Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry

Synopsis of Pop Music

“Just let me hear some of that rock and roll music,
Any old way you choose it...”

If you’re revered by Keith Richards, and John Lennon said your name was synonymous with rock and roll, you’ve done something right. Chuck Berry has had some bizarre run-ins with the law, let’s get that out the way right now, but let’s get something else out of the way too—rock and roll would never have been the same had he not picked up a guitar and taken the stage. Never.

Charles Edward Anderson Berry grew up in St. Louis and learned the guitar in his teens. He switched from a four-string tenor to a standard six-string, and only a three-year stint at reform school for armed robbery (a very bad plan hatched during what must have been a very good joyride) got in the way of his self-education. When this first debt to society was paid, he rocked the East St. Louis club scene at night while he worked odd jobs during the day—a General Motors plant and a beauty shop where he did hair were among the daylight haunts. In 1952, Berry formed a trio with drummer Ebby Harding and pianist Johnny Johnson, who played frequently for Berry over the next thirty years. The Chuck Berry Trio’s only local competition back then, by the way, was one Ike Turner and his Kings of Rhythm.

On the advice of one of his idols, Muddy Waters, whom Berry had met briefly in Chicago, he took a homemade demo to Chess Records’ Leonard Chess. Chess took a liking to the song “Ida Red,” which Berry renamed “Maybellene” and recorded for his new label. If you’re one for timelines, if you’re a history-minded person who likes to know his significant events, then take note. With a driving mid-song guitar solo and inventive rhyme schemes, with blues and rockabilly infusions, this was no pop song…this was something else. And helping young white music fans get to know the good stuff, influential radio DJ Alan Freed played it prodigiously.

Some of “Maybellene”'s royalties went to Freed and others, and this fact, coupled with the discovery that his road manager had been skimming profits, made Berry determined to take care of his own business affairs. He would come to demand cash payments for his shows, and he would also come to develop a bit of a reputation from the show bookers as 'difficult'—that most cliché and catch-all of the celebrity-assigned adjectives.

After his breakout first hit, Berry hit the r&b charts with “Thirty Days” and “No Money Down,” but on his third recording session, he struck gold with “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Too Much Monkey Business” and “Brown Eyed Handsome Man.” And in the years following, from 1955 to 1960, he was unstoppable. He and his onstage 'duck walk' were concert circuit mainstays, and the hits came one after the other. And these aren’t songs that you don’t hear anymore, either…these babies are a part of rock’s consciousness. “School Day,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Johnny B. Goode” and “Back in the USA.” And these hits were accompanied by appearances on the silver screen: the Alan Freed-produced Rock, Rock, Rock in 1956, Mr. Rock and Roll in 1957 and Go, Johnny, Go in 1959.

With the money that poured in, Berry opened his Club Bandstand and bought up land in Wentzville, Missouri, with plans to build his own amusement park. In 1961, unfortunately, it was time for another one those famous run-ins with the law. Berry was convicted of transporting an under-age girl Arizona girl across state lines—she was supposed to work as a hatcheck girl at the Bandstand, but was fired after a couple of weeks and dabbled at a nearby hotel in that most ancient of the world’s professions. For his unfortunate foray into the mad, mad world of employee recruitment, Berry was sentenced to three years in jail.

But the outside world didn’t forget the trailblazer rocker. The Beach Boys rewrote “Sweet Little Sixteen” into their huge hit “Surfin’ USA”; The Rolling Stones released a cover of Berry’s “Come On” as their first single and would go on to sing several other Berry tunes as well; and The Beatles, lest any of the great new bands not dip into Berry’s catalog, released “Rock and Roll Music” and “Roll Over Beethoven.” And upon Berry's release, Chess released his “Nadine,” “”No Particular Place to Go,” “You Never Can Tell” and “Promised Land”—which were said to have been written while he was locked up.

The hits began to wane in 1966, and Berry, seduced by a big advance, left his Chess label and signed with Mercury Records. Except for a lot of bickering with his producers, unfortunately, nothing much came of this venture, and Berry returned to Chess in 1969. The aptly titled Back Home featured singles “Tulane” and “Have Mercy Judge.” Then, ironically, the great songwriter enjoyed gigantic success with an, um, adult-minded take on the old playground tune called “My Ding-A-Ling.”

From there on out, Berry’s live performances were erratic. He became notorious for not letting his band know what song he planned on singing next—maybe he was projecting frustrations onto them, frustrations from his uncannily bad personnel choices of old. He released Rock It in 1979, which was recorded at his amusement complex, Berry Park, and delivered to its label sight unseen. And if all of that’s not feisty enough for you, Chuck went to jail again, for his third stint and this time, for income tax evasion. While inside, he penned most of the very revealing autobiography that was published in 1988.

There was more legal trouble in years to come, of course. It’s almost as if Chuck doesn’t want us to forget that his music is the purest thing about him—not his personal life or his business practices. But when that music legacy includes things like a patented double-string guitar lick, breakthrough songwriting, the now-standard ‘Chuck Berry’ guitar intro which got its listeners riled up and ready to rock, and a stage persona that made sure they rocked the whole night long…well, legal trouble or not, we won’t forget.

“It’s got a back beat, you can’t lose it,
Any old time you use it.
It’s gotta be rock and roll music
If you wanna dance with me...”

Artist Release History

1957 – Rock and Roll Music
1957 – Sweet Little 16
1958 – One Dozen Berrys
1958 – After One Session
1959 – Pickin’ Berries
1959 – Chuck Berry Is On Top
1960 – Rockin’ at the Hops
1961 – New Juke Box Hits
1962 – Chuck Berry Twist
1963 – Chuck Berry on Stage
1963 – Chuck & Bo
1963 – Chuck & Bo, Vol. 2
1963 – Latest & Greatest
1964 – St. Louis to Liverpool
1964 – Promised Land
1964 – Chuck & Bo, Vol. 3
1964 – You Never Can Tell
1964 – Two Great Guitars
1965 – Chuck Berry in London
1965 – Fresh Berry’s
1965 – Blue Mood
1965 – I Got a Booking
1965 – You Came a Long Way from St. Louis
1967 – In Memphis (Live)
1967 – Live at the Fillmore Auditorium
1968 – From St. Louis to Frisco
1969 – Concerto in B Goode (Live)
1969 – Rock Rock
1969 – R&B With Chuck Berry
1970 – Back Home
1971 – San Francisco Dues
1971 – Home Again
1972 – The London Sessions
1973 – Back in the U.S.A.
1973 – Bio
1975 – Chuck Berry 75
1979 – Rock It
1980 – Mods & Rockers
1981 – Tokyo Session
1982 - The Great Twenty-Eight
1984 – Live
1984 – Sweet Little Rock N Roller
1987 – Hail! Hail! Rock ‘N Roll
1991 – Chuck Berry (Bella Musica)
1994 – On the Blues Side
1995 – Live on Stage (Magnum America)
2000 – Live! (Columbia River)

Pop Sub Categories


Essential Music Albums

The Great Twenty-Eight (Chess)

Band Members

Chuck Berry guitar, vocals
Johnnie Johnson piano
Willie Dixon bass
Jasper Thomas drums
Jerome Green maracas
Lafayette Leak piano
Fred Below drums

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