Chuck Berry (vocals, guitar; born 10/18/26)
Chuck Berry is the poet laureate of rock and roll. In the mid-Fifties, he took a fledgling idiom, born out of rhythm & blues and country & western, and gave it form and identity. A true original, Berry crafted many of rock and roll’s greatest riffs and married them to lyrics that shaped the rock and roll vernacular for generations. He has written numerous rock and roll classics that have been covered by multitudes of artists and stood the test of time. In all essential ways, he understood the power of rock and roll – how it worked, what it was about and who it was for.
While no individual can be said to have invented rock and roll, Berry arguably did more than anyone else to put the pieces together. As rock journalist Dave Marsh wrote, “Chuck Berry is to rock and roll what Louis Armstrong is to jazz.” On “Maybellene” – Berry’s first single, released in 1955 – he played country & western guitar licks over a base of rhythm & blues. The distorted sound of Berry’s guitar captured the rough, untamed spirit of rock and roll. The song included a brief but scorching solo built around his trademark double-string guitar licks. It kicked off Berry’s career in style and paved the way for a steady stream of classics over the next decade.
Berry’s quick-witted, rapid-fire lyrics focused on cars, romance and rock and roll. He wrote for a teenage audience, reflecting their interests and attitudes in songs like “School Day (Ring! Ring! Goes the Bell)” and “Sweet Little Sixteen.” His propulsive, riff-driven music caught the spirit of a nation on the move in the postwar era, chasing the promise of the open road in fast cars. Of hearing “Maybellene” on the radio, Berry wrote, “There is no way to explain how you feel when you first hear your first recording for the first time in your first new car.”
During this high-spirited decade, Berry hailed America as a land of fun and opportunity. The mid-Fifties was a period of rising prosperity for the growing middle class, and the social landscape was slowly improving for African-Americans as the civil rights era dawned. In the lyrics for “Back in the U.S.A.,” written after returning from an Australian tour, Berry saluted such everyday pleasures as the drive-ins and corner cafes “where hamburgers sizzle on an open grill night and day/Yeah, and a jukebox jumping with records like in the U.S.A.”
Berry was born in St. Louis in 1926. He got his first taste of the stage at 15, performing Jay McShann’s “Confessin’ the Blues” at a high school assembly. Berry played guitar, learning the basics from a neighborhood jazz guitarist named Ira Harris. He would also develop competence on piano, saxophone, bass and drums. He sat in with bands at clubs and parties, learning a variety of styles – jump blues, jazzy ballads, boogie-woogie and hillbilly music – that would form the backbone of his approach to rock and roll. Toward the end of 1952, he joined the Sir John Trio, which played at the Cosmopolitan Club in East St. Louis. Pianist Johnnie Johnson was the ostensible leader, but it was Berry who began stealing the show. During their sets of jazz and blues, he’d throw in an occasional “hillbilly” song. The sight of a black man singing white music appealed to a crowd that became progressively more integrated. This is where the essence of Berry’s act came together.
On a weekend in May 1955, Berry visited Chicago to check out the blues scene on the city’s South Side. He approached Muddy Waters after a show, asking for advice about how to get recorded. The blues legend suggested he contact Leonard Chess, founder of Chess Records. After meeting with Chess, Berry returned to St. Louis and cut a four-song demo. Ironically, it was not Berry's blues numbers that convinced Chess to sign Berry on a return visit but his high-spirited rewrite of a country number called "Ida Red."
The song had long been a standard in the country repertoire. Roy Acuff cut “Ida Red” in 1927, and Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys had a Top 10 country hit with "Ida Red Likes the Boogie" in 1950. Berry wrote a new set of lyrics – with verses about a high-speed drag race between a Ford and Cadillac, and a chorus chiding an unfaithful woman – and titled the song "Maybellene." Hall of Fame inductee Willie Dixon (whom Berry inducted) played standup bass, Jerome Green (of Bo Diddley’s band) shook maracas, and either Jasper Thomas or Ebby Hardy – sources differ on this point – played drums.
