Chuck Berry (born 1926), creator of the "duck walk" and known as the "father of rock and roll," has been a major influence on popular music. Even though his career and life reached great peaks and declined to low valleys, he still prevails in music while his contemporaries have vanished.
"If there were a single fountainhead for rock guitar, Chuck Berry would be it," wrote Gene Santoro in The Guitar. Indeed, the list of artists influenced by the "father of rock and roll" is nearly endless. From the Beach Boys and the Beatles to Jimi Hendrix and on to Van Halen and Stevie Ray Vaughan, every popular musician knows the impact that Chuck Berry has had on popular music. As Eric Clapton stated, there's really no other way to play rock and roll.
Took up Guitar in Junior High
Born in 1926, Berry didn't take up the guitar until he was in junior high school thirteen years later. With the accompaniment of a friend on guitar, the two youths played a steamy version of Confessin' The Blues which surprised, and pleased, the student audience. The reaction from the crowd prompted Berry to learn some guitar chords from his partner and he was hooked from then on. He spent his teen years developing his chops while working with his father doing carpentry. But before he could graduate from high school, Berry was arrested and convicted of armed robbery and served three years in Algoa (Missouri). A year after his release on October 18, 1947, he was married and working on a family, swearing that he was forever cured of heading down the wrong path again.
In addition to carpentry, he began working as a hairstylist around this time, saving as much money as he could make (a trait that would cause him considerable grief later in his life). Near the end of 1952 he received a call from a piano player named Johnnie Johnson asking him to play a New Year's Eve gig at the Cosmopolitan Club. Berry accepted, and for the next three years the band literally ruled the Cosmo Club (located at the corner of 17th and Bond St. in East St. Louis, Illinois). At the beginning the band (which included Ebby Hardy on drums), was called Sir John's Trio and played mostly hillbilly, country, and honky tonk tunes. Berry's influence changed not only their name (to the Chuck Berry Combo) but also their style. He originally wanted to be a big band guitarist but that style had died down in popularity by then. Berry cited sources like T-Bone Walker, Carl Hogan of Louis Jordan's Tympani Five, Charlie Christian, and saxophonist Illinois Jacquet as his inspirations, borrowing from their sounds to make one of his own.
Met Idol Muddy Waters
While the swing guitarists had a major impact on his playing, it was the blues, especially that of Muddy Waters, that caught Berry's attention. He and a friend went to see the master perform at a Chicago club, and with some coaxing, Berry mustered the nerve to speak with his idol. "It was the feeling I suppose one would get from having a word with the president or the pope," Berry wrote in his autobiography. "I quickly told him of my admiration for his compositions and asked him who I could see about making a record…. Those very famous words were, 'Yeah, see Leonard Chess. Yeah, Chess Records over on Forty-seventh and Cottage."' Berry flatly rejects the story of him hopping on stage and showing up Waters: "I was a stranger to Muddy and in no way was I about to ask my godfather if I could sit in and play." But he did take the advice and went to see the Chess brothers, Leonard and Phil. They were interested in the young artist but wanted to hear a demo tape before actually cutting any songs. So Berry hurried back home, recorded some tunes and headed back to Chicago.
"He was carrying a wire recorder," Leonard Chess told Peter Guralnick in Feel Like Going Home, "and he played us a country music take-off called 'Ida Red.' We called it 'Maybellene'…. The big beat, cars, and young love…. It was a trend and we jumped on it." Phil Chess elaborated, "You could tell right away…. He had that something special, that—I don't know what you'd call it. But he had it." After the May 21, 1955, recording session they headed back to the Cosmo Club, earning $21 per week and competing with local rivals like Albert King and Ike Turner. Unbeknownst to him, Berry shared writing credits for "Maybellene" with Russ Fralto and New York disc jockey Alan Freed as part of a deal Chess had made (also known as payola). The scam worked for the most part because by mid-September the song, which had taken 36 cuts to complete, was number 1 on the R&B charts. Berry was bilked out of two-thirds of his royalties from the song, but in later years he would reflect upon the lesson he learned: "Let me say that any man who can't take care of his own money deserves what he gets," he told Rolling Stone. "In fact, a man should be able to take care of most of his business himself." Ever since the incident that's just what Berry has done. He insists on running his career and managing his finances the way he sees fit.
Ten More Top Ten Hits
The next few years, until 1961, would see at least ten more top ten hits, including "Thirty Days," "Roll Over Beethoven," "Too Much Monkey Business," "Brown Eyed Handsome Man," "School Days," "Rock and Roll Music," "Sweet Little Sixteen," "Johnny B. Goode," "Carol," and "Almost Grown." Berry was a tremendous hit on the touring circuit, utilizing what is now known as his trademark. He explained its development in his autobiography: "A brighter seat of my memories is based on pursuing my rubber ball. Once it happened to bounce under the kitchen table, and I was trying to retrieve it while it was still bouncing. Usually I was reprimanded for disturbing activities when there was company in the house, as there was then. But this time my manner of retrieving the ball created a big laugh from Mother's choir members. Stooping with full-bended knees, but with my back and head vertical, I fit under the tabletop while scooting forward reaching for the ball. This squatting manner was requested by members of the family many times thereafter for the entertainment of visitors and soon, from their appreciation and encouragement, I looked forward to the ritual. An act was in the making. After it had been abandoned for years I happened to remember the maneuver while performing in New York for the first time and some journalist branded it the 'duck walk."'
The money from touring and record royalties were filling his pockets enough for Berry to start spending on some of the dreams he had long held. Around 1957 he opened Berry Park just outside of Wentzville, Missouri. With a guitar-shaped swimming pool, golf course, hotel suites, and nightclub, it was, next to his fleet of Cadillacs, his pride and joy. "Now that's what I call groovy," he told Rolling Stone. "To own a piece of land is like getting the closest to God, I'd say."
