He was the pioneer of rock and roll who inspired countless musicians with his guitar riffs, catchy lyrics and charismatic stage presence. Chuck Berry, who died in 2017 at the age of 90, left behind a legacy of songs that defined the genre and influenced generations of stars from the Beatles to Bruce Springsteen.
Born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1926, Berry grew up in a middle-class African-American neighborhood and developed an interest in music at an early age. He learned to play guitar from his friend Ira Harris and performed at school talent shows and church events. He also had a rebellious streak and was arrested for armed robbery when he was 17. He spent three years in a reformatory, where he formed a singing quartet and performed for other inmates.
After his release, Berry worked as a factory worker, a janitor, a beautician and a carpenter. He married Themetta Suggs in 1948 and had four children with her. He also joined a local blues band called the Sir John Trio and started playing at clubs around St. Louis. He developed his signature style of blending blues, country and R&B with witty lyrics and energetic performance. He also adopted the “duck walk”, a move that involved bending his knees and hopping across the stage while playing guitar.
Berry’s big break came in 1955, when he met Muddy Waters in Chicago and was introduced to Leonard Chess, the co-founder of Chess Records. Chess liked Berry’s song “Maybellene”, a reworked version of a country tune called “Ida Red”, and signed him to his label. The song became a hit, reaching number one on the R&B charts and number five on the pop charts. It also caught the attention of young white audiences who were drawn to Berry’s sound and attitude.
Berry followed up with more classics such as “Roll Over Beethoven”, “Rock and Roll Music”, “Sweet Little Sixteen”, “Johnny B. Goode” and “Memphis, Tennessee”. He also appeared in movies such as “Rock Rock Rock” and “Go Johnny Go” and toured extensively across the US and Europe. He became one of the most popular and influential artists of the era, inspiring other musicians such as Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and many more.
However, Berry’s career also faced several challenges and controversies. He was arrested in 1959 for transporting a 14-year-old girl across state lines for immoral purposes, a charge that he claimed was racially motivated. He was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison, but appealed and got a retrial. He was convicted again and served 20 months in jail from 1962 to 1963. His absence from the music scene hurt his popularity and allowed other artists to surpass him.
Berry also had conflicts with his record label over royalties and artistic control. He felt that he was not paid fairly for his songs and that some of them were covered by white artists without his permission or credit. He also sued Chess Records for breach of contract in 1966 and moved to Mercury Records. However, his new recordings did not match his previous success and he returned to Chess in 1970.
Berry’s career experienced a revival in the mid-1970s, thanks to his loyal fan base and the recognition he received from his peers. He performed at the White House for President Jimmy Carter in 1979 and was honored with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1984. He was also one of the first inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. He continued to tour and perform until his late 80s, often playing with local bands at his own club called Blueberry Hill in St. Louis.
Berry’s last album, titled “Chuck”, was released posthumously in 2017. It was his first album of new material since 1979 and featured contributions from his children Charles Berry Jr., Ingrid Berry and Darlin Ingrid Berry-Clay as well as guest appearances from Gary Clark Jr., Tom Morello and Nathaniel Rateliff. The album received critical acclaim and was seen as a fitting farewell to the legend.
Chuck Berry was more than just a musician; he was a cultural icon who shaped the history of rock and roll with his talent, innovation and personality. He left behind a legacy of songs that will never grow old or fade away.