“All of us are footnotes to the words: CHUCK BERRY” – Leonard Cohen.
Charles Berry had been interested in music since his public high school days… He formed a singing quartet whilst serving time [for robbery] in a State detention facility. Chuck began playing professionally with jazz pianist Johnnie Johnson and his band around St. Louis, Missouri in 1953 — once he’d been released from incarceration.
His big break came in 1955 when he travelled to Chicago to meet the established Delta Bluesman Muddy Waters. Through that connection he met with Leonard Chess of Chess Records, who was impressed with what he saw and heard.
Chuck altered a traditional country song entitled “Ida Red” for Chess. It was one of the first rock and roll songs ever recorded. He re-titled this ditty “Maybellene.” The song was recorded at Chess studio with Johnnie Johnson on piano, Jerome Green ( from Bo Diddley’s band) on the maracas, Jasper Thomas on drums and Willie Dixon on bass.
After the release of his big hit “Roll Over Beethoven” Berry participated in the “Biggest Show of Stars for 1957” conceived by disc jockey Alan Freed. This found him travelling the States with the Everly’s and Buddy Holly.
Following this, he was an early TV star [the Guy Mitchell Show on ABC] where he performed his song “Rock and Roll Music.” The successes continued from 1957 to 1959, with Berry recording more than a dozen singles including Top 10 hits notably “Sweet Little Sixteen” and “Johnny B Goode.”
He also appeared in two rock-and-roll movies: The jukebox musical “Rock Rock Rock” (1956) and Paul Landres directed “Go, Johnny, Go!” (1959)
In the late 1950s, Berry was an established high profile star with several successful albums under his belt and a lucrative touring career. He opened a racially integrated nightclub in St. Louis, and invested into property.
In December 1959, Berry was arrested under the Mann Act (White Slave Management legislation) after allegations that he had sex with a 14-year-old waitress who he had transported across state lines. After the collapse of his appeals, Berry completed a year and a half in prison.
Upon his release Berry found that his recording and performance career had been made easier by the British Invasion bands, especially the Beatles and the Stones — they had released several cover versions of his songs
Berry returned to Chess Records from 1970 to 1973 [ the “My Ding-a-Ling” period] and during the 1970s got into trouble again — this time with the revenue authority the IRS. He pleaded guilty to tax evasion and received a prison sentence plus 1,000 hours of community service [which he spent performing.]
In November 2000 Berry faced legal problems once more when he was sued by his former friend and bandmate Johnnie Johnson who claimed he had co-written more than 50 songs, including “No Particular Place to Go” “Sweet Little Sixteen” and “Roll Over Beethoven.” All these songs had credited only Berry. The case was dismissed — the ruling found it had been too long since the songs were written.
On his 90th birthday October 18th 2016 Berry announced that his first studio album since 1979 would be released in 2017. To be titled “Chuck.”
He died at home on March 18, 2017.
Bruce Springsteen said, “Chuck Berry was rock’s greatest practitioner, guitarist, and the greatest pure rock ‘n’ roll writer who ever lived.”
Berry brought “swagger” to rock music. Although perhaps not as skilfully accomplished as other performers from his era, his guitar style was nonetheless characteristic and instantly recognisable — he was one of the first to integrate electronic effects to mimic the sounds of bottleneck, for example, and created an exciting routine and stage show that many guitarists later emulated.
CHUCK BERRY R.I.P. October 18, 1926 – March 18, 2017