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Chuck Berry

Summary

Charles Edward Anderson Berry
October 18, 1926 – March 18, 2017
Notable: Musician
Nationality: American

Media

YouTube Video

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Show Notes

Charles Edward Anderson Berry was born on October 18, 1926, in St. Louis, Missouri the fourth of his parents’ six children. His father Henry William Berry, Sr. worked as a carpenter and contractor to support the family. His mother Martha Bell Banks Berry was college-educated (rare for Black women of the time) but stayed home with the children. The Berry’s grandparents had been enslaved and they relocated to St. Louis from the South during World War II in pursuit of employment opportunities.

The St. Louis of Berry’s youth was segregated and his family lived in the Ville, a Black middle-class community in the northern part of the city. As was the norm at the time for many segregated Black communities, the neighborhood was self-contained with Black-owned businesses and organizations. Berry’s parents sang in church, his father was a deacon, and his mother played the piano. His parents’ involvement with church helped to spark an early passion for music that had him singing in the choir at age six.

Berry’s uncle, Harry Davis, was a professional photographer who spent time teaching Berry about photography. He also learned carpentry from working with his father. Country, gospel, and blues were played around the neighborhood and on the radio, exposing Berry to various genres. Berry enrolled at Sumner High School, a prestigious school with the distinction of being the first all-Black high school west of the Mississippi. Performing in the school’s talent show would prove life-changing. Berry sang while a friend accompanied him on guitar. After experiencing the enthusiastic response from the crowd, he decided to learn to play the guitar and began taking lessons from Ira Harris, a local jazz legend.

Berry’s parents’ marriage began to experience issues and he started getting into trouble as a teen. He resented the strict expectations at Sumner and dropped out when he was 17. He set off with two friends on a road trip to California that went off course when they arrived in Kansas City. The trio found a pistol in a parking lot and made the terrible decision to go on a crime spree. They were arrested after using the gun to rob multiple stores and steal a car. While they were all minors and this was their first offense, they were sentenced to 10 years, the maximum amount of time.

Berry served three years at a youth reform prison before being released early on his 21st birthday for good behavior. He returned home to St. Louis and worked a variety of odd jobs. He worked with his father as a contractor, with his uncle as a photographer, and at an auto plant. Berry also obtained a hairdressing and cosmetology license and spent some time in those professions.

It was around this time that he met Themetta Suggs. The couple married in 1948 and would eventually have four children. For the next few years, Berry lived a normal family life and worked normal jobs. But he also began playing the guitar again and joined a former classmate’s band. The band performed gigs at Black nightclubs around St. Louis which allowed Berry to hone his craft and develop a lively stage presence.

In 1952, Berry met Jonnie Johnson, a jazz pianist. Johnson had a band, Sir John’s Trio, that mostly played jazz and pop music. When Berry joined the band he took creative control and revamped their sound, adding country songs with a faster tempo to their setlist. The band continued to perform around St. Louis but also made trips to Chicago as Berry’s reputation as a showman grew.

Performing in clubs was fine but Berry felt the group had reached the point where they were ready for a recording contract. When Berry met Muddy Waters in 1955, he advised Berry to approach Chess Records. Before pitching Chess, Berry took the time to write and record a new song. When he played it for the Chess executives they recognized it as a hit and signed Berry.

The song Berry wrote, “Maybellene”, is regarded by many as the first official rock ‘n’ roll song. It blended aspects of the various genres of music that influenced Berry. The song would claim the No. 1 spot on the R&B charts and reach No. 5 on the pop charts. “Maybellene” was the first in a string of singles that would help to shape the then-emerging genre of rock ‘n’ roll. The songs crossed over from R&B to pop stations due to Berry blending blues and country with narratives about youth. Berry became a successful recording artist and an in-demand live performer with a busy touring schedule.

Unfortunately, Berry’s career was brought to a screeching halt by another run-in with the law. In 1959, Berry had met a female in Mexico who he claimed he thought was 20 but turned out to be 14. He brought her back to St. Louis to work at a club that he owned. The work arrangement ended a few weeks later when Berry fired the girl. She was later arrested for prostitution and Berry was charged with illegally transporting a woman across state lines for “immoral purposes”, a violation of the Mann Act.

Berry went through two trials that both resulted in convictions. The first verdict was overturned due to racist remarks that were made by the judge. During this time, Berry’s wife left him but they later reconciled. For the rest of his life, Berry would proclaim his innocence.

He resumed his music career in 1963 after serving 20 months in jail. However, it is believed that the experience of the trials and his time in prison changed Berry. During the British Invasion and the rise of California rock, emerging artists took inspiration from Berry’s songs. The Rolling Stones and the Beatles remade several of his songs. Of particular note, the Rolling Stone’s first single was a Berry remake. And The Beach Boys adapted “Sweet Little Sixteen” for their hit song “Surfin’ USA” without giving proper credit to Berry. He sued and was awarded a songwriting credit.

Berry’s career began to wane around the time he moved to Mercury Records. This could be due to a shift towards hippie culture and his inability to connect with this audience. Yet, Berry scored his biggest hit single in 1972 with “My Ding-a-Ling” which was written by Dave Bartholomew in 1952.

The song had worked through a few iterations and Berry is credited as the sole songwriter of his 1972 version. The single sold 1 million copies and was Berry’s only song to reach No. 1 on the pop charts. Unfortunately, it would be his last hit single of any kind and his future albums underperformed. But with his catalog, Berry was able to continue touring.

Over the years Berry had a few more brushes with the law. He was convicted of federal income tax evasion in 1979 just three days after performing at the White House. During a 1990 raid, police found marijuana and videotapes from a camera in the women’s bathroom of his restaurant.

Despite his personal and professional setbacks, Berry was fortunate to receive his flowers during his lifetime. Berry received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, Kennedy Center Honors, and was included in the inaugural group of musicians inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His single “Johnny B. Goode” was included on the golden records that were placed on the Voyager I and II spacecraft.

Chuck Berry died on March 18, 2017, at the age of 90.

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