by: Doc Jeffurious Higgason
This March, the world lost another in a continuing series of musical legends when Chuck Berry passed away at age 90 near his hometown of St Louis, Missouri.
He was a man who contributed much to the music style that was once known simply as ‘rock and roll’. A genre which since it’s conception in the early 1950’s has grown into a multi-headed beast of sorts and still continues to perpetuate (kind of) to this day.
Berry was known for his flashy showmanship on stage with his quirky behavior and his trademark “duck walk.” Berry also had a very distinct guitar style. His style has been copied and used in many other arenas of music throughout the years. He locked it in at ‘4/4’ and taught the world about ‘backbeat’ syncopation adding elements of rhythm and blues, boogie-woogie and country-western.
You can hear echoes of Chuck Berry in music ranging from ‘Lynyrd Skynyrd’ to the ‘Sex Pistols’. It is fair to say that the rock music we know today owes a great deal to those earlier rock pioneers like Chuck Berry.
His rise to stardom was a magnificent long and bumpy one. Berry’s early life was pocked with jail time triggered by some pretty incendiary criminal charges. Not long after giving his first public performance in high school he was arrested and convicted for armed robbery. He spent a few years in a reformatory as a result. During that time he busied himself with boxing and forming a singing group.
Following his release from jail on his 21st birthday in 1947, Berry sought to domesticate himself by marrying Thelma Suggs. He set off then to work a string of different jobs around St. Louis. He worked briefly in auto assembly plants and as a custodian. In the early 50’s, Berry enrolled in the ‘Poro College of Cosmetology’ and trained to become a hairdresser. He enjoyed tangible success as a beautician.
Berry, obviously hard up for cash arrived upon the idea that he could make extra money by forming up with other local musicians to play shows at area joints and venues. It was right around 1953 he began what would eventually evolve into a lengthy partnership with pianist Johnnie Johnson. Their group played around the St Louis area offering the standard fare of blues and ballads. The band also chose to throw in country music selections that “the white people would enjoy.”
At the time, audiences took notice that the vibe Berry would exude on stage would be a salacious taste of Muddy Waters with a hint of the smooth vocals of Nat King Cole. Soon thereafter many started to ask about the “black hillbilly” playing music around town.
In 1955, Berry packed up and traveled to Chicago, Illinois where he met with Muddy Waters. Waters suggested that Berry make his way to Chess Records and ask for Leonard Chess. The first song Berry demonstrated for the people at Chess was the American folk/country tune ‘Ida Red’. Leonard Chess immediately saw the possible crossover commerical success in Berry and a way to maybe bridge the gap between the emergence of rock and roll and the steady decrease in the sale of blues records.
In May of 1955, Berry recorded his version of ‘Ida Red’ for Chess Records, the song was re-titled and released as ‘Maybellene’. The single took off and sold over a million copies, pegging the number one slot on Billboard’s R & B Charts. The song was released at the crucial point in music history where rock and roll was becoming progressively more commercially viable and accepted in wider circles of society.
Berry wrote for his audience and his wallet. The themes of his earlier songs included simple subjects like going to school, driving cars, obsessively falling in love, and lacking tolerance to monkey business. Berry’s material was easy for American teenagers to relate to, driving the momentum of his broad early success. He found his way into the record collections of young people around the world with other hit songs like: ‘Roll Over Beethoven’, ‘School Days’, and ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’.
It was also during this time Chuck Berry the movie star was realized. He appeared in two rock and roll movies: 1956’s ‘Rock Rock Rock’. Also he was billed as one of the top acts of the year. In the film he performed his song ‘You Can’t Catch Me’. He also portrayed himself in the 1959 movie Go, Johnny, Go. Movie house audiences watched him play his calling card number ‘Johnny B. Goode’, along with ‘Memphis, Tennessee’, and ‘Little Queenie’. Many of those in the audience at those movies would later go on to become rock legends themselves. His influence on the music of a young generation had become a static feature of the music for years to come, earning him the title ‘Father of Rock and Roll’.
Towards the conclusion of the 1950’s, Chuck Berry was a top recording artist and was making a good living touring. His gravy train had little biscuit wheels. He was very meticulous when it came to his earnings. Many times choosing to sleep in his big Cadillac and eat out of a cooler rather than coughing up the dough to stay in a motor lodge.
Soon, Chuck Berry, the businessman, decided it was time to spread around a little bit of his money and make some investments. He dabbled in real estate and opened an integrated St. Louis night spot called ‘Berry’s Club Bandstand’. All of that came to a screeching halt in the December of 1959. Johnny Law called upon Johnny B. Goode and then arrested his ass under allegations he had sex with a 14-year-old girl that he had brought across state lines to work at his club as a hostess and hatcheck girl.
In the March of 1960, following a brief trial, Chuck Berry was convicted on all charges, ordered to pay $5,000 and handed five years in prison. During his appeal he charged that the judge’s statements and overall demeanor were racist in nature. He felt that the judge’s attitude influenced the jury and that he did not receive a fair chance in court. After the appeal was sustained, a second trial during the spring of 1961 ended in another conviction that held a three year prison term.
During the trials Berry continued working in the studio and playing gigs although he found his popularity dropping. Following a final appeal he was sent off to serve one and half years in 1962, he released the single ‘Come On’ just prior to being sent to prison. It looked bleak for Chuck Berry. Was he just another victim of racial discrimination due to his popularity? Was he your typical run-of-the-mill lecher like most musicians? Adding the factor of him being a black musician in 1950s America, one could surmise that the answer to both questions could undoubtably be true.
