Ear to the sound

Chuck Berry by quickfixx
June 1, 2008, 3:39 pm
Filed under: Rock

The archetypal rock & roller, Chuck Berry melded the blues, country, and a witty, defiant teen outlook into songs that have influenced virtually every rock musician in his wake. In Chuck Berry’s best work – about 40 songs (including “Round and Round,” “Carol,” “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Back in the U.S.A.,” “Little Queenie”), recorded mostly in the mid- and late ’50s – Berry matched some of the most resonant and witty lyrics in pop to music with a blues bottom and a country top, trademarking the results with his signature double-string guitar lick. On awarding Berry the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors Award in December 2000, President Bill Clinton hailed him as “one of the 20th Century’s most influential musicians.”

Berry learned guitar as a teenager. From 1944 to 1947 he was in reform school for attempted robbery; upon release he worked on the assembly line at a General Motors Fisher body plant and studied hairdressing and cosmetology at night school. In 1952 he formed a trio with drummer Ebby Harding and pianist Johnnie Johnson, his keyboardist on and off for the next three decades. By 1955 the trio had become a top St. Louis–area club band, and Berry was supplementing his salary as a beautician with regular gigs. He met Muddy Waters in Chicago in May 1955, and Waters introduced him to Leonard Chess. Berry played Chess a demo tape that included “Ida Red”; Chess renamed it “Maybellene,” and sent it to disc jockey Alan Freed (who got a cowriting credit in the deal), and Berry had his first Top 10 hit.

Through 1958 Berry had a string of hits. “School Day” (#3 pop, #1 R&B, 1957), “Rock & Roll Music” (#8 pop, #6 R&B, 1957), “Sweet Little Sixteen” (#2 pop, #1 R&B, 1958), and “Johnny B. Goode” (#8 pop, #5 R&B, 1958) were the biggest. With his famous “duckwalk,” Berry was a mainstay on the mid-’50s concert circuit. He also appeared in such films as Rock, Rock, Rock (1956), Mister Rock and Roll (1957), and Go, Johnny, Go (1959).

Late in 1959 Berry was charged with violating the Mann Act: He had brought a 14-year-old Spanish-speaking Apache prostitute from Texas to check hats in his St. Louis nightclub, and after he fired her she complained to the police. Following a blatantly racist first trial was disallowed, he was found guilty at a second. Berry spent two years in federal prison in Indiana, leaving him embittered.

By the time he was released in 1964, the British Invasion was underway, replete with Berry’s songs on early albums by the Beatles and Rolling Stones. He recorded a few more classics – including “Nadine” and “No Particular Place to Go” – although it has been speculated that they were written before his jail term. Since then he has written and recorded only sporadically, although he had a million-seller with “My Ding-a-Ling” (#1, 1972), and 1979’s Rockit was a creditable effort. He appeared in the 1979 film American Hot Wax. Through it all, Berry continued to tour internationally, often with pickup bands.

In January 1986 Berry was among the first round of inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The following year he published the at-times sexually and scatalogically explicit Chuck Berry: The Autobiography and was the subject of a documentary/tribute film, Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll, for which his best-known disciple, Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, organized a backing band.

When not on the road, Berry lives in Wentzville, Missouri, where he owns the amusement complex Berry Park. Problems with the law and the Internal Revenue Service have plagued him through the years. Shortly before a June 1979 performance for Jimmy Carter at the White House, the IRS charged Berry with income tax evasion, and he served a 100-day prison term in 1979. In 1988 in New York City, he paid a $250 fine to settle a $5 million lawsuit from a woman he allegedly punched in the mouth. In 1990 police raided his home and, finding 62 grams of marijuana and videotapes of women – one of whom was apparently a minor – using the restroom in a Berry Park restaurant, filed felony drug and child-abuse charges against Berry. In order to have the child-abuse charges dropped, Berry agreed to plead guilty to one misdemeanor count of marijuana possession. Berry was given a six-month suspended jail sentence, placed on two years’ unsupervised probation, and ordered to donate $5,000 to a local hospital.

As of this writing, Berry was still touring the world, sometimes with fellow classic rockers such as Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard.

from The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001)


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