Berry recorded “Maybellene” on May 21, 1955 – a red-letter date in music history, as this song helped ignite the rock and roll revolution. Released in August, "Maybellene" went to Number Five in Billboard, making Berry a relative rarity for that time: a black artist with a major hit on the largely white pop charts. Asked why he crossed over with “Maybellene” and other hits while many other deserving artists were locked out, Berry replied: "I think it had a lot to do with my diction. The pop fan could understand what I was saying better than many other singers."
His success also had much to do with his knack for turning a phrase. With his witty and casually eloquent use of language, Berry described what it meant to be a teenager in the changing world of the Fifties. Whether describing the boredom of classroom-bound students in "School Day" ("Soon as three o'clock rolls around/You finally lay your burden down") or the liberating appeal of "Rock and Roll Music" ("It's got a backbeat/ You can't lose it"), Berry keenly observed and recorded that world with skillful ease. In his words, "Everything I wrote about wasn't about me, but about the people listening."
Accompanied by long-time piano player (and Hall of Fame inductee) Johnson and members of the Chess Records house band, including bassist Dixon, Berry wrote and performed rock and roll for the ages. To this day, the cream of Berry’s repertoire – which includes “Johnny B. Goode,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Rock and Roll Music” and “Roll Over Beethoven” – is required listening for any serious music fan and required learning for any serious rock musician. Berry gave rock and roll an archetypal character in "Johnny B. Goode.” “The character is more or less myself, although I wrote it intending it to be a song for Johnnie Johnson,” wrote Berry.
Berry was also responsible for one of rock’s most recognizable stage moves, the duckwalk. He introduced the duckwalk – kicking his right foot across the stage and dragging the left behind it, playing guitar all the while – during a 1956 concert in New York.
Seven more Top 40 hits followed “Maybellene” over the ensuing half-decade: “Roll Over Beethoven” (Number 29), “School Day” (Number Three), “Rock and Roll Music” (Number Eight), “Sweet Little Sixteen” (Number Two), “Johnny B. Goode (Number Eight), “Carol” (Number 18), and “Back in the U.S.A.” (Number 37). Berry also appeared in several rock and roll movies from the Fifties, including Rock, Rock, Rock!, Mister Rock and Roll and Go, Johnny, Go!
Berry’s first album, After School Session, was released in 1957. It was the second LP ever released by Chess Records – a testament to his success as a rock and roller on what had largely been a blues label. After School Session contained such classics as "School Day (Ring! Ring! Goes the Bell)," "Too Much Monkey Business," "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" and "Havana Moon." Neither it nor its successors – One Dozen Berrys (1958), Chuck Berry Is On Top (1959), Rockin' At the Hops (1960), New Juke Box Hits (1961), Chuck Berry Twist (1962), re-released as More Chuck Berry) or Two Great Guitars (an album of instrumentals with Bo Diddley) – made Billboard's album charts, as rock and roll largely remained a singles medium during Berry’s heyday.
Indeed, singles were the best way for Berry’s teen fans to digest his output during what would subsequently be referred to as his “golden decade,” spanning 1955-1965. Berry’s albums mixed his rock and roll hits with the more sophisticated blues, ballads and instrumentals he enjoyed playing away from the spotlight. It’s worth noting that Berry was considerably older than the teenagers for whom he was writing rock and roll music. When “Sweet Little Sixteen” became a hit in 1958, he was nearly twice the age of the music-smitten adolescent he wrote the song about.
His repertoire – not only the hits, but lesser-known songs like "Little Queenie," “Around and Around,” “Come On” and "Let It Rock" – were devoured and mastered by an army eager apprentices in Britain, such as Keith Richards and John Lennon. Indeed, Berry’s repertoire of licks and lyrics from the Fifties and early Sixties paved the way for the British Invasion. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, the Animals and many other U.K. acts covered Berry’s songs while developing their own styles. The Stones continued to include Berry’s songs in their repertoire throughout their career. Even the Beach Boys, youthful architects of West Coast surf and pop songs, turned to Berry for inspiration. Their 1963 hit "Surfin' U.S.A." appropriated the melody and rhythm of "Sweet Little Sixteen." Berry successfully sued for copyright infringement and won a songwriting credit.
