Chuck Berry - Songwriter and Musician
Created | Updated Jan 12, 2007
Chuck Berry was one of the pioneers of rock 'n' roll music and, along with Little Richard, one of the most prominent black performers in American popular music of the 1950s. He wrote many hits and inspired many other writers and performers including the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, who followed in his footsteps.
The Early Years
Charles Edward Anderson Berry was born in St Louis, Missouri on 18 October, 1926. He was one of six children, two older and three younger.
His earliest experience of music was the choir at Antioch Baptist church, which the whole family attended, but he soon became attracted to the jazz and boogie-woogie music from the stations on the family's radio.
In 1939, while he was at Simmons grade school he, his brother and sister all joined a gospel choral group 'The Jubilee Ensembles' which gave performances at different churches in the area.
Across the street from the school was a sandwich shop with a juke-box. Many students, including Chuck, would spend their lunch hour there dancing to records by Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey and Muddy Waters.
For two years Chuck and his brother worked with their father, who was contracted to do building repairs in apartments, carpentry, painting etc. As they worked in white neighbourhoods, their father would always caution his sons not to look at the white ladies in any way that could be taken as an insult or an advance. He always referred to white females as 'ladies' while those of his own colour were 'women'.
After two years training with his father Chuck wanted a change of employment and higher wages so he then got an after-school job in a local grocery store.
He was 15 when war was declared. He was too young for the services, but his older brother and his cousin both served.
In 1941, while attending Sumner Hill High school he appeared in a musical stage performance. With fellow student Tommy Stevens accompanying him on a guitar, he performed 'Confessin' the Blues', a number he had often heard on the juke-box. Although some of the faculty members were displeased the audience exploded with applause.
The performance inspired Chuck to play the guitar. He borrowed a friend's guitar and taught himself to play. In 1942 he bought his first guitar and began playing with several bands in the St Louis area.
In 1944, having been involved in a robbery and stealing a car he was sent to a young offenders institution in Algoa. He was released in 1947.
In 1948 he married Themetta Suggs whom he nicknamed Toddy. He got a job at the Fisher Body car assembly plant and again began to concentrate on his musical career.
In 1952, as a member of the Tommy Stevens' Trio, Chuck was singing and playing rhythm guitar at Huff's Garden, a St Louis club. At the end of the year he joined Johnnie Johnson at the Cosmopolitan Club in East St. Louis, Illinois, where on some occasions nearly 40 per cent of the clients were Caucasian.
In 1955 Chuck met Muddy Waters in Chicago, and the great blues man advised him to get in touch with Leonard Chess at the Chess record company.
On 21 May, 1955 he recorded his first four songs. 'Maybelline', which was based on an old Country song 'Ida Red', 'Wee Wee Hours', 'You can't catch me', and 'Thirty Days'.
By early July 'Maybelline' was out as a single, and DJ Alan Freed was playing it in New York. It reached Number 1 on the Billboard Magazine's R&B chart and Number 5 in the pop Hot 100 chart.
In 1956, at a concert in New York Chuck performed his now famous 'Duckwalk' for the first time. His successful writing and recording career continued with, among others, 'Too much Monkey Business' and 'Brown Eyed Handsome Man' in 1956, 'Rock'n'Roll Music' and 'School Day', another R&B Number one in 1957, and his most productive year 1958 when he recorded 'Sweet little Sixteen', 'Surfin' USA', 'Johnnie B Goode', 'Carol', 'Memphis' and 'Little Queenie'.
He had some success in the UK pop charts including 'Let it Rock/Memphis Tennessee' at Number 6 in 1963 and 'No Particular Place To Go' in 1964; but his only Number 1 was not until 1972 with 'My Ding-a-ling'.
Chuck's songs are inspired by incidents in his life. 'Johnny B Goode' was originally about a 'coloured boy', not a 'country boy', but he changed it as he thought it seemed too biased for white fans. His great-grandfather actually lived in a log cabin 'in the woods among the evergreens'. 'Brown Eyed Handsome Man' was also about a coloured man, but usually he does not mention the colour of the people in the songs, so they can appeal to all listeners.
