While no individual can claim to have invented rock and roll, Chuck Berry laid down its foundations and assembled all the essential components by magically blurring the boundaries between blues, R&B and country.
Chuck Berry’s impact on popular culture was incalculable. As a songwriter, singer and guitarist, his influence far surpassed the sales of his biggest records. He instantly changed the sound and the feel of music from the moment he first burst into earshot in 1955.
Elvis Presley will always be known as the King Of Rock and Roll, but it was Chuck Berry who wrote the rulebook. While Elvis gave rock and roll its sexy, hip-shaking image, Berry composed the songs that tapped into the zeitgeist and set the narrative for a new generation of teenagers with transistor radios in their hands and money in their pockets who were beginning to raise questions their parents would never have asked. Berry added clever lyrics and an electrifying edge to rock and roll to create music that white America had never previously been exposed to.
Although John Lennon once famously said – “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry” – he was an unlikely leader for the subculture that he wrote about in the mid-50s. Many of his songs perfectly summed up the teenage experience, but Chuck Berry was a long way from adolescence by the time he became a star. In fact, he was 29-years-old and married with two young children when he recorded his debut single.
Charles Edward Anderson Berry, who died in March at the age of 90, was born on 18th October 1926 in St. Louis, Missouri, the fourth of six children. He grew up in a predominantly middle-class African-American area of St. Louis known as The Ville. His mother, Martha, was a schoolteacher, and his father, Henry, was a carpenter and Baptist deacon whose passion for poetry and literature left a deep impression on his children.
He sang in the choir at his local Baptist church and gave his first public performance at the age of 15 while still a student at Sumner High School. “I wanted to play the blues, but I wasn’t blue enough,” Berry recalled. “We always had food on the table.”
When he was 17, he was arrested in Kansas City after he and two friends stole a car and robbed three shops at gunpoint. He was convicted and sent to a young offenders institution in Missouri, where he formed a singing quartet before eventually being released on his 21st birthday in 1947. Back in St. Louis, he got married and worked at an automobile assembly plant before training to become a hairdresser and cosmetologist. Berry cut his teeth playing in a trio in the evenings with drummer, Ebby Harding and legendary pianist, Johnnie Johnson, who stayed with him throughout his recording career.
Chuck Berry’s key musical influences were Nat ‘King’ Cole, Charlie Christian, Muddy Waters and T-Bone Walker. In 1955, he headed to Chicago to see Waters in concert. He got an autograph after the show and asked for advice about securing a record deal. Waters told him to get in touch with Leonard Chess, producer and head of the blues label, Chess Records.
Berry was convinced that his brand of blues and R&B would pique Chess’ interest. In fact, it was his adaptation of Ida Red, a 1938 recording of a traditional 19th century folk tune by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys that caught the label owner’s ear. He had been on the lookout for something new for a while after watching sales of blues and R&B records rapidly sinking in the mid-50s.
Berry and his band had already been playing country songs for black audiences for a few years before they stepped into the Chess studio to cut his debut single on 21st May 1955. “After they laughed at me a few times, they began requesting the hillbilly stuff,” he explained. It was Leonard Chess who came up with the title after he noticed a Maybelline mascara box lying on the studio floor.
Maybellene set out Berry’s stall in a little over two minutes of country blues and primal guitar twang. In return for radio airplay, influential DJ Alan Freed was given some cash and credited with co-writing the song, which soon gathered momentum and sold over a million copies, reaching Number 1 on Billboard’s R&B Chart and Number 5 on its Pop Chart. He began touring on the back of Maybellene’s success, although some regions of the United States were still racially segregated, and promoters frequently didn’t realise that Berry was actually black until he arrived at the venues to play.
Maybellene tells the story of a man in a V8 Ford chasing after his unfaithful girlfriend in a Cadillac Coupe De Ville and features one of the most memorable opening verses in popular music: ‘As I was motorvatin’ over the hill / I saw Maybellene in a Coupe De Ville / A Cadillac a-rollin’ on the open road / Nothing will outrun my V8 Ford / The Cadillac doing ‘bout 95 / She’s bumper to bumper rollin’ side by side.’
The song sounded like nothing that had come before it and featured a propulsive drumbeat, a distorted guitar riff and a classic tale that was told using intricate, witty wordplay and some hip brand name-dropping. Although individually, none of these essential elements were unique to Berry, when combined, they became the hallmark of many of his most iconic records.
Berry’s songs were quintessentially American, rather than black, and his music, his image and his attitude epitomized rock and roll’s rebellious spirit. He broke down all cultural barriers like nobody before him, casting a spell on everyone from the Beatles and the Rolling Stones to Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen.
Dylan, the most literate lyricist of the 60s, said he considered Berry to be “the Shakespeare of rock and roll.” He created rock’s lingua franca and found pure poetry in the everyday lives of young Americans in Back In The USA (‘Looking hard for a drive-in, searching for a corner café / Where hamburgers sizzle on an open grill night and day’) and mythologized the youth culture he seemed to embody in Rock and Roll Music (‘It’s got a backbeat / You can’t lose it’).
