Chuck Berry is generally recognized as one of the Founding Fathers of Rock ‘n Roll and one of the most versatile and accomplished RR artists ever. He performed for some 70 years beginning in 1941 as a high school student. He achieved prominence as a singer, songwriter, musician and performer. He had many “hit” records, including “Maybelline,” “Johnny B. Goode,” which has autobiographical overtones, “Rock ‘N Roll Music,” and “Old Time Rock ‘N Roll.” But, all that said, perhaps, his greatest legacy was his influence on a plethora of successful performers, such as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, Elvis, Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan.
Charles Edward Anderson Berry was born on October 18, 1926 in St. Louis, the fourth of six children. His family was middle class. His father was a contractor and a deacon in the local church. His mother was a public school principal.
Berry exhibited a talent and interest in music at an early age, and in 1941 at the age of 16 he gave his first public performance at his high school. Unfortunately, he also exhibited another predilection at an early age – crime. At 17, he was convicted of armed robbery and sent to the nearby Intermediate Reformatory for Young Men. At this point, it could have all gone “South” for Berry. He could have descended into a life of crime, and the history of RR and music, in general, would have been significantly different. But, Berry appeared to reform himself. He took up boxing and formed a musical quartet successful enough that authorities allowed it to perform outside the detention facility. Upon his release in 1947 at the age of 21 he got married and worked in an auto assembly and as a janitor.
In addition, he continued to perform with local bands, such as the Johnnie Johnson Trio. Berry got his big break in 1955 when Muddy Waters recommended he audition with Leonard Chess of Chess Records in Chicago. As it happened, Chess thought the R & B market was waning, and he was looking for a new sound. He loved Berry’s adaptation of a country and western song called “Ida Red,” which Berry recorded for Chess as “Maybelline.” “Maybelline” sold in excess of one million records and climbed to #1 on Billboard Magazine’s R & B chart. Berry was on his way.
A succession of hits followed, including “School Days,” “Rock ‘N Roll Music”, “Sweet Little Sixteen” and “Johnny B. Goode,” among others. In addition, he was a big hit on music impresario Alan Freed’s “Biggest Show of Stars” in 1957, and toured with the biggest stars of the day, such as Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the Everly Brothers.
In addition to his music, which speaks for itself, Berry was a real “showman.” His performances included the famous “one-legged hop” and the “duck walk.” In his words, he would walk “stooping with full bended knees, but with my back and head vertical.” He perfected this while performing for his family as a child, and they liked it so much he incorporated it into his act. You might recall the actor Michael J. Fox performed these in the hit film, Back to the Future.
As I denoted above, Berry was truly a RR pioneer who was not only one of the most versatile performers ever, but also an influence on countless others who followed. One would be hard-pressed to name any other performer who combined the talents of writing, singing, performing, and influencing others as well as he did.
Berry was the recipient of countless awards and honorariums. Also, Rolling Stone Magazine has ranked many of his hits on its list of the “Greatest of All Time,” and he, himself, is ranked among the greatest performing artists of all time.
Perhaps, Berry’s legacy could best be summed up by the following selection of quotes from others in the business:
- Elvis – “I just wish I could express my feelings the way Chuck Berry does.”
- Bruce Springsteen – Chuck Berry was rock’s greatest practitioner, guitarist, and the greatest pure rock ‘ n roll writer who ever lived.”
- Mick Jagger – “He lit up our teenage years and blew life into our dreams of being musicians and performers.”
- John Lennon – “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry.’ “
- Robert Christgau (notable rock critic) – the “greatest of the rock and rollers.”
- Bob Dylan – “The ‘Shakespeare’ of rock ‘n roll.”
Chuck Berry passed away on March 18 at the age of 90. Rest in peace Chuck. You will be sorely missed, and your legacy will live as long as rock ‘n roll is played.