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.
At the time of Chuck Berry’s birth, St. Louis was a sharply segregated city. He grew up in a north St. Louis neighborhood called the Ville, a self-contained middle-class black community that was a haven for black-owned businesses and institutions. The neighborhood was so segregated that Berry had never even encountered a white person until the age of three, when he saw several white firemen putting out a fire. “I thought they were so frightened that their faces were whitened from fear of going near the big fire,” he once recalled. “Daddy told me they were white people, and their skin was always white that way, day or night.”
The fourth of six children, Berry pursued a variety of interests and hobbies as a child. He enjoyed doing carpentry work for his father and learned photography from his uncle, Harry Davis, a professional photographer. Berry also showed an early talent for music and began singing in the church choir from the age of six. He attended Sumner High School, a prestigious private institution that was the first all-black high school west of the Mississippi. For the school’s annual talent show, Berry sang Jay McShann’s “Confessin’ the Blues” while accompanied by a friend on the guitar. Although the school administration bristled at what they viewed as the song’s crude content, the performance was an enormous hit with the study body and sparked Berry’s interest in learning the guitar himself. He started guitar lessons soon after, studying with local jazz legend Ira Harris.
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-50’s, 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 flavor 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.”
Berry’s soaring music career was derailed again in 1961 when he was convicted under the Mann Act of illegally transporting a woman across state lines for “immoral purposes.” Three years earlier, in 1958, Berry had opened Club Bandstand in the predominantly white business district of downtown St. Louis. The next year, while traveling in Mexico, he had met a 14-year-old waitress, and sometimes prostitute, and brought her back to St. Louis to work at his club. However, he fired her only weeks later, and when she was then arrested for prostitution, charges were pressed against Berry that ended with him spending yet another 20 months in jail.
When Berry was released from prison in 1963, he picked up right where he left off, writing and recording popular and innovative songs. His 1960s hits include “Nadine,” “You Can Never Tell,” Promised Land” and “Dear Dad.” Nevertheless, Berry was never the same man after his second stint in prison. Carl Perkins, his friend and partner on a 1964 British concert tour, observed, “Never saw a man so changed. He had been an easygoing guy before, the kinda guy who’d jam in dressing rooms, sit and swap licks and jokes. In England he was cold, real distant and bitter. It wasn’t just jail, it was those years of one-nighters, grinding it out like that can kill a man, but I figure it was mostly jail.”
Berry released one of his last albums of original music, ‘Rock It‘, to fairly positive reviews in 1979. While Berry continued to perform into the 1990’s, he would never recapture the magnetic energy and originality that had first catapulted him to fame during the 50’s and 60’s.
Berry 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!”
On his 90th birthday in October, the music legend announced that he had plans to release a new album dedicated to Themetta, whom he called Toddy, his wife of 68 years. “This record is dedicated to my beloved Toddy,” he said in a statement. “My darlin’, I’m growing old! I’ve worked on this record for a long time. Now I can hang up my shoes!”
Berry died on March 18 2017 at the age of 90. He is remembered as a founding father of rock ‘n’ roll, whose pioneering career influenced generations of musicians.