During the 1950s the segregation laws in some states caused problems for Chuck when he was on tour. He was booked for a concert in Knoxville, Tennessee. The organisers who had heard his records assumed he was white and had booked a white backing band to accompany him. It was against the city ordinance for him to appear on stage with them. At other theatres in the Southern States, such as the Duval Armory in Jacksonville, Florida, the audience would be separated by roped-off areas of seating.
In 1957 Chuck hired Francine Gullium as his private secretary in charge of his business and his fan club. They opened Club Bandstand, originally for teenagers and fan club meetings and dances. Eventually they got an alcohol license, and it became a 'mixed' nightclub with Francine as manager and barmaid. The teenagers were relocated and the fan club meetings moved to the Euston Avenue office.
1962 Chuck was charged with transporting a minor (an Apache Indian girl) across the state line from El Paso for immoral purposes. His defence was that he had intended to employ her as an hostess at Club Bandstand and that he did not know that she was under age. He was found guilty and imprisoned for two years. While imprisoned in the Federal Medical Center in Springfield he studied business management, business law, accounting, typing, World history, American history, American Government, and speech. This enabled him to graduate and get the diploma that he had missed out on in High School.
During that time, he also wrote 'No Particular Place to Go', 'Nadine', Tulene', 'You Never Can Tell' and 'Promised Land'. He had some difficulty writing 'Promised Land' as he could not get hold of a map to check the route from Norfolk, Virginia to Los Angeles, California.
After his release, he invested a considerable amount in Berry Park, a 30-acre 'mixed' recreation park with a 76-feet-long swimming pool and a country club, close to Wentzville St. Louis.
He continued touring all over the USA and in 1965 he played several concerts in Europe. In 1966 he left Chess records for Mercury, rejoining Chess in 1969. He performed in the Toronto Rock 'n' Roll Festival along with other legendary names including John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band, Little Richard, and The Doors.
In 1968 Chuck purchased a small movie theatre in Wentzville. Francine took over as manager. The local people mistakenly assumed that she was Chuck's wife and, as she was white, they found the situation totally unacceptable at that time. She was subjected to vicious remarks, and a brick was thrown through the window of the office. The theatre attendances dwindled and it was closed down shortly afterwards. Francine left for Philadelphia, not returning to Berry Park until a year later.
Chuck continued to hold weekly dances at Berry Park and there were three rock festivals in 1970, 1972, and 1974. As over sixty thousand hippies attended these, there was the usual drinking, nudity and marijuana smoking, which resulted in bad reports in the local press. Berry Park is now closed to the public and is now Chuck's private estate where he still lives.
In 1970 he was jailed for six months for tax evasion. While in Lompoc prison camp he began writing his autobiography. In 1972 he appeared at the Montreux Jazz Festival.
In 1977 his recording of 'Johnny B Goode' was included on a gold-plated disc aboard the Voyager 1 spacecraft, an unmanned exploration mission travelling past Jupiter to outside our solar system.
Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll
In 1986 Chuck was inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame. On his 60th birthday he played a special concert to be included in the film Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll which was released two years later. It came out on DVD in 2006. The concert was filmed at the Fabulous Fox Theater, in St Louis, where he had not been permitted to enter as a young boy.
In 1988 his autobiography was published which as well as detailing his musical career, was an account of the changes in race relations in the United States over half a century. The American Civil Rights Movement holds more information on those times.
Chuck toured Europe again a number of times during the 1990s and 2000s and appeared in London with Jerry Lee Lewis, and Little Richard in 2004.
In 2006 Chuck celebrated his 80th birthday, now a great-grand-father, still married to Toddy, and still performing each month at Blueberry Hill, a club in his home town of St Louis. He is still able to perform his now legendary duck-walk, as this BBC report shows.