Chuck Berry - Hail Hail Rock n Roll!

Aug 4, 2011, 8:55 AM |

A pioneer of rock music, Chuck Berry was a significant influence on the development of both the music and the attitude associated with the rock music lifestyle. The rock critic Robert Christgau considers him "the greatest of the rock and rollers," while John Lennon said that "if you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it 'Chuck Berry'." Ted Nugent said "If you don't know every Chuck Berry lick, you can't play rock guitar."

Chuck Berry was born on October 18, 1926 in St Louis, Missouri. He grew up in the north St. Louis neighborhood known as "The Ville," an area where many middle class St. Louis people lived at the time. His father, Henry, was a contractor and deacon of a nearby Baptist church, his mother Martha a certified public school principal. His middle class upbringing allowed him to pursue his interest in music from an early age.  Just three years later, in 1944, while still at Sumner High School, he was arrested and convicted of armed robbery after robbing three shops in Kansas City and then stealing a car at gunpoint with some friends. Berry's own account in his autobiography is that his car broke down and he then flagged down a passing car and stole it at gunpoint with a non-functional pistol. Berry was sent to the Intermediate Reformatory for Young Men at Algoa, near Jefferson City, Missouri, where he formed a singing quartet and did some boxing.

After his release from prison on his 21st birthday in 1947, Berry married Themetta "Toddy" Suggs on 28 October 1948, who gave birth to Darlin Ingrid Berry on 3 October 1950. Berry supported his family doing a number of jobs in St. Louis: working briefly as a factory worker at two automobile assembly plants, as well as being janitor for the apartment building where he and his wife lived. Afterwards he trained as a beautician at the Poro College of Cosmetology. He was doing well enough by 1950 to buy a "small three room brick cottage with a bath" in Whittier Street, which is now on the National Register of Historic Places. By the early 1950s, Berry was working with local bands in the clubs of St. Louis as an extra source of income. He had been playing the blues since his teens, and he borrowed both guitar riffs and showmanship techniques from blues player T-Bone Walker, as well as taking guitar lessons from his friend Ira Harris that laid the foundation for his guitar style. By early 1953 Berry was performing with Johnnie Johnson's trio, starting a long-time collaboration with the pianist. Although the band played mostly blues and ballads, the most popular music among whites in the area was country. Berry wrote, "Curiosity provoked me to lay a lot of our country stuff on our predominantly black audience and some of our black audience began whispering 'who is that black hillbilly at the Cosmo?' After they laughed at me a few times they began requesting the hillbilly stuff and enjoyed dancing to it". Berry's calculated showmanship, along with mixing country tunes with R&B tunes, and singing in the style of Nat "King" Cole to the music of Muddy Waters, brought in a wider audience, particularly affluent white people.

In May 1955, Berry traveled to Chicago where he met Waters, who suggested he contact Leonard Chess of Chess Records. Berry thought his blues material would be of most interest to Chess, but to his surprise it was an old country and western recording by Bob Wills, entitled "Ida Red" that got Chess's attention. Chess had seen the rhythm and blues market shrink and was looking to move beyond it, and he thought Berry might be the artist for that purpose. So on May 21, 1955 Berry recorded an adaptation of "Ida Red"—"Maybellene"—which featured Johnnie Johnson on piano, Jerome Green (from Bo Didley's band) on the maracas, Jasper Thomas on the drums and Willie Dixon on the bass. "Maybellene" sold over a million copies, reaching #1 on Billboard's Rhythm and Blues chart and #5 on the  September 10, 1955 Billboard Best Sellers chart. At the end of June 1956, his song "Roll Over Beethoven" reached #29 on the Billboard Top 100 chart, and Berry toured as one of the "Top Acts of '56". And as they say "The rest is history". 

During his career Chuck Berry released 29 albums and 53 singles of which 24 reach the top 40 and 5 reached the #1 position. He received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1984. In 1986 he was inducted into the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame. He received The Kennedy Center Honors in 2000.  On May 14, 2002 was honored as one of the first BMI icons at the 50th annual BMI Awards. In the September 2003 issue of Rolling Stone Magazine he was named sixth in thier list of the top "100 Greatest Guitar Players of All-Time". In November 2003 Rolling Stone magazine named his album "The Great Twenty Eight" number 21 in the list of the "500 Greatest Album of All-Time. The following year, in March 2004, Berry was ranked fifth out of "The Immortals – The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time". In December 2004, six of his songs were included in the "Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Songs of All- Time" namely "Johnny B. Goode" (#7), Maybellene (#18), "Roll Over Beethoven" (#97), "Rock 'N' Roll Music" (#128), "Sweet Little Sixteen" (#272), and "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" (#374).  In June 2008, his song "Johnny B. Goode" ranked first place in the "100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time". In 2009 Chuck was named seventh on Time Magazines list of the 10 best electric guitar players of all-time. On July 30, 2011 Chuck Berry was honored by his hometown of St. Louis with the dedication of an eight-foot-tall statue in his honor.


The Chuck Berry statue in St. Louis, Missouri.

Videos of Chuck Berry's 1972 concert from the BBC Theatre in London, England. His band Rocking Horse was: Jimmy Campbell - Guitar, Billy Kinsley - Bass, Dave Harrison - Drums and Michael Snow - Piano. I chose these videos because I think they show Chuck at his performing best and is one of the few times he performed with a quality band. 


Roll Over Beethoven

Sweet Little Sixteen

Memphis, Tennessee

South of the Border - Chuck shows his sense of humor.

Beer Drinking Woman - Chuck doin' what he does best...the blues!

Mean Old World - More great blues! If you only watch one of these videos, this should be the one. The free-style guitar jam show's why he is still considered one of the best guitarist and showman of all-time.


Rock 'n' Roll Music

Promised Land

My Ding-A-Ling - Once again showcasing his humor.

 Bye Bye Johnny/Bonsoir Cherie/Johnny B. Goode