One of his most famous anthems, Roll Over Beethoven, articulated the generational divide on both sides of the Atlantic by urging radio DJs to replace staid classical music with Rhythm & Blues. The song became a mission statement for Berry, ushering in an exciting new era: ‘Roll over Beethoven / And tell Tchaikovsky the news.’
Chuck Berry’s scintillating double-string staccato licks mixed Chicago blues with a country twang. No matter how many times you have heard his records, his guitar playing still sends a shiver up your spine. He sang with a clear, precise enunciation and could conjure up evocative images in his lyrics, describing a girl who ‘wiggles like a glow-worm, dance like a spinning top,’ or capturing the pure thrill of rock and roll: ‘You know my temperature’s risin’ / And the jukebox blowin’ a fuse.
“I wrote about cars because half the people had cars, or wanted them,” Berry explained. “I wrote about love, because everyone wants that. I wrote songs white people could buy, because that’s nine pennies out of every dime. That was my goal – to look at my bankbook and see a million dollars there. It amazes me when I hear people say ‘I want to go out and find out who I am.’ I always knew who I was. I was going to be famous if it killed me.”
Between 1955 and 1964, Chuck Berry fired off a machine gun run of revolutionary rock and roll records that has never been bettered. Popular music has always been perceived as an ephemeral art form, but numbers like Sweet Little Sixteen, Nadine, No Particular Place To Go, Memphis Tennessee and Brown Eyed Handsome Man never grow old.
His most iconic song was Johnny B. Goode, which contained the most instantly recognizable guitar intro in the history of rock and roll (‘Just like a-ringin’ a bell’). Although melodically it was almost identical to Louis Jordan’s 1946 jump-blues hit, Ain’t That Just Like A Woman, Johnny B. Goode sounds so fiery that it is hard to believe that there is only 12 years between them.
It’s a semi-autobiographical rags to riches tale of a black man born into segregation who lived to see ‘his name in lights.’ “The gateway from freedom was somewhere near New Orleans where most Africans were sorted and sold into slavery,” Berry recalled. “I’d been told my grandfather lived ‘back up in the woods among the evergreens’ in a log cabin. I revived the era with a story about a ‘colored boy named Johnny B. Goode.’ I changed it to ‘country boy,’ or else it wouldn’t get on the radio.”
Johnny B. Goode was one of four pieces of music included among the cultural artefacts that were put on the two Voyager space probes that were launched in 1977. On a Saturday Night Live sketch, comedian Steve Martin reported on the first communication received from aliens: “Send more Chuck Berry.”
By the end of the decade, Berry was a huge star with a string of million-selling records under his belt, but in December 1959, his career came to an abrupt halt. While on tour in Texas, he was arrested for transporting a teenage girl across state lines for ‘immoral purposes.’
He was sentenced to five years in prison, although he immediately appealed, arguing that the judge’s comments were racist and had prejudiced the jury against him. The appeal was upheld, and a second trial resulted in another conviction. He eventually served a year and a half before finally being released in October 1963, by which time the Rhythm & Blues revival was at its peak. With his songs being regularly covered by the Beatles and the Stones, he was discovered by a new generation, but although he scored a few more minor hits, Berry’s time at the top of the charts was all but over by the end of 1964.
In 1972, he enjoyed the biggest hit of his career when he reached Number 1 on both sides of the Atlantic with My Ding-a-Ling, a double-entendre novelty number originally recorded by New Orleans songwriter, Dave Bartholomew. Although it proved to be his last hit record, interest in Berry’s original brand of rock and roll resurfaced every few years.
Whilst he was certainly aware of the huge influence he had exerted on successive generations of musicians, as a black man in a predominantly white man’s industry in the 1950s and 1960s, the nagging feeling that he had been ripped off never left Chuck Berry. He was jailed again in 1979 for tax evasion, having spent his entire career demanding cash upfront from promoters before he would set foot on stage. Famous for his prickly personality, he invariably arrived just before showtime, used local pickup bands in order to save money and refused to rehearse or do soundchecks.
Stories of Berry’s wild off-stage shenanigans are the stuff of legend, but one particular tale stands out from the rest. Back in the mid-80s, a journalist I know was waiting for his interview with the great man in a hotel somewhere in the Midwest. After a while, his publicist went up to his suite to see if she could locate him. Finding the door ajar, she went inside, but he was nowhere to be seen, so she walked into the bathroom, only to find Chuck chomping away on a sandwich in the Jacuzzi as a young woman was enthusiastically giving him a blowjob. As his publicist stuttered her apology, Berry barked: “Do you mind? I’m trying to eat my fucking sandwich.”
Magical, mystical, exciting and exotic, nobody sounded like Chuck Berry, a man who personified the rebellious appeal of rock and roll. “Chuck had the swing,” explains Keith Richards. “There’s rock, but it’s the roll that counts.” With his lithe body, chiseled cheekbones and perfectly pomaded hair, nobody looked like him either. He would stride around on stage doing his signature ‘duck walk’ as he unleashed flurries of incendiary guitar licks and sang with a salacious smile that left his audience in absolutely no doubt that he was mad, bad and dangerous to know. Chuck Berry may well have been rock and roll’s ultimate showman, but his wild persona was no act.