Charles Edward Anderson "Chuck" Berry was born in 1926, St Louis, Missouri. He came from a family of six and was the middle child. His father was a contractor and a deacon of a nearby Baptist church and his mother a qualified schoolteacher. Chuck’s middle-class background allowed him to pursue music from an early age and he made his first public performance while still in high school. As a teenager the young Anderson kid preferred blues and performed with Sir John's Trio. Just fun the seventeen year old would add a bit of rockabilly to please the predominantly white audience but gradually his black audiences enjoyed Chuck’s cross over style. In 1955 he went to Chicago and was introduced to Chess Records by Muddy Waters. For his first single he chose an old bluegrass hit Ida Red (Bob Wills & his Texas Playboys 1938), which Chuck retitled Maybellene. The song peaked at #5 on the US Charts. "Maybellene" represents the first fully synthesized rock and roll single and impeccably blends blues and country music combined with teenaged lyrics about girls and cars. The distinctive electric guitar solos are superbly combined with an energetic stage persona suffice Chuck was arguably Mr Rock’n’Roll.
No less a personage than John Lennon paid him the ultimate compliment when he said “if you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it, Chuck Berry." Chess were keen to follow up with another hit and Chuck recorded Roll over Beethoven in 1956.
Remarkably the song did not do so well in the charts but popular performer was asked to join a new rock’n’roll show (Alan Freed’s Big Beat Show) that was touring America. The other acts were the Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly.
In 1956 Chuck appeared in first movie called Rock Rock Rock and sang "You Can't Catch Me".
Chuck was a breakthrough artist and his songs featured country-and-western inflected light blues melodies, along with plenty of guitar twang. He was a significant influence on the development of early rock and roll guitar techniques and a major catalyst in the rhythm and blues to rock & roll transition. He influenced a countless number of musicians include the British Beat Group generation. In the Chess recordings where most of his famous tracks were made the studio band included Johnnie Johnson (piano), Willie Dixon (bass), and Fred Below (drums). Lafayette Leake, played the piano on "Johnny B. Goode", "Reelin' and Rocking", "Sweet Little Sixteen", and "Rock & Roll Music".
Otis Spann played the piano on "You Can't Catch Me" and "No Money Down".
By 1960 all of these songs had become chart successes and more importantly rock standards to be recorded by many other artists in the ensuing years. In his next film Chuck had a speaking role, playing himself in the 1959 film Go, Johnny, Go! and is shown performing "Johnny B. Goode", "Memphis, Tennessee", and "Little Queenie".
In his personal life he was a reckless larrikin and inevitably ended up in trouble with the law and spent time in prison for sex offences. When he was released from prison in 1963 his musical career enjoyed resurgence simply because the British Invasion acts had released cover versions of classic Berry hits. Berry resumed recording in 1964 and got a respectable #10 position in the U.S. Hot 100, when he rewrote School Day and called it "No Particular Place To Go."
In 1965 he left Chess Records and spent a short time with the Mercury label before returning to Chess in 1970. Throughout the 70s Chuck Berry toured on the basis of his earlier successes. He was on the road for many years, carrying only his Gibson guitar, confident that he could hire a band that already knew his music no matter where he went. He always insisted in being paid in cash and would demand the money upfront. He was less diligent with paying his taxes and again Chuck found himself in trouble with authorities. In 1972, Chess released a live recording of a song Chuck had initially recorded years earlier as a novelty track. It was a New Orleans fun song which was often used to amuse the audience. Despite its lightweight nature it remains Chuck Berry's only No. 1 single, ever, and is still popular today.
Even into his 80s. Chuck Berry continued to entertain and performed throughout the United States and overseas. He also insisted on appearing at a local gig once per month at Blueberry Hill, a restaurant and bar in St. Louis. Chuck passed away, aged 90 at his home in St. Charles County, Missouri.
Worth a listen:
Roll Over Beethoven (1956)
Sweet Little Sixteen (1958)
No particular place to go (1964)
My ding-a-ling (1972)
Rock & Roll Music (1964)
That will be the day
Bye bye love