CHUCK BERRY 1926 - 2017
Chuck Berry was one of the most influential rock 'n' roll performers in music history. He's known for songs including "Maybellene" and "Johnny B. Goode.
Born on October 18, 1926, in St. Louis, Missouri, Chuck Berry had early exposure to music at school and church. As a teen, he was sent to prison for three years for armed robbery. He began producing hits in the 1950s, including 1958's "Johnny B. Goode," and had his first No. 1 hit in 1972 with "My Ding-a-Ling." With his clever lyrics and distinctive sounds, Berry became one of the most influential figures in the history of rock music. Berry died on March 18,
2017 at the age of 90.
Considered by many as the "father of rock 'n' roll," Chuck Berry was born Charles Anderson Edward Berry on October 18, 1926, in St. Louis, Missouri. His parents, Martha and Henry Berry, were the grandchildren of slaves, and are among the many African Americans who migrated from the rural South to St. Louis in search of employment during the World War I era. Martha Berry was one of the few black women of her generation to gain a college education, and Henry Berry was an industrious carpenter as well as a deacon at the Antioch Baptist Church.
Berry also grew into something of a troublemaker in high school. He was uninterested in his studies and felt constrained by the strict decorum and discipline. In 1944, at the age of 17, Berry and two friends dropped out of high school and set off on an impromptu road trip to California. They had gone no farther than Kansas City when they came across a pistol abandoned in a parking lot and, seized by a terrible fit of youthful misjudgment, decided to go on a robbing spree. Brandishing the pistol, they robbed a bakery, a clothing store and a barbershop, then stole a car before being arrested by highway patrolmen. The three young men received the maximum penalty—10 years in jail—despite being minors and first-time offenders.
Berry served three years in the Intermediate Reformatory for Young Men outside of Jefferson, Missouri, before gaining release on good behavior on October 18, 1947, which was his 21st birthday. He returned to St. Louis, where he worked for his father's construction business and part-time as a photographer and as a janitor at a local auto plant.
In 1948, Berry married Themetta "Toddy" Suggs, with whom he would eventually have four children. He also took up the guitar again when, in 1951, his former high school classmate Tommy Stevens invited him to join his band. They played at local black nightclubs in St. Louis, and Berry quickly developed a reputation for his lively showmanship. At the end of 1952, he met Jonnie Johnson, a local jazz pianist, and joined his band, the Sir John's Trio. Berry revitalized the band and introduced upbeat country numbers into the band's repertoire of jazz and pop music. They played at the Cosmopolitan, an upscale black nightclub in East St. Louis, which began attracting white patrons.
In the mid-1950s, Berry began taking road trips to Chicago, the Midwest capital of black music, in search of a record contract. Early in 1955, he met the legendary blues musician Muddy Waters, who suggested that Berry go meet with Chess Records. A few weeks later, Berry wrote and recorded a song called "Maybellene" and took it to the executives at Chess. They immediately offered him a contract; within months, "Maybellene" had reached No. 1 on the R&B charts and No. 5 on the pop charts. With its unique blend of a rhythm and blues beat, country guitar licks and the flavour of Chicago blues and narrative storytelling, many music historians consider "Maybellene" the first true rock 'n' roll song.
Berry quickly followed with a slew of other unique singles that continued to carve out the new genre of rock 'n' roll: "Roll Over, Beethoven," "Too Much Monkey Business" and "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man," among others. Berry managed to achieve crossover appeal with white youths without alienating his black fans by mixing blues and R&B sounds with storytelling that spoke to the universal themes of youth. In the late 1950s, songs such as "Johnny B. Goode," "Sweet Little Sixteen" and "Carol" all managed to crack the Top 10 of the pop charts by achieving equal popularity with youths on both sides of the racial divide. "I made records for people who would buy them," Berry said. "No color, no ethnic, no political—I don't want that, never did.''
He still remains one of the genre's most influential musicians. In 1985, he received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. A year later, in 1986, he became the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's first inductee. Perhaps the best measure of Berry's influence is the extent to which other popular artists have copied his work. The Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles have all covered various Chuck Berry songs, and Berry's influences—both subtle and profound—pervade all of their music.
Introducing Berry at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones said, "It's very difficult for me to talk about Chuck Berry 'cause I've lifted every lick he ever played. This is the man that started it all!"
"You Never Can Tell", also known as "C'est La Vie" or "Teenage Wedding", is a song written by Chuck Berry. It was composed in the early 1960s while Berry was in federal prison for violating the Mann Act. Released in 1964 on the album St. Louis to Liverpool and the follow-up single to Berry's final Top Ten hit of the 1960s: "No Particular Place to Go", "You Never Can Tell" reached number 14, becoming Berry's final Top 40 hit until "My Ding-a-Ling", a number 1 in October 1972.