Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


BERRY, Chuck

(b Charles Edward Anderson Berry, 18 October 1926, San Jose CA; d 18 March 2017, St Charles County MO) Guitar; singer, songwriter; R&B superstar, the biggest influence in pre-Beatles rock. The family moved to St Louis, where he studied guitar, and was jailed for armed robbery '44; he became a hairdresser, and joined the Sir John Trio on New Years Eve '53, led by pianist Johnnie Johnson. As a singer with a knack for songwriting he soon became the leader, but Johnson remained associated with Berry for nearly 30 years. He took a demo tape to Chicago '55, sought out Muddy Waters and was introduced by him to Leonard Chess. A song on the tape, 'Ida Red', was said to be a country stomp performed R&B style; reworked and retitled 'Maybelline', it became a no. 1 R&B hit, no. 5 pop the same year. (Larry Birnbaum thinks it was more likely inspired by 'Oh! Red', as recorded by the Harlem Hamfats '36.) Disc jockey Alan Freed helped to break 'Maybelline' nationally and took co-composer credit. The flip 'Wee Wee Hours' was a slow blues with very fine piano, introducing many a teenager to the genre; one of the things that made Berry's songs different was that his guitar and his songwriting were influenced by Johnson's piano.

The next singles 'Thirty Days' and 'No Money Down' failed to cross over; 'Roll Over Beethoven' was top 30 pop '56; 'Too Much Monkey Business'/'Brown Eyed Handsome Man' (recorded the same day as 'Beethoven') made the top ten of the R&B chart and remains a two-sided classic. He developed the formula of 'Beethoven': the celebration of rock'n'roll with emphasis on the generation gap leaped over entertainment's colour bar, selling to teenagers of all races: 'School Days' was no. 3 pop, 'Rock And Roll Music' no. 8, both '57; 'Sweet Little Sixteen' no. 2, 'Johnny B Goode' no 8, both '58. 'Carol', 'Almost Grown', 'Back In The USA' also made top 40 '58-9. Rock'n'roll films included Rock Rock Rock '56, Mr Rock And Roll '57; he was seen on Dick Clark's American Bandstand '58, the Newport Jazz Festival '58 and festival film Jazz On A Summer's Day.

He opened a nightclub in St Louis '59 and fell foul of the Mann Act, transporting a teenage hat-check girl (with an arrest record) across a state line. His first blatantly racist trial was thrown out so they tried him again; he went to prison '62-3. His marriage to Themetta ('Toddy') faltered but survived (four children; daughter Ingrid Gibson is a singer who worked with him for years). Stockpiled records were issued: 'Route 66', 'Come On', 'Down The Road Apiece'; he came back to liberty and the pop top 40 '64 with 'Nadine', 'No Particular Place To Go', 'You Never Can Tell'; the paucity of later output suggests these were written before incarceration.

His back catalogue provided a substantial repertoire for groups perpetrating the British Invasion of '64: the Beatles covered 'Roll Over Beethoven' and 'Rock And Roll Music'; the Rolling Stones chose 'Come On' for their first single and recorded four others in their first year; the Animals covered 'Memphis Tennessee', 'Around And Around'; the Yardbirds did 'Too Much Monkey Business': at the time some Americans saw them all as rip-off artists. 'If you tried to give rock'n'roll another name, you might call it ''Chuck Berry'',' said John Lennon later. (Most of Berry's UK top 40 entries were achieved at this time; the biggest were 'Let It Rock'/'Memphis' no 6 '63, 'No Particular Place To Go' no. 3 '64.)

Jail no doubt embittered him, perhaps blunted his creative edge; he toured the UK with Carl Perkins, showed off his trademark 'duckwalk' (played in squatting mode, hopping around stage), but he did not use a full-time backing band, preferring to hire and fire local musicians in each town, so that the quality of live performances was variable. He left Chess for the Mercury label late '60s but there was no worthwhile new stuff; on returning to Chess he delivered a live/studio set from Coventry and London: the live part included an eleven-minute version of the salacious nursery-rhyme-styled 'My Ding-A-Ling', long used in his stage act; cut to single length it made transatlantic no. 1, his first no. 1 either side of the pond except for the USA R&B chart. In his heyday he not only rocked but wrote memorable lyrics; the hits were characterized by distinctive four-bar guitar intro, lyrics always clear, incisive guitar breaks moving songs along: like most formulas it became careworn due to ham-fisted imitation (but there were memorable covers, e.g. Jimi Hendrix on 'Johnny B Goode'). Berry later recorded rarely (Rockit '79 on Atlantic was a later album); had another brush with the law (income tax '79). His work from '55-65 will endure as long as records are sold. Chuck Berry: The Autobiography '87 was written without a ghostwriter; rockumentary Hail! Hail! Rock'n'Roll same year included footage from his 60th birthday concert at the Fox Theatre in St Louis, guests including Keith Richards (who organized the all-star backing band) and Bruce Springsteen.

Johnnie Johnson (b 8 July 1924, Fairmont WV; d 13 April 2005, St Louis) never got enough credit for helping to invent the style, but finally made several albums of his own beginning in the late 1980s.