Any history of rock ’n’ roll music that will ever be written must, by rights, start with the words ‘Chuck Berry’. They’re the two words that will feature most regularly too; when tracing the setlists of The Beatles in Hamburg, recalling the records that Mick Jagger and Keith Richards bonded over when they ran into each other at Dartford Station, tracing the roots of Bowie’s glam and Led Zeppelin’s hard rock, or simply trying to fathom his fundamental influence on the entirety of modern-day pop culture.
“While no individual can be said to have invented rock and roll,” read his induction to the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame address, “Chuck Berry comes the closest of any single figure to being the one who put all the essential pieces together.” “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’,” quipped John Lennon. Put simply, most music as we know it today simply would not exist had Charles Edward Anderson Berry not meshed rhythm and blues into swing music in the mid-1950s to help create what we now call rock’n’roll. And how different might wider society have been without its impact? Without the teen rebellion cyclone of rock’n’roll in the 50’s, would the counter-culture movements of the 60’s been so prevalent, helping to advance civil liberties, women’s rights and individual freedoms? By helping create rock’n’roll, Berry arguably become on of the few musicians that changed the world.
Born on October 18, 1926, into a middle-class family in St Louis Missouri – his father a Baptist deacon, his mother a school principal – Berry’s youth was a mixture of musical performance and crime. While playing early blues shows at Sumner High School he also took to armed robbery, robbing three stores in Kansas City before hijacking a car at gunpoint. For this he was sentenced to three years in reformatory in Jefferson City, where he started a singing quartet deemed professional enough to perform outside the facility.
On his release in 1947, aged 21, he married Thernetta Suggs and found employment as a factory worker and janitor, and by the early 50’s he had fallen in with the local St Louis band scene. In 1953 he joined pianist Johnnie Johnson’s trio before getting his big break in May 1955, when he met Muddy Waters in Chicago and was encouraged to play his music to Leonard Chess of Chess Records. Leonard loved the amalgamation of rhythm and blues and country fiddle on Berry’s song ‘Ida Red’ and released the song as ‘Maybellene’. The song sold one million copies and reached the Billboard Number One.
Further singles including ‘Roll Over Beethoven’, ‘Rock And Roll Music’, ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’ and ‘Johnny B. Goode’ also became major hits, and by the late 50’s Berry was established as one of the founding fathers of rock’n’roll. However his career was hobbled when, in 1959, he was arrested for transporting a 14-year-old girl across state lines to work as a hatcheck girl in his St Louis club. He spent one and a half years in prison, during which time his lasting influence on pop culture began to emerge – The Beatles hit the headlines after years of playing his songs to enthused crowds in The Cavern and Hamburg, and The Rolling Stones played their first gigs. Both bands would release covers of Berry’s songs, ensuring him a strong career on the live circuit on his release.
During the 1960s, Berry had hits with tunes including ‘No Particular Place To Go’ and ‘You Never Can Tell’ and signed to Mercury Records for four studio albums before reverting to Chess for his only UK Number One ‘My Ding-A-Ling’ in 1972. Though he released his last album ‘Rock It’ in 1979, he spent the rest of his life on the road, often playing with local bands assembled especially for him at each location, and gradually garnered accolades as he went. Having been asked to perform for Jimmy Carter at the White House in 1979, he went on to receive numerous honours including a Lifetime Achievement award from the Grammys in 1984 and the Kennedy Center Honours Award in 2000, presented by Bill Clinton.
His later life was also marred by run-ins with the law. In 1979 he served four months in prison on tax evasion charges brought on by his tendency to be paid in cash for live shows, and in 1990 he settled a class action with 59 women for a reported $1.2 million after a police raid allegedly found videos of women using a restroom at his restaurant, The Southern Air. Berry’s guilt was never proven in court.
On his 90th birthday, Berry announced that ‘Chuck’, his first album in 38 years, dedicated to his wife, would be released in 2017. He died at his home in Missouri on March 18, 2017, aged 90.
Tributes to the rock’n’roll pioneer poured in overnight from the greatest names in music. “Chuck Berry was rock’s greatest practitioner, guitarist, and the greatest pure rock ‘n’ roll writer who ever lived,” said Bruce Springsteen. “His lyrics shone above others & threw a strange light on the American dream. Chuck you were amazing [and] your music is engraved inside us forever,” Mick Jagger commented. Ringo Starr Tweeted “R I P. And peace and love Chuck Berry Mr. rock ‘n’ roll music”.