His Signature Showmanship move… “Performing in New York for the first time and some journalist branded it the duck walk.”
Charles Edward Anderson “Chuck” Berry
(October 18, 1926 – March 18, 2017) was an American guitarist, singer and songwriter and one of the pioneers of rock and roll music. With songs such as “Maybellene” (1955), “Roll Over Beethoven” (1956), “Rock and Roll Music” (1957) and “Johnny B. Goode” (1958), Berry refined and developed rhythm and blues into the major elements that made rock and roll distinctive. Writing lyrics that focused on teen life and consumerism, and developing a music style that included guitar solos and showmanship, Berry was a major influence on subsequent rock music.
Born into a middle-class African-American family in St. Louis, Missouri, Berry had an interest in music from an early age and gave his first public performance at Sumner High School. While still a high school student he was convicted of armed robbery and was sent to a reformatory, where he was held from 1944 to 1947. After his release, Berry settled into married life and worked at an automobile assembly plant. By early 1953, influenced by the guitar riffs and showmanship techniques of the blues musician T-Bone Walker, Berry began performing with the Johnnie Johnson Trio. His break came when he traveled to Chicago in May 1955 and met Muddy Waters, who suggested he contact Leonard Chess, of Chess Records. With Chess he recorded “Maybellene”—Berry’s adaptation of the country song “Ida Red”—which sold over a million copies, reaching number one on Billboard magazine’s rhythm and blues chart. By the end of the 1950s, Berry was an established star with several hit records and film appearances and a lucrative touring career. He had also established his own St. Louis nightclub, Berry’s Club Bandstand. But in January 1962, he was sentenced to three years in prison for offenses under the Mann Act—he had transported a 14-year-old girl across state lines. After his release in 1963, Berry had several more hits, including “No Particular Place to Go”, “You Never Can Tell”, and “Nadine”. But these did not achieve the same success, or lasting impact, of his 1950s songs, and by the 1970s he was more in demand as a nostalgic performer, playing his past hits with local backup bands of variable quality. His insistence on being paid in cash led in 1979 to a four-month jail sentence and community service, for tax evasion.
Berry was among the first musicians to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on its opening in 1986; he was cited for having “laid the groundwork for not only a rock and roll sound but a rock and roll stance.” Berry is included in several of Rolling Stone magazine’s “greatest of all time” lists; he was ranked fifth on its 2004 list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll includes three of Berry’s: “Johnny B. Goode”, “Maybellene”, and “Rock and Roll Music”. Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” is the only rock-and-roll song included on the Voyager Golden Record
While no individual can be said to have invented rock and roll, Chuck Berry comes the closest of any single figure to being the one who put all the essential pieces together. It was his particular genius to graft country & western guitar licks onto a rhythm & blues chassis in his very first single, “Maybellene”.
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
A pioneer of rock and roll, Berry was a significant influence on the development of both the music and the attitude associated with the rock music lifestyle. With songs such as “Maybellene” (1955), “Roll Over Beethoven” (1956), “Rock and Roll Music” (1957) and “Johnny B. Goode” (1958), Berry refined and developed rhythm and blues into the major elements that made rock and roll distinctive, with lyrics successfully aimed to appeal to the early teenage market by using graphic and humorous descriptions of teen dances, fast cars, high school life, and consumer culture, and utilizing guitar solos and showmanship that would be a major influence on subsequent rock music. Thus Berry, the songwriter, invented rock as a music that gave his teenage listeners dreams of wishes fulfilled and good times. (New York Times, March 19, 2017, p.3) Berry contributed three things to rock music: an irresistible swagger, a focus on the guitar riff as the primary melodic element and an emphasis on songwriting as storytelling. His records are a rich storehouse of the essential lyrical, showmanship and musical components of rock and roll. In addition to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, a large number of significant popular-music performers have recorded Berry’s songs. Though not technically accomplished, his guitar style is distinctive—he incorporated electronic effects to mimic the sound of bottleneck blues guitarists and drew on the influence of guitar players such as Carl Hogan, and T-Bone Walker to produce a clear and exciting sound that many later guitarists would acknowledge as an influence in their own style. Berry’s showmanship has been influential on other rock guitarists, particularly his one-legged hop routine, and the “duck walk”, which he first used as a child when he walked “stooping with full-bended knees, but with my back and head vertical” under a table to retrieve a ball and his family found it entertaining; he used it when “performing in New York for the first time and some journalist branded it the duck walk.”
The rock critic Robert Christgau considers Berry “the greatest of the rock and rollers”, while John Lennon said, “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.” Bob Dylan called Berry “the Shakespeare of rock ‘n’ roll”. Springsteen tweeted, “Chuck Berry was rock’s greatest practitioner, guitarist, and the greatest pure rock ‘n’ roll writer who ever lived.”
When asked what caused the explosion of the popularity of rock ‘n roll that took place in the 1950s, with him and a handful of others, mainly him, Berry said, “Well, actually they begin to listen to it, you see, because certain stations played certain music. The music that we, the blacks, played, the cultures were so far apart, we would have to have a play station in order to play it. The cultures begin to come together, and you begin to see one another’s vein of life, then the music came together.”
|President Bill Clinton recognizing Chuck Berry after Berry was named a Kennedy Center honoree, Dec. 3, 2000, C-SPAN|
Among the honors Berry received were the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1984 and the Kennedy Center Honors in 2000. He was ranked seventh on Time magazine’s 2009 list of the 10 best electric guitar players of all time. On May 14, 2002, Berry was honored as one of the first BMI Icons at the 50th annual BMI Pop Awards. He was presented the award along with BMI affiliates Bo Diddley and Little Richard. In August 2014, Berry was made a laureate of the Polar Music Prize.