In the time that Berry served his sentence, a cultural and musical shift had occurred. All of those teenagers that had bought his records, went to those cheesy movies and learned his guitar licks had grown older and had formed rock bands around the foundation of Berry’s guitar stylings, songs and manner. A few of those teenagers ended up in The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, who in their early inceptions made Chuck Berry’s music the core of their set lists. The Beach Boys had even grafted the melody of Berry’s ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’ onto their 1963 hit song ‘Surfin’ USA’. During the mid-60’s he saw limited success commercially. Only 3 of the 8 songs he released during this time made it to the Billboard’s Top 20. However, he was still a strong live performer who was still popular and making money. Berry spent the remainder of the 1960’s enjoying the lifestyle that came with the novelty of being a living rock and roll legend. He also continued to be one of rock and roll’s true eccentrics.
Those who performed with him into the 70’s have noted that he was moody and impulsive. The way he toured was unconventional as he would always demand to be paid in cash and would come to town with just his guitar and hire local musicians. He recorded one hit single during this time which was a live version of the song ‘My Ding-A-Ling’. Berry’s method of letting previous successes drive the momentum of his popular live shows began to become flawed, as his method of hiring local musicians off the cuff with the assumption they knew all his material cost him dearly in the eyes of audiences. Shows were growing inconsistent and with sub par backup bands resulted in slapdash performances that eventually wore into his credibility in the eyes of his younger fans as well as his original ones.
Bruce Springsteen said, speaking about his time working with Berry, that Berry would not give the backing band a set list and would insist the band follow not only his improved musical cues, but his physical ones as well resulting in great frustration, especially at the end of the show when Berry would not acknowledge or thank the band at all. The decade continued in a similar fashion, until the IRS showed up and wanted to ask about the particulars of his policy of accepting only cash for performances.
In June of 1979, Jimmy Carter hired Chuck Berry to perform at the White House. That year he also pled guilty to tax evasion, spent four months in jail and was ordered to 1,000 hours of community service, mainly playing benefit shows. The decade fizzled out just like disco.
As the 1980’s fired up, Berry kept playing live and was still humping on the momentum of his madcap fame, still traveling solo, still hiring local bands, still making money. Keith Richards arranged for a concert to celebrate Berry’s 60th birthday that included performances by Eric Clapton, Etta James, Robert Cray and others. The footage filmed during the show eventually became the documentary film Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll.
The 1990’s started shaky for Chuck Berry when he was sued by many women who made the charge he had video cameras installed in the bathrooms of his ‘Southern Air’ restaurant that was located in Wentzville, Missouri. In court Berry maintained the camera had been installed for security measures due to suspected employee theft. By the by, even though his guilt had not been officially proven in court he decided to do a class action settlement with around 60 of the accusers.
Also during the raid police had found 62 grams of marijuana, which resulted in a felony drug charge being filed. On top of that he was juggling a charge of child-abuse and avoided it by pleading guilty to the charge of misdeameanor possession of pot. The entire affair rang up a hefty price tag of just over $1.2 million dollars. He was also taken to court by Johnnie Johnson in the November of 2000. Johnson made the claim that he had in fact helped co-write well over 50 of the original songs, like ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’ and ‘Roll Over Beethoven’. The judge dismissed the case stating that too much time had passed since the songs had been written.
The entire time Chuck Berry was still performing. He toured Europe in 2008. However, during a show in Chicago on New Year’s Day in 2011, Berry passed out from exhaustion and had to be helped from the stage. He would spend the next few years keeping close to home performing mainly with his grandkids at his ‘Blueberry Hill’ restaurant located in Delmar Loop section of St Louis, where people came from all over to see this beloved living legend.
On his 90th birthday he announced the release of his first new album since 1979. ‘Chuck’ is scheduled to come out this year. On March 18, the St Charles County police responded to a call to Berry’s house in Ladue, Missouri and he was found to be unresponsive. Chuck Berry the legend, the originator, the Father of Rock and Roll was pronounced dead at the scene of a reported “cardiac arrest.”
The writer Chuck Klosterman has stated that if we give it 300 years Chuck Berry will be remembered as the one who captured the essence of rock and roll. His sounds and styles will forever live on and be emulated all over the world. He had a strong hand in creating the vital principles on which rock and roll stands. His music will literally live on eternally, as Mr. Berry’s music has been on a tour of space since 1977. “Johnny B. Goode” was included on a gold set of records placed aboard Voyagers I and II by Carl Sagan. Berry received a letter from Sagan on his 60th birthday congratulating him on his successes.
Berry was a true vanguard of rock and roll. His unique style will add tremendous influence to the sound of music for years to come and to the posture of the rock and roll lifestyle. His combination of guitar licks, showmanship and sexuality, bubbles to the surface images of a pre-cursor Jimi Hendrix, or Prince.
The world we live in now is so detached from the early days of rock and roll. When one takes the wide perspective, they realize that particular time and place is sort of like another dimension. Rock and roll is a sound and movement that carried over. Ancient tones that ring strong today. It’s magical when you think about it. So, Rest-In-Peace Chuck Berry. The true ‘Father of Rock and Roll’. Our lives would have certainly been considerably more lame and boring without you.