Charles Edward Anderson

"Chuck" Berry

(born October 18, 1926 in St. Louis, Missouri)


Image:Duckwalk.jpgIs an American guitarist, singer, and songwriter.

Chuck Berry is an immensely influential figure, and one of the pioneers of rock & roll music. Cub Koda wrote, "Of all the early breakthrough rock & roll artists, none is more important to the development of the music than Chuck Berry. He is its greatest songwriter, the main shaper of its instrumental voice, one of its greatest guitarists, and one of its greatest performers."John Lennon was more succinct: "If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it 'Chuck Berry'."

Berry was among the first musicians to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on its opening in 1986. He received Kennedy Center Honors in 2000 in a "class" with Mikhail Baryshnikov, Plácido Domingo, Angela Lansbury, and Clint Eastwood. And in 2004, Rolling Stone Magazine ranked Chuck Berry #5 on their list of The Immortals: 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.

Born October 18, 1926 in St. Louis, Missouri (although some biographies establish San Jose, California as his birthplace), Berry was the third child in a family of six. He grew up in an area of St. Louis known as the Ville, one of the few areas of the city where black people could own property, which consequently made it synonymous with black prosperity. His father was a contractor and a deacon of a nearby Baptist church, his mother a qualified principal. His middle-class upbringing allowed him to pursue his interest in music from an early age and he made his first public performance while still in high school.

In 1944, before he could graduate, he was arrested and convicted for attempted burglary after taking a joy ride with his friends to Kansas City, Missouri.

Chuck Berry had been playing the blues since his teens and by early 1953 was performing with Sir John's Trio, a band that played at a popular club called The Cosmopolitan, in East St. Louis, Illinois. The group included Berry's long-time collaborator and the group's namesake, piano man, Johnnie Johnson. Although the band played mostly blues and ballads, the most popular music among whites in the area was hillbilly. Berry wrote, "Curiosity provoked me to lay a lot of our country stuff on our predominantly black audience and some of our black audience began whispering 'who is that black hillbilly at the Cosmo?' After they laughed at me a few times they began requesting the hillbilly stuff and enjoyed dancing to it."

In May, 1955, Berry traveled to Chicago where he met Muddy Waters who suggested he contact Leonard Chess of Chess Records. Signed to a recording contract, that September he released a unique version of the traditional fiddle tune "Ida Red" under the title "Maybellene". The song, which featured a new set of modern lyrics and a driving beat, eventually peaked at #5 on the Billboard magazine Billboard charts. At the end of June 1956, his song "Roll Over Beethoven" reached #29 on the Billboard charts. Berry's early LP records sometimes contained well-delivered blues standards to round out the customary dozen tracks. In the autumn of 1957 Berry joined the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly and other rising stars of the new rock and roll to tour the United States. The hits continued from 1957 to 1959, with Berry scoring over a dozen chart singles during this period, including the top 10 U.S. hits "School Days", "Rock and Roll Music", "Sweet Little Sixteen" and "Johnny B. Goode".

In December 1959, after scoring a string of hit songs and while touring often, Berry had legal problems after he invited a 14-year-old Apache waitress that he met in Mexico to work as a hat check girl at Berry's Club Bandstand, his nightclub in St. Louis. After being fired from the club, the girl was arrested on a prostitution charge and Berry was arrested under the Mann Act. Berry was convicted, fined $5,000 and sentenced to five years in prison. This event, coupled with other early rock and roll scandals—such as Jerry Lee Lewis' marriage to his 13-year-old cousin and Alan Freed's payola conviction—gave rock and roll an image problem that limited its acceptance into mainstream U.S. society. However, when Berry was released from prison in 1963, his musical career enjoyed a resurgence due to many of the British Invasion acts of the 1960s—most notably the Beatles and the Rolling Stones—releasing cover versions of classic Berry hits. In 1964–65 Berry resumed recording and placed 6 singles in the U.S. Hot 100, including "No Particular Place To Go" (#10), "You Never Can Tell" (#14), and "Nadine" (#23).

In 1990 Berry was sued by several women who claimed that he had installed a video camera in the ladies' bathrooms at two of his St. Louis restaurants. A class action settlement was eventually reached with 59 women on the complaint. Berry's biographer, Bruce Pegg, estimated that it cost Berry over $1.2 million plus legal fees. A Miami purveyor of celebrity sex videos is currently marketing video footage purporting to show Berry urinating on a young woman in a bathtub. Although the voice sounds similar to Berry's his face is never visible on the tape, making positive identification impossible.

Berry was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1984.

In 2003 Rolling Stone Magazine named him number six on their list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.

His compilation album The Great Twenty-Eight was also named 21st on the magazine's list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

In 2004 six of his songs were included in the Rolling Stone magazine's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list, namely "Johnny B. Goode" (# 7), "Maybellene" (# 18), "Roll Over Beethoven" (# 97), "Rock and Roll Music" (#128), "Sweet Little Sixteen" (# 272) and "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" (# 374).

Also in 2004, Berry was rated #5 in Rolling Stone Magazine's 100 Greatest Artists of All Time