Chuck Berry combined the blues and country music into a form of rock ‘n’ roll that has influenced just about every rock musician that followed him. Famous for his double string lick, he has been
hailed as one of the worlds “most influential musicians", and was awarded the Kenney Center Honors Award in 2000 at the age of 74.
Born in San Jose on 18th October, 1926, Charles Edward Anderson Berry sang in a church choir after his family moved to St. Louis, and taught himself guitar while at junior high school. His brushes with the law began before graduation, when he was convicted of armed robbery and spent three years in a reform. He is very resilient, and has suffered more peaks and troughs than most, yet has outlasted his contemporaries. His peaks tended to be very high, and his troughs very low, but he survived nevertheless.
When he was released from reform in 1947, he worked for General Motors and continued with his guitar. He formed a trio in 1952 with a pianist called Johnnie Johnson and drummer Ebby Harding that by 1955 was a top band in the St Louis area and had changed its name to the Chuck Berry Combo. They played a mix of blues, country and pop, and in that year met Muddy Waters who introduced him to Leonard chess, co-owner of Chess records in Chicago.
His demo tape included a song called ‘Ida Red’ that Chase changed to ‘Maybellene', and when it was sent to Alan Freed, at that time an influential disc jockey, Chuck Berry's real career started off. Maybellene became an instant success and Berry's first top 10 hit. It was the first of a succession, including ‘Roll Over Beethoven', ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’ and ‘Johnny B Goode’. His duckwalk became almost as famous as he was, although he had invented that many years before as a child when trying to get under a table to retrieve a ball.
Success came quickly to Chuck Berry, although he was 30 years old when he became really famous. He opened Berry Park in 1957, in Wetntzville, Missouri, that boasted a swimming pool shaped like a guitar, a nightclub, a golf course and even hotel rooms. He also possessed a fleet of Cadillacs that he loved - who wouldn't!
'Go Johnny Go’ came in 1959, the year that disaster struck him and he sunk into one of his lows. He was arrested for bringing a 14-year-old girl from Texas to his St. Louis nightclub, allegedly to check hats. When it was discovered that she set up business as a prostitute in a nearby hotel, the law came down on Berry like a ton of bricks and after two trials was imprisoned for two years under the Mann Act. He came out of prison a bitter man, but while he was there his music had reached the UK, and the British loved it.
His career got another kick-start, and then when the Beatles and the Rolling Stones came the USA, the fact that both these bands based their music on his again gave a massive boost to his music. From being at a very low ebb he suddenly. Found his records selling in Europe, and his music being played by two of the biggest bands in the world. This was typical of the highs and lows of Chuck berry's life. One of the results was a number of new songs, some of which, such as ‘Nadine’ and ‘No Particular Place to Go’ (written while in jail) were smash hits.
There then followed a very successful tour of Britain, and Chuck was on a roll again! However, during the 1960s his style of music was taking a back seat to the likes of Jimi Hendrix and others, and a brief switch to Mercury records was a disaster for him professionally. He moved back to Chess, which resulted in his biggest ever hit in 1972 with the million seller ‘My Ding-a-Ling’ which appealed to the British sense of humor and was his first official Gold Disc. Chuck was on a roll yet again - for a while.
Although he made millions, he didn't pay his taxes, and after playing for Jimmy Carter at the White House, was jailed again in 1979 for failing to pay his income tax. His troubles continued over the next decade and in 1988, he was forced to come to a settlement with a woman who claimed that he punched her in the mouth, and two years later was given a suspended sentence for possession of marijuana (what rock ‘n roll star worth his salt wasn't?). These were his lows, but one of his highs in the 80s was his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. His 1987 autobiography ‘Chuck Berry: the Autobiography’ (very imaginative) was turned into a movie ‘Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll’ with live footage of his 60th birthday concert and Keith Richard as Musical Director - Rolling Stone Keith was a confirmed disciple of Chuck Berry.
In spite of his run-ins with the law, and periods during which his music and backing bands were equally awful (meaning bad, not full of awe), Chuck Berry is, and will always remain, rock ‘n’ roll personified. He was very much underrated as a guitarist in his own time, but is now named in every top 50 guitarist all-time list.
Although Johnnie Johnson who was there with him when he first started playing in a live band, died in 2005, Chuck Berry's ding-a-ling is still alive and well, and who knows what his next high will be.
Chuck Berry was a fabulous guitarist of the blues and rock genres, and if you are interested in playing guitar in either of these styles, http://www.jamplaynow.com can teach you how, as well as introduce you to many other guitar styles.