Berry is included in several of Rolling Stone magazine’s “Greatest of All Time” lists. In September 2003, the magazine ranked him number 6 in its list of the “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time”. In November his compilation album The Great Twenty-Eight was ranked 21st in Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. In March 2004, Berry was ranked fifth on the list of “The Immortals – The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time”. In December 2004, six of his songs were included in “Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time”: “Johnny B. Goode” (#7), “Maybellene” (#18), “Roll Over Beethoven” (#97), “Rock and Roll Music” (#128), “Sweet Little Sixteen” (#272) and “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” (#374). In June 2008, his song “Johnny B. Goode” was ranked first in the “100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time”.
The journalist Chuck Klosterman has argued that in 300 years Berry will still be remembered as the rock musician who most closely captured the essence of rock and roll.
Chuck Berry’s music has transcended generations. He earns respect to this day because he is truly an entertainer. Berry, also known as “The Father of Rock & Roll,” gained success by watching the audience’s reaction and playing accordingly, putting his listeners’ amusement above all else. For this reason, tunes like “Johnny B. Goode,” “Maybellene” and “Memphis” have become anthems to an integrated American youth and popular culture. Berry is a musical icon who established rock and roll as a musical form and brought the worlds of black and white together in song.
Born in St. Louis on October 18, 1926 Berry had many influences on his life that shaped his musical style. He emulated the smooth vocal clarity of his idol, Nat King Cole, while playing blues songs from bands like Muddy Waters. For his first stage performance, Berry chose to sing a Jay McShann song called “Confessin’ the Blues.” It was at his high school’s student musical performance, when the blues was well-liked but not considered appropriate for such an event. He got a thunderous applause for his daring choice, and from then on, Berry had to be onstage.
Berry took up the guitar after that, inspired by his partner in the school production. He found that if he learned rhythm changes and blues chords, he could play most of the popular songs on the radio at the time. His friend, Ira Harris, showed him techniques on the guitar that would become the foundation of Berry’s original sound. Then in 1952, he began playing guitar and singing in a club band whose song list ranged from blues to ballads to calypso to country. Berry was becoming an accomplished showman, incorporating gestures and facial expressions to go with the lyrics.
It was in 1953 that Chuck Berry joined the Sir John’s Trio (eventually renamed the Chuck Berry Combo), which played the popular Cosmopolitan Club in St. Louis. Country-western music was big at the time, so Berry decided to use some of the riffs and create his own unique hillbilly sound. The black audience thought he was crazy at first, but couldn’t resist trying to dance along with it. Since country was popular with white people, they began to come to the shows, and the audience was at some points almost 40 percent white. Berry’s stage show antics were getting attention, but the other band members did their parts as well. In his own words: “I would slur my strings to make a passage that Johnnie (Johnson) could not produce with piano keys but the answer would be so close that he would get a tremendous ovation. His answer would sound similar to some that Jerry Lee Lewis’s fingers later began to flay.”
SOME GOOD ADVICE
Later in 1955, Berry went on a road trip to Chicago, where he chanced upon a club where his idol, Muddy Waters, was performing. He arrived late and only heard the last song, but when it was over he got the attention of Waters and asked him who to see about making a record. Waters replied, “Yeah, Leonard Chess. Yeah, Chess Records over on Forty-seventh and Cottage.” Berry went there on Monday and discovered it was a blues label where greats like Howlin’ Wolf and Bo Diddley recorded. He didn’t have any tapes to show, but Chess was willing to listen if he brought some back from St. Louis. So Berry went home and recorded some originals, including the would-be “Maybellene,” then called “Ida May,” and drove back to Chicago later that week to audition. Much to Berry’s surprise, it was that hillbilly number that caught Chess’ attention. Berry was signed to Chess Records and in the summer of 1955, “Maybellene” reached #5 on the Pop Charts and #1 on the R&B Charts. Through Chuck Berry, Chess Records moved from the R&B genre into the mainstream and Berry himself was on his way to stardom.
THE REST IS HISTORY
Berry continued his success with such hits as “Brown-Eyed Man,” “Too Much Monkey Business,” “Memphis,” “Roll Over, Beethoven!” and “Johnny B. Goode.” “Johnny B. Goode” is Berry’s masterpiece, as it brought together all the elements of Berry’s unique musical sound. It cemented his place in rock history and led to fame in the 1950s. His popularity garnered him television and movie appearances and he toured frequently.
Berry’s incredible success is due to his ability to articulate the concerns and attitudes of his audience in his music. At the height of his success, Berry was a 30-year-old black man singing to a mostly white, teenage audience. Dubbed the “Eternal Teenager,” Chuck Berry’s knowledge of the pop market made it possible for him to break color barriers and play to an integrated audience.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Berry’s music was the inspiration for such groups as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Berry had a number of comeback recordings and in 1972 had the first and only #1 Pop Chart hit of his career with “My Ding-A-Ling. 1986 fittingly saw him inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as the very first inductee in history. As a tribute to his pervasiveness in the realm of rock, a clip of “Johnny B. Goode” was chosen played in the Voyager I spacecraft, proving Chuck Berry and his rock legacy are truly out of this world.
2014 Polar Music Prize
2012 PEN Literary Award Winner
2002 BMI ICON award winner; other winners were Little Richard and Bo Diddley
1987 Receives a star on Hollywood Boulevard in California
1989 Honored with a star on Delmar Boulevard in St. Louis, Missouri
1985 Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
1985 Receives Lifetime Achievement Award at the 27th Annual Grammy Awards
1982 Inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Association International Hall of Fame