Charles Edward Anderson Berry was
born October, 18, 1926 in St. Louis, MO. Having no immediate musical background in his
family, he has developed a unique importance in the history of Rock and Roll, as one of
its most individual early singer-songwriters, and as a seminal influence on second
generation rock. He was the author of compositional and instrumental styles which heavily
influenced early Beatles, Dylan, the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones, but his own
musical career was patchy and prone to skirmishes with the law.
Following high school, a reformatory, he started his musical career by
singing in a gospel group. This was followed by a brief career as a boxer and work at the
Fisher Body auto assembly plant as a janitor from 1948-55. In 1952, he joined Sir John's
trio, a small combo led by Johnny Johnson. Berry added showmanship and hillbilly music to
the combo as well and blues and R&B, and soon took over as leader of the band.
Eventually, Berry visited Chicago, where, on the advice of Muddy
Waters, he sought out Leonard Chess, owner of Chess Records. Chess recorded Berry's
"Maybellene" and gave a copy of the record to the influential disk jockey, Alan
Freed. The song went on to sell over a million copies reaching number one on the Billboard
R&B chart. This was followed by the immortal "Roll Over Beethoven," a
statement of intent if there ever was one.
Berry's release of "School Day" in March of 1957 was also a
hit. Shortly after this, Berry went on tour and in his first year had over 240 one-night
stands. With nearly 20 chart hits between 1957 and 1960, Berry became famous for his
examination of the adolescent experience, emanating particularly from his hits
"School Days" and "Sweet Little Sixteen." During the next decade, he
made several big-screen appearances - Rock, Rock, Rock, Mr. Rock'n' Roll and Go Johnny
Go. Also, one of his live concert shows was captured on film in Jazz On a
Summer's Day, 1960.
In 1959, Berry was convicted on an immorality charge concerning a
teenage girl employed at his nightclub. His conviction landed him in jail for two years.
By the time he was released, his earlier recordings were more popular than ever thanks to
the new breed of white rock groups. The Beatles and the Stones made his songs staples of
their live repertoire. Also at this time Berry befriended Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis
and contributed to their success.
His 60th birthday in 1986 was marked by a star-studded concert in St.
Louis, organized by Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones. This was filmed and formed the
basis for the movie, Hail, Hail Rock and Roll. In 1987, Berry was inducted into the Rock
and Roll Hail of Fame and released his autobiography. In 1993, Berry performed at
President Clinton's inauguration. This year at 72, he continues to appear live on
occasion, to relive for his fans his great music. John Lennon said it best, "If you
tried to give Rock and Roll another name it would be Chuck Berry."
Copyright©WWUH: September/October Program Guide, 1998