In 1966, Berry left Chess and signed with Mercury Records. His Mercury recordings included Live at the Fillmore Auditorium, with backing by the Steve Miller Band. Berry’s popularity was in decline at this time, as new forms of rock took hold, and there would be a seven-year break between hits. His Mercury output was plainly inferior to his work at Chess, and he returned to that label in 1970, hoping to reprise his earlier success there. The focus had shifted from singles to albums, and the long players Berry made during his second tenure at Chess – including Back Home, San Francisco Dues and Bio – rank among his best. The song “Tulane,” released as a single, successfully updated the fast-tongued storytelling style of his Fifties hits to a contemporary setting involving a hippie couple on the run from the law.
Berry became a fixture at rock festivals and rock and roll revival shows in the late Sixties and early Seventies, appealing to latter-day hippies and Fifties nostalgists. The most surprising moment in his career came in 1972, when he scored his only Number One pop hit, "My Ding-A-Ling." It was a risqué novelty song, initially recorded by Dave Bartholomew back in 1952 and first cut by Berry as “My Tambourine” on his 1968 album From St. Louis to Frisco. "My Ding-A-Ling" appeared on The London Chuck Berry Sessions. One side was quickly made in a London studio with Ian McLagan and Kenny Jones of the Faces and British guitarist Derek Griffiths, while the other contained songs from a February 1972 concert in Coventry, including "My Ding-A-Ling" and “Reelin’ & Rockin’” (which itself became a minor hit). The London Chuck Berry Sessions was his highest-charting album, reaching Number Eight, and his only gold album as well.
Berry’s songs had become so entrenched in the fabric of American popular culture that he didn't even tour with a band. Pianist Johnnie Johnson’s 30-year association with Berry ended in 1973. Berry traveled alone with a suitcase and guitar, requiring promoters to provide a backing band for each gig. His contract also spelled out the amps he wanted onstage and mandated full prepayment of his performance fee. His experiences in the music business had left him wary, and his business acumen made him shrewd. By traveling only with his guitar, he cut down on expenses and payroll. Moreover, it gave a lot of young musicians a chance to apprentice with a living legend. If you knew anything about rock and roll, you had to know how to play the songs of Chuck Berry. Musicians including Bruce Springsteen and Brownsville Station were among those who backed up the master.
In 1979, Berry performed at the White House and released the album Rock It on Atco Records. There have been several compilations and anthologies of Berry’s work during the CD era, but no newly recorded music has come from the rock and roll pioneer since Rock It.
Berry’s life has been fraught with occasional controversy and incarceration. As a young man, he served three years in prison for armed robbery. (He wrote the song “Thirty Days” about the experience.) In 1961, he was convicted on a morals charge and served two years in a federal penitentiary. After his release, Berry proved he had more classic songs left in him, including "Nadine (Is It You?), "No Particular Place to Go," "You Never Can Tell" and "Promised Land.” He also served a prison stint in 1979 for tax evasion.
The late Eighties witnessed a career renaissance for Berry. He received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1985 Grammy Awards and was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Blues Hall of Fame that year as well. He was part of the first class inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. His presenter was Keith Richards, who cracked, "It's hard for me to induct Chuck Berry, because I lifted every lick he ever played!" The film Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll, a documentary about Berry’s life and times, appeared in 1987. Spearheaded by Richards and director Taylor Hackford, it culminated with a concert in St. Louis that reunited him with Johnnie Johnson.
Berry’s candid autobiography was published in 1987. He spent eight years writing the book. It contains these illuminating lines, which get to the heart of his uniqueness as a rock and roll stylist and indebtedness to those who influenced him: “The kind of music I liked then, thereafter, right now and forever, is the kind I heard when I was a teenager. So the guitar styles of Carl Hogen, T-Bone Walker, Charlie Christian, and Elmore James, not to leave out many of my peers who I’ve heard on the road, must be the total of what is called Chuck Berry’s style.... As you know, and I believe it must be true, ‘there is nothing new under the sun.’ So don’t blame me for being first, just let it last.”
Berry has continued receiving numerous awards and honors into the 21st Century. In 2000, he received a Kennedy Center honor. In 2003, Rolling Stone named him number six on its list of the Greatest Guitarists of All Time. In 2011, a statue of Berry was erected on the St. Louis Walk of Fame. And in 2012, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum honored Berry with its American Music Masters Award. And Berry Continues to do his monthly performances at Blueberry Hill in St. Louis.