Chuck Berry: a Tribute To a le­gend

With the death of Charles Ed­ward An­der­son Berry on 18 March 2017, the gui­tar world lost the god­fa­ther of rock ’n’ roll. Nei­ther blues­man, en­ter­tainer nor coun­try boy, he some­how fused all three per­sonas into a rip-snort­ing style that formed the very langu

Guitarist - - Contents - Words Denny Ilett

Charles Ed­ward An­der­son Berry was born into a large mid­dle-class fam­ily in St Louis, Mis­souri on 18 Oc­to­ber 1926, the fourth of six chil­dren to Martha and Henry Berry. Henry was dea­con of the Bap­tist church in the area of St Louis called The Ville, where the fam­ily lived. Martha was a school head­mistress, which meant that Chuck and his sib­lings en­joyed a rel­a­tively pros­per­ous up­bring­ing con­trary to that of so many black (and white) fam­i­lies in the 1920s and 1930s.

Chuck dis­played an in­ter­est in mu­sic and po­etry from a very young age and, en­cour­aged by his par­ents, pro­gressed quickly, mak­ing his first pub­lic ap­pear­ance in 1941 at the age of 15, while still at high school. The song he chose, Con­fessin’ The Blues by Jay McShann, was a big band hit at the time and boasted in its ranks an­other fledg­ling ge­nius in the form of alto sax­o­phon­ist Char­lie Parker, one of the in­ven­tors of be­bop jazz.

Chuck’s first of many brushes with the law oc­curred three years later when he was ar­rested, and con­victed, for armed rob­bery. He was sen­tenced to three years at the In­ter­me­di­ate Re­for­ma­tory for Young Men in Al­goa, Mis­souri, where he took up box­ing along with form­ing a vo­cal quar­tet.

On the day of his 21st birth­day in 1947, Berry was re­leased from cus­tody, and shortly af­ter met Themetta Suggs. They were mar­ried in Oc­to­ber 1948 and had a daugh­ter, Dar­lin Ingrid, in Oc­to­ber 1950. Berry worked in a va­ri­ety of jobs in or­der to sup­port his young fam­ily, in­clud­ing – sig­nif­i­cantly – two stints at car assem­bly plants in St Louis. Know­ing the abun­dance of mo­tor­re­lated metaphors in his later songs, it’s in­trigu­ing to pic­ture a young man, burst­ing with ideas, work­ing in a mun­dane job but com­pos­ing riffs, rhythms and lyrics in his head to the beat of the fac­tory ma­chin­ery.


By the early 50s, Berry was also ‘moon­light­ing’ with lo­cal bands at clubs in and around St Louis, grad­u­at­ing to a reg­u­lar group in 1953 – the John­nie John­son Trio – that held a res­i­dency at the Cos­mopoli­tan Club. Play­ing mostly blues and bal­lads at gigs, Berry be­gan to take an in­ter­est in pre­sent­ing some coun­try-flavoured tunes to the club, and later wrote: “Cu­rios­ity pro­voked me to lay a lot of coun­try stuff on our black au­di­ence. Af­ter they laughed at me a few times, they be­gan re­quest­ing the hill­billy stuff and en­joyed danc­ing to it.”

With an idea for­mu­lat­ing in his head that a fu­sion of blues and coun­try might make for a new sound, an­other ma­jor in­flu­ence came along in the form of R&B mae­stro T-Bone Walker. T-Bone, with his jazz-play­ing con­tem­po­rary Char­lie Chris­tian, was in­stru­men­tal in el­e­vat­ing the gui­tar from its former po­si­tion as a rhythm tool to that of a front-line solo voice. Walker was also a con­sum­mate show­man, play­ing the gui­tar be­hind his back while do­ing the splits and de­liv­er­ing so­los that, at times, would make an au­di­ence think his gui­tar was speak­ing to them. Chuck Berry was so taken with Walker that he lifted many of T-Bone’s trade­mark licks, dou­blestops and uni­son bends, in­cor­po­rat­ing them into his own emerg­ing style.

John­nie John­son left the trio in 1954, with Chuck re­nam­ing it the Chuck Berry Trio. Hav­ing taken charge, Berry’s mix of blues, coun­try, Nat ‘King’ Cole bal­lads and T-Bone show­man­ship pro­pelled the trio to new heights. They quickly be­came the most pop­u­lar band on the St Louis club scene. One of the most fas­ci­nat­ing as­pects of this is how Berry’s ‘new’ mu­sic al­most ex­actly mir­rored that of his near­est ri­val in the 50s, Elvis Pres­ley. Where Berry took blues and added coun­try to cre­ate a po­tent for­mula, Pres­ley did the op­po­site,

adding blues to coun­try (Berry was one of Pres­ley’s ma­jor in­flu­ences!). The huge suc­cess of both men serves as proof that the best mu­sic al­ways comes from a mix­ture of cul­tural in­flu­ences.


As Chuck’s pop­u­lar­ity grew, so his am­bi­tions gath­ered pace. Feel­ing he was ready to record his mu­sic, he trav­elled to Chicago and, through a meet­ing with Muddy Wa­ters, was en­cour­aged to ap­proach the iconic Chess la­bel with a view to scor­ing a record­ing ses­sion. La­bel boss Leonard Chess was par­tic­u­larly taken with a song Chuck brought in called Ida Red, a tra­di­tional ‘hill­billy’ tune made pop­u­lar by Bob Wills And His Texas Play­boys back in 1938. Lyrics were changed and the song reti­tled as Maybel­lene, with Berry tak­ing the song­writ­ing credit. The 21 May 1955 record­ing date fea­tures, among oth­ers, Berry’s old boss John­nie John­son on pi­ano and blues gi­ant Wil­lie Dixon on bass.

