The man who invented rock-n-roll guitar, who introduced rock-n-roll to the world in 1953 — one of the most covered rock-n-roll songwriters of all time (the Grateful Dead, Rolling Stones and The Beatles are just three of the acts that covered Chuck Berry songs) — has passed away at the age of 90.
Chuck Berry is the man who gave us the songs “Maybellene,” “Johnny B. Goode,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “No Particular Place To Go,” “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man,” “You Can Never Tell,” “Rock & Roll Music,” “Nadine,” “Merry Christmas Baby” and so many others it would take a page to list them all. “You Can Never Tell,” a song with a New Orleans tilt to it, became famous all over again, bringing Berry back into the public eye, when the now classic Quentin Tarantino film Pulp Fiction was released in 1994. Here’s the full version. “C’est la vie say the old folks it goes to show you never can tell.”
Berry mixed in country western music, which he originally played to draw in a white audience in Missouri, where he was from, with the R&B he learned from his influences, Louis Jordan, T-Bone Walker and Nat King Cole. He played with the Johnnie Johnson trio before heading to Chicago, where, in 1955 he met Muddy Waters, who suggested Berry meet with Leonard Chess, of Chess Records; the Bob Wills song, “Ida Red” became “Maybellene” and the rest is rock-n-roll history. It was that mixing of country music licks with R&B rhythms that defined Berry and eventually all of rock-n-roll.
Berry became famous in an era when musicians, especially black musicians, were taken advantage of by record companies, getting paid small amounts of money for songs that became multi-million selling hits, like “Sweet Little Sixteen.” That didn’t seem to be the case with Berry who maintained a friendship with the Chess Brothers, Leonard and Phil, for many years.
In the mid to late 1950s Berry toured extensively, appearing on such tours as “Alan Freed’s Biggest Show of Stars.” He played rock-n-roll his way, influencing young kids around the world, like John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. But in 1959, after opening a club in St. Louis, MO, he was arrested and convicted for purportedly bringing a 14-year old girl across state lines and having sex with her. Berry would find himself in legal trouble for the next 30 years, avoiding jail time in many cases by pleading guilty to lesser charges.
He went to prison in 1959 for a year and a half after the conviction under the Mann Act, and afterwards he was picked up by Mercury Records who saw bands like The Beatles and rolling Stones covering his songs. It was in this era, 1963-1969, that Berry released some of his best known hits. He went back to Chess in 1970 and released “My Ding-a-Ling,” his only #1 hit, which is astounding, when you consider his complete catalogue of great songs.
Chuck Berry was born to a middle class family on October 26, 1926, in St. Louis, MO. His family lived about 10 miles west of St. Louis and his parents were accomplished individuals. While in high school Berry was convicted of armed robbery and spent over three years in a juvenile facility before being released at the age of 21. He started making music while in custody and continued pursuing his musical ambitions, while taking jobs in factories and even going so far as to enter a school for beauticians.
He married his wife of 68 years, Themetta, in 1948 and they had four children: daughters Ingrid, Aloha and Melody Exes, and one son, Charles Berry, Jr. Two of his children , Ingrid and Charles, became involved with his music in Berry’s later life. His son performed at the Blueberry Hill club in St. Louis with Chuck. Despite all his legal troubles, some of which involved other women, Themetta stayed with Chuck through it all.
If you’re only going to buy one Chuck Berry recording — and there are many to choose from — you may want to try Anthology. It has all the hits plus many gems that have rarely been heard on any radio station. “Havana Moon” was covered by Carlos Santana. It’s been on my iPod since 2006 and in my collection of CD’s since its release in 2000.
Music critic Robert Christgau said Chuck Berry was “The greatest of rock and rollers,” and John Lennon said, “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry.’ ”
I was lucky enough to see him perform in the 1980s as he toured solo, getting local bands to back him up at each venue. He’s also played with some of the greats of rock-n-roll, like Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Bruce Springsteen and Steve Miller, whose band backed up Berry for the 1969 live album, Live at Fillmore Auditorium.
Chuck Berry, born in 1926 and died on March 18, 2017, was — is — the greatest rock-n-roller of all time.
Photos from Wikipedia