Remakes Weaker Than Originals
Things seemed to be going smoothly until 1961, when Berry was found guilty of violating the Mann Act. Berry was charged with transporting a teenage girl across a state line for immoral purposes. He spent from February 19, 1962 until October 18, 1963 behind bars at the Federal Medical Center in Springfield, Missouri. For years Berry denied this, claiming he was acquitted and never served time. He finally admitted the truth in his autobiography. He used his prison term constructively though, taking courses to complete his high school education and also by penning some of his most notable songs: "Tulane," "No Particular Place To Go," and "Nadine."
By the time Berry was released from jail the British Invasion was about to take over. Groups like the Beatles were churning out cover versions of Berry classics and turning whole new audiences on to him. While some artists might have cried rip-off (the Stones have done over ten of his tunes), Berry sees only the positive aspects. "Did I like it? That doesn't come under my scrutiny," he told Guitar Player. "It struck me that my material was becoming marketable, a recognizable product, and if these guys could do such a good job as to get a hit, well, fantastic. I'm just glad it was my song." Even so, remakes of Berry hits are more often than not considerably weaker than his originals. While his style is remarkably simple, it is also next to impossible to duplicate with the same feel and sense of humor.
A Shrewd Rock and Roller
"Chuck Berry dominated much of the early rock scene by his complete mastery of all its aspects: playing, performing, songwriting, singing and a shrewd sense of how to package himself as well," wrote Santoro. As shrewd as Berry was, by the mid-1960s his type of rock was losing ground to improvisors like Eric Clapton, Mike Bloomfield, and Jimi Hendrix (all three of whom acknowledged Berry's influence, but were trying to break new ground). A switch from Chess to Mercury Records from 1966 to 1969 did little to help. He would continue touring throughout the 1960s without the aid of a regular backup band.
Berry's method since the late 1950s has been to use pickup bands comprised of musicians from the city he's playing in. This has led to many complaints from fans and critics alike that his performances are sometimes shoddy and careless. In his book, Berry gives his own reasons, stating that "drinks and drugs were never my bag, nor were they an excuse for affecting the quality of playing so far as I was concerned. A few ridiculous performances, several amendments to our band regulations, and the band broke up, never to be reconstructed. Whenever I've assembled other groups and played road dates, similar conditions have prevailed." (Berry reportedly accepts no less than $10,000 per gig and plays for no more than 45 minutes; no encores.)
Another Hit and More Personal Strife
By 1972 Berry was back with Chess and produced his biggest seller to date, "My Ding-a-Ling," from The London Chuck Berry Sessions. Selling over two million copies, it was his first gold record and a number 1 hit on both sides of the Atlantic according to The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock. He had hit pay dirt, but his obsession to have a bank account with a $1 million figure led to another run-in with the law. In 1979 Berry was convicted of tax evasion and spent just over three months at Lompoc Prison Camp in California. Perhaps the one thing that has caused him more pleasure/pain than money is his fancy for women, stated simply in his book: "The only real bother about prison, to me, is the loss of love." He has said that he hopes to write a book one day devoted solely to his sex life.
Berry's legal troubles continued into his later years, when he was embroiled in accusations of drug possession and trafficking and various sexual improprieties in July of 1990. His estate was raided earlier that spring by the DEA, who had been informed that Berry was dealing in cocaine. The operation resulted in the confiscation of marijuana and hashish and pornographic videotapes and films, but charges against the entertainer were later dismissed. Berry was also involved in a class-action lawsuit regarding videotapes made of women without their consent. Meanwhile, more collections of Berry's hits continued to be released, including a well-received box set by Chess/MCA in 1989 and a live recording released in 1995.
While Berry's career has had the highest peaks and some pretty low valleys, he has survived while most of his contemporaries have vanished. In 1986 Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richard, perhaps the ultimate student of the Chuck Berry School of Guitar, decided to put it all together with a 60th birthday party concert to be filmed and released as a movie, Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll. It took place at St. Louis's Fox Theater, a venue which had at one time refused a youthful Berry entrance because of his skin color. The show featured Berry's classic songs with Richard, Johnnie Johnson, Robert Cray, Etta James, Eric Clapton, Linda Ronstadt, and Julian Lennon also performing. Berry has also been honored with a star in the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. If that's not enough, "Johnny B. Goode" is riding around in outer space on the Voyager I just waiting to be heard by aliens.
Despite the accolades, in his own book Berry shrugs off his contributions, stating that "my view remains that I do not deserve all the reward directed on my account for the accomplishments credited to the rock 'n' roll bank of music." Nevertheless, Rolling Stone's Dave Marsh's words seem to be more appropriate: "Chuck Berry is to rock what Louis Armstrong was to jazz."
Further Reading on Chuck Berry
Berry, Chuck, The Autobiography, Fireside, 1988.
Guralnick, Peter, Feel Like Going Home, Vintage, 1981.
Kozinn, Alan, and Pete Welding, Dan Forte, and Gene Santoro, The Guitar, Quill, 1984.
Logan, Nick, and Bob Woffinden, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, Harmony Books, 1977.
Rock Revolution, by the editors of Creem magazine, Popular Library, 1976.
The Rolling Stone Interviews, by the editors of Rolling Stone, St. Martin's Press/Rolling Stone Press, 1981.
The Rolling Stone Record Guide, edited by Dave Marsh and John Swenson, Random House/Rolling Stone Press, 1979.
Guitar Player, February, 1981; May, 1984; June, 1984; January, 1985; January, 1987; November, 1987; December, 1987; March, 1988.
Guitar World, March, 1987; November, 1987; December, 1987;March, 1988; April, 1988.
Rolling Stone, January 26, 1989; August 23, 1990.