From the first bar, this was some­thing new. Berry’s gui­tar is raw, en­er­getic and in­fec­tious; re­lent­lessly rhyth­mic and driv­ing be­hind the vo­cal, then pierc­ing through with clas­sic Berry at­ti­tude in the solo. The com­bi­na­tion of blues and coun­try al­lowed Maybel­lene to be­come a huge hit with record buy­ers of all races, hit­ting No 1 and No 5 on the R&B and Bill­board Best Sellers charts re­spec­tively.

This mix, cou­pled with Berry’s dy­namic stage act, pro­pelled him to overnight su­per-star­dom, and from then the hits came thick and fast: Roll Over Beethoven, Too Much Mon­key Busi­ness, Rock And Roll Mu­sic, Sweet Lit­tle Six­teen, Mem­phis Ten­nessee and the iconic Johnny B Goode – all recorded be­tween 1956 and 1959. In all, Berry scored over a dozen hit sin­gles dur­ing this pe­riod. He went from earn­ing $15 a night to more than $1,500 – a for­tune in the 1950s. He in­vested heav­ily in St Louis real es­tate and even opened up a racially mixed night­club – pi­o­neer­ing for its time – in 1958. By De­cem­ber 1959, and seem­ingly with the mu­sic and busi­ness worlds at his feet, Chuck Berry again found him­self on the wrong side of the law when he was ar­rested fol­low­ing al­le­ga­tions that he had sex with 14-year-old wait­ress, Janice Es­calante, whom he had trans­ported over state lines to work at his club as a hat-check girl. Berry’s ap­peal at the 1960 trial was up­held and a new trial set for May 1961. Chuck was even­tu­ally con­victed and served 18 months of a three-year sen­tence, be­ing re­leased in Oc­to­ber 1963.

Over the four-year pe­riod be­tween his ini­tial ar­rest and re­lease from prison, his pop­u­lar­ity had waned and his out­put slowed, de­spite Chess con­tin­u­ing to re­lease ma­te­rial al­ready ‘in the can’. By 1963, how­ever, the mu­sic scene on both sides of the At­lantic had changed dras­ti­cally, which proved to be just what Berry needed to get back on top.

Rock ’n’ roll, blues and R&B records had been mak­ing their way across the At­lantic for sev­eral years and were caus­ing a huge stir among Bri­tish youth. This move­ment was in­stru­men­tal in bring­ing the mu­sic of Chuck Berry and his con­tem­po­raries to a new au­di­ence, with bands such as The Bea­tles and The Stones record­ing ver­sions of Berry’s songs on early al­bums. John Len­non fa­mously said, “If you tried to give rock ’n’ roll an­other name, you might call it Chuck Berry.” For Keith Richards, “There was a time in my life when Chuck Berry was more im­por­tant than any­thing else.”

Berry’s Resur­gence

Chuck was able to se­cure a new record con­tract with Mer­cury Records and re­leased sev­eral sin­gles and al­bums be­tween 1963 and ’69, in­clud­ing No Par­tic­u­lar Place To Go, yet an­other au­to­mo­bile-re­lated song. De­spite not achiev­ing his pre­vi­ous suc­cess on record, Berry be­came a fix­ture on the tour­ing cir­cuit, and came to the UK in 1964 and ’65. His stint in prison had, how­ever, turned him into a moody and bit­ter man. This, cou­pled with his re­luc­tance to re­hearse with the pick-up bands he played with, earned him a rep­u­ta­tion as a dif­fi­cult per­son to work for. He in­sisted on be­ing paid in full, and in cash, be­fore he would walk on stage – which even­tu­ally got him into trou­ble with the tax­man – and his per­for­mances be­came ever more er­ratic.

By the end of the 60s, dis­il­lu­sioned with Mer­cury, Berry re­turned to Chess, scor­ing an un­likely hit with an in­nu­endo-laden ditty called My Ding-A-Ling in ’71, a song that earned him his first of­fi­cial gold record. Through the 70s, Berry once again be­came a head­line at­trac­tion at clubs, con­cert halls and fes­ti­vals, cul­mi­nat­ing with a per­for­mance, at Pres­i­dent Carter’s re­quest, at The White House. In 1979, the IRS fi­nally caught up with him and, plead­ing guilty to tax eva­sion charges, Berry was sen­tenced to a com­bi­na­tion of a short prison stint and com­mu­nity ser­vice. Through­out the 80s, Berry con­tin­ued to play up to 100 con­certs per year, pick­ing up lo­cal mu­si­cians along the way, some good, some aw­ful, but al­ways will­ing to put them­selves through any­thing for a mo­ment on stage with a le­gend.

Berry’s rep­u­ta­tion was again tar­nished in 1990 when sev­eral woman sued him, claim­ing he’d in­stalled video cam­eras in the ladies’ lava­tory at his restau­rant, The South­ern Air. A po­lice raid of his home found video tapes, along with a large amount of mar­i­juana. Berry got off with a sus­pended jail sen­tence and com­mu­nity ser­vice.

De­spite his dark side, what re­mains clear is what a pi­o­neer and in­no­va­tor Chuck Berry was in the 50s; he crossed racial lines with his fu­sion of coun­try and blues, and his ground­break­ing song­writ­ing in­spired so many on both sides of the At­lantic. He was also rock ’n’ roll’s first gui­tar hero front­man, and for that alone, he will al­ways be revered and re­mem­bered.

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