and organizations. Berry had never seen a white person until he was three years old when he saw numerous white firemen putting out a fire. ”I believed they were so scared that their faces were white from fear of coming near the large fire,” he recounted once. ”Daddy said they were white people, and their complexion was constantly white like that, day and night.”
Berry, the fourth of six children, had a wide range of interests and activities as a youngster. He liked working carpentry for his father and learning photography from his uncle, the famous photographer Harry Davis. Berry developed an early musical gift and began singing in the church choir at the age of six. He went to Sumner High School, a prominent private school that was the first all-Black high school west of the Mississippi River. Berry sang Jay McShann’s “Confessin’ the Blues” at the school’s annual talent show, backed on guitar by a buddy. Although the school authorities objected to the song’s coarse lyrics, the performance was a huge hit with the student body and ignited Berry’s interest in learning to play the guitar himself. Soon after, he began guitar lessons with local jazz icon Ira Harris.
Berry was also a bit of a troublemaker in high school. He was bored with his studies and felt restricted by rigid etiquette and discipline. Berry and two pals dropped out of high school in 1944, at the age of 17, and embarked on an unplanned road trip to California. They hadn’t gotten much further than Kansas City when they stumbled and discovered a revolver abandoned in a parking lot and decided to embark on a robbery spree, gripped by a dreadful fit of young miscalculation. They robbed a bakery, a clothes store, and a barbershop with the pistol before being apprehended by highway patrolmen. Despite being adolescents and first-time offenders, the three young men received the maximum sentence of ten years in prison.
Berry spent three years in the Intermediate Reformatory for Young Men outside of Jefferson, Missouri, before being released on good behavior on his 21st birthday, October 18, 1947. He returned to St. Louis and worked for his father’s construction company while also working part-time as a photographer and caretaker at a nearby auto plant.
Berry married Themetta “Toddy” Suggs in 1948, and the couple had four children. When his former high school friend Tommy Stevens encouraged him to join his band in 1951, he picked up the guitar again. They performed at St. Louis’ Black nightclubs and Berry immediately gained a reputation for his energetic flair. He met Jonnie Johnson, a local jazz pianist, at the end of 1952 and joined his band, Sir John’s Trio. Berry re-energized the band by including lively country songs in the band’s repertoire of jazz and pop music. They performed at the Cosmopolitan, an elite Black nightclub in East St. Louis that began to draw white customers.
The Beginnings of Rock ‘n’ Roll
Berry began taking road trips to Chicago, the Midwest hub of Black music, in the mid-1950s in quest of a record deal. Early in 1955, he met Muddy Waters, the famed blues artist, who suggested Berry meet with Chess Records. Berry penned and recorded a song named “Maybellene” a few weeks later and brought it to Chess executives. They promptly offered him a contract, and “Maybelline” quickly rose to No. 1 on the R&B charts and No. 5 on the mainstream charts. Many music historians believe “Maybellene” to be the first authentic rock ‘n’ roll song because of its unusual combination of a rhythm and blues beat, country guitar licks, and the flavor of Chicago blues and narrative storytelling.
Berry immediately followed with a spate of additional one-of-a-kind hits that helped carve out the new genre of rock ‘n’ roll, including “Roll Over, Beethoven,” “Too Much Monkey Business,” and “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man.” Berry achieved crossover appeal with white teenagers without alienating his Black followers by combining blues and R&B sounds with storytelling that addressed universal youth concerns. Songs like “Johnny B. Goode,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” and “Carol” all cracked the Top 10 of the pop charts in the late 1950s, gaining equal appeal with youngsters on both sides of the racial divide. “I made records for people who would buy them,” Berry explained. “I don’t want color, ethnicity, or politics, and I never have.”
Berry’s meteoric musical career was disrupted once more in 1961 when he was found guilty under the Mann Act of unlawfully transferring a lady over state lines for “immoral purposes.” Berry had founded Club Bandstand in the largely white commercial section of downtown St. Louis three years earlier, in 1958. He met a 14-year-old waitress—and occasionally prostitute—while traveling in Mexico the next year and brought her back to St. Louis to work at his club. However, he fired her only a few weeks later, and when she was caught for prostitution, Berry was charged, and he spent another 20 months in jail.
When Berry was released from jail in 1963, he continued composing and recording successful and creative songs. “Nadine,” “You Can Never Tell,” “Promised Land,” and “Dear Dad” were among his 1960s successes. Berry, though, was never the same following his second stay in prison. “Never saw a man so changed,” Carl Perkins, his friend and tour companion on a 1964 British concert tour, said. He used to be a laid-back guy, the type to jam in locker rooms and hang about swapping licks and jokes. He was cold, aloof, and harsh in England. It wasn’t only jail; it was years of one-nighters, which can kill a guy, but I guess it was largely jail.”
In 1979, Berry released one of his final albums of original songs, Rock It, to generally favorable reviews. Berry continued to play into the 1990s, but he never regained the magnetic intensity and creativity that launched him to popularity in the 1950s and 1960s.
Hall of Fame for Rock & Roll
Berry is still regarded as one of the most important performers in the genre. He got the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1985. A year later, in 1986, he became the inaugural entrant into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The extent to which other prominent artists have replicated Berry’s work is perhaps the finest indicator of his impact. The Beach Boys, Rolling Stones, and Beatles have all recorded Chuck Berry songs, and Berry’s influences—both subtle and profound—can be traced in all of their work.
When introducing Berry in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones remarked, “It’s very difficult for me to talk about Chuck Berry ’cause I’ve lifted every lick he ever played.” This is the man who began it all!”
On his 90th birthday, the music great announced intentions to record a new album devoted to his wife of 68 years, Themetta, whom he referred to as Toddy. “This record is dedicated to my beloved Toddy,” he stated. “Darlin’, I’m getting old!” I’ve been working on this album for a long time. “I can finally hang up my shoes!”
Legacy and Death
Berry, 90, passed away on March 18, 2017. He is known as a rock ‘n’ roll founding father whose pioneering career impacted generations of artists.