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If Elvis Presley was proclaimed “The King of Rock and Roll”, Chuck Berry, on the other hand, was touted as the “Father of Rock and Roll” during the 50s music esa. Although no one claims to have invented rock n’ roll, music experts agree that Berry comes close to being its pioneer. Berry laid the groundwork that developed the distinctive, dynamic sound of the genre which has become very popular today.
Like the lifestyle of many other famous rock n’ roll stars, Berry has often lived in troubled circumstances, having been arrested several times for various offenses. But it’s no doubt that his achievements outweigh his tumultuous personal life, and it seems that he has outlived them all.
Berry was born on October 18, 1926, in St. Louis, Missouri. Because he had a middle-class background, it gave Berry the opportunity to pursue his interest in music at an early age. He gave his first public performance at a local high school.
Berry was a rebellious youth; while still in high school, he was arrested along with his companions for armed robbery. After serving three years in jail, at 21 years old he settled into a married life and worked at various jobs (including training as a beautician). He began to playmusic in clubs to augment his income.
While playing with Johnnie Johnson’s trio in 1953, he made an attempt (mostly goaded by curiosity) to reach to a wider audience, after realizing that the music most white people preferred was country (or “hillbilly”) music. He incorporated country to his usual rhythm and blues repertoire. Soon the formula gained a certain popularity and attention, particularly from the affluent white people who came to his gigs.
His big break came in 1955, when he was signed to Chess Records through the help of legendary blues musician Muddy Waters. “Maybelline”, his first single, became a chart success, having sold multimillion copies and landing on #1 on Billboard’s R&B chart (#5 in overall bestselling singles) in 1955. Later he followed this with other hit songs: “Rock N’ Roll Music”, “Johnny B. Goode” and “Roll Over, Beethoven”, “Sweet Little Sixteen”, among others.
By the end of the decade Berry was an established rock n’ roll star, which also brought him lucrative success. This enabled him to open his own establishment in St. Louis, called Berry’s Club Bandstand.
But his fortunes came to a halt when he was arrested for having an intercourse with a minor and later transporting her in several states for immoral purposes. He claimed that the allegations and the judges’ comments were racist; nevertheless he was sentenced to three years in prison.
In 1963, he was released from jail and started to record songs again. But his career never recovered its prior luster; his last known true hits were “Nadine”, “No Particular Place To Go” and “You Can Never Tell”. Still, Berry found success as a top-concert draw, even in the height of the British Invasion (spearheaded by the Beatles, who were fans of Berry and covered two of his original songs).
As the years went by, he continued to play live shows as a nostalgic performer. But his bitterness and frustrations grew – that behavior reflected in his subsequent performances, which are described as erratic and unrehearsed. Still, he soldiered on, armed with his Gibson.
His music has not only transcended genres but also race and generations of music fans. As a songwriter, his lyrics reflected the workings of the society, in particular the youth culture – much of those themes still sound relevant today. As a guitarist, Berry exhibited intricate and involved skills as if the guitar were part of his nature, and showed to us what rock n’ roll would sound like through his innovative riffs. The Beatles’ George Harrison, The Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards and Eric Clapton, just to name a few, once dreamed to play guitar in a way like Chuck Berry did. As a performer, his famed showmanship provided a template for an exciting and interesting onstage performance for aspiring bands and artists. His influence and legend are really undeniable.
Berry’s invaluable contribution is indeed a milestone in 20th century music. Because of his outstanding achievements, he received numerous accolades by many sectors of the industry. The magazine Rolling Stone has been hailing Berry in their numerous “Greatest Artists of All Time” lists; it placed Berry at #6 in September 2003, to date. He is also one of the first artists to be inducted to The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, in 1986.
Even at his advanced age, Berry continued to perform live, playing once a month at Blueberry Hill, a bar in St. Louis. He had also toured and played in many European countries in 2008. The latest accolade he had received was a recognition from the annual PEN Awards in 2012, alongside Leonard Cohen.
On March 18, 2017, Chuck Berry died at his home in Missouri due to cardiac arrest. He was 90 years old. He will always be remembered as a founding father of rock and roll whose illustrious and pioneering music career has influenced musicians during his own generation and beyond.