Chuck Berry melded the blues, country, and a witty, defiant teen outlook into songs that have influenced virtually every rock musician in his wake. In his best work — about 40 songs (including “Round and Round,” “Carol,” “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Back in the U.S.A.,” “Little Queenie”), recorded mostly in the mid- to late 1950s — Berry matched some of the most resonant and witty lyrics in pop to music with a blues bottom and a country top, trademarking the results with his signature double-string guitar lick. Presenting Berry the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors Award in 2000, President Bill Clinton hailed him as “one of the 20th Century’s most influential musicians.”
Born Charles Edward Anderson Berry on October 18, 1926, in a middle-class black neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, he learned to play guitar as a teenager and performed publicly for the first time at Summer High School covering Jay McShann’s “Confessin’ the Blues.” From 1944 to 1947 Berry was in reform school for attempted robbery; upon release he worked on the assembly line at a General Motors Fisher body plant and studied hairdressing and cosmetology at night school. In 1952 he formed a trio with drummer Ebby Harding and pianist Johnnie Johnson, his keyboardist on and off for the next three decades. By 1955 the trio had become a top St. Louis-area club band, and Berry was supplementing his salary as a beautician with regular gigs. He met Muddy Waters in Chicago in May 1955, and Waters introduced him to Leonard Chess. Berry played Chess a demo tape that included “Ida Red”; Chess renamed it “Maybellene,” and sent it to disc jockey Alan Freed (who got a cowriting credit in the deal), and Berry had his first Top 10 hit.
Through 1958 Berry had a string of hits. “School Day” (Number Three pop, Number One R&B, 1957), “Rock & Roll Music” (Number Eight pop, Number Six R&B, 1957), “Sweet Little Sixteen” (Number Two pop, Number One R&B, 1958), and “Johnny B. Goode” (Number Eight pop, Number Five R&B, 1958) were the biggest. With his famous duck walk, Berry was a mainstay on the mid-Fifties concert circuit. He also appeared in such films as Rock, Rock, Rock (1956), Mister Rock and Roll (1957), and Go, Johnny, Go (1959).
Late in 1959 Berry was charged with violating the Mann Act: He had brought a 14-year-old Spanish-speaking Apache waitress and prostitute from Texas to check hats in his St. Louis nightclub, and after he fired her she complained to the police. Following a blatantly racist first trial, he was found guilty at a second. Berry spent two years in federal prison in Indiana, leaving him embittered.
By the time he was released in 1964, the British Invasion was underway, replete with Berry’s songs on early albums by the Beatles and Rolling Stones. He recorded a few more classics — including “Nadine” and “No Particular Place to Go” — although it has been speculated that they were written before his jail term. Since then he has written and recorded only sporadically, although he had a million-seller with the novelty song “My Ding-a-Ling” (Number One, 1972), and his last album of new material, 1979’s Rockit was a creditable effort. He also appeared in a 1979 film, American Hot Wax. Through it all, Berry continued to perform concerts internationally, often with pickup bands. In the first decade of the 2000s, Hip-O Select released Berry’s entire Chess studio output from his prime Fifties and Sixties years as Johnny B. Goode: His Complete ’50s Chess Recordings (2007) and You Never Can Tell: The Complete Chess Recordings 1960-1966 (2009). The latter set includes one of his best recorded live shows, a previously unreleased performance captured at a Detroit casino in 1963.
In January 1986 Berry was among the first round of inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The following year he published the at-times sexually and scatalogically explicit Chuck Berry: The Autobiography and was the subject of a documentary/tribute film, Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll, for which his best-known disciple, Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, organized a backing band.
Problems with the law and the Internal Revenue Service have plagued him through the years. Shortly before a June 1979 performance for Jimmy Carter at the White House, the IRS charged Berry with income tax evasion, and he served a 100-day prison term that year. In 1988 in New York City, he paid a $250 fine to settle a $5 million lawsuit from a woman he allegedly punched in the mouth. In 1990 police raided his home at Berry Park, the Wentzville, Missouri, recording compound he opened in the late Fifties and had turned into an amusement complex by the Eighties. Finding 62 grams of marijuana and videotapes of women — one of whom was apparently a minor — using the restroom at a restaurant he owned, authorities filed felony drug and child-abuse charges against Berry. In order to have the child-abuse charges dropped, Berry agreed to plead guilty to one misdemeanor count of marijuana possession. He was given a six-month suspended jail sentence, placed on two years’ unsupervised probation, and ordered to donate $5,000 to a local hospital.
Berry has continued to tour the world, sometimes with fellow classic rockers such as Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard, and moved to Ladue, Missouri, near St. Louis, where he performs regularly at the Blueberry Hill bar and restaurant.