Rock 'n' Roll's Founding Father: Chuck Berry
Charles Edward Anderson "Chuck" Berry was born in a three-room cottage at 2520 Goode Avenue (now Annie Malone Drive) in the Ville, the heart of St. Louis’s black community during an era of deep-seated segregation and intense racism. In the all-black, self-contained neighborhood, Berry attended Sumner High School and sang at Antioch Baptist Church. His first moment in the spotlight came at Sumner, when his talent-show rendition of Jay McShann’s “Confessin’ the Blues” scandalized Sumner’s faculty but won wild applause from his peers. His performance—in his words, “a lowly blues at such a sophisticated affair”—was steeped in youthfulness, rebelliousness, and showmanship. These characteristics would make Berry’s music famous, but they weren’t doing him any favors as a teenager. By the time he reached 18, Berry had dropped out of high school, fled from home, and been arrested near Columbia, Missouri, after three armed robberies and an attempted car theft. Berry served three years at the Intermediate Reformatory for Young Men near Jefferson City before returning to St. Louis.
Eager to get his life back in order, Berry found a job as an automobile-assembly worker, married Themetta Suggs (they would remain married for 68 years, until Berry’s death), saw the first of his five children born, and bought a small brick cottage located at 3137 Whittier Street in the Ville. By the early 1950s he was filling in on guitar with many local blues bands as a way to make extra money. He regularly worked with the Johnnie Johnson Trio in the clubs of St. Louis and East St. Louis. He also began developing a reputation for uniqueness, pushing “hillbilly” riffs into the blues ballads the trio’s mostly black audiences preferred.
Chuck Berry was a talented guitar player, but his biggest talent may have been his ability to read his audience’s responses. He watched people light up at his confident, playful stage attitude and fashionable zoot suits. He dabbled with blues, country, and boogie-woogie all at once, noticing how the sound attracted both black and white youth in the racially integrated “salt and pepper” clubs. He wasn’t just creating something new, he was aware that it was new—and that people hungered for it.
During a trip to Chicago, Berry shared his sounds with blues legend Muddy Waters, who suggested Berry contact Leonard Chess of the famous blues label Chess Records. Chess was looking to expand beyond the rhythm-and-blues market, and Berry’s wide-appealing sound and well-rehearsed theatrics seemed like the perfect fit.
On May 21, 1955, after 36 takes, Chess and Berry had a record that would fundamentally change the future of popular music. Berry’s cover of the old country-western song “Ida Red,” with the name changed to “Maybellene,” had a driving dance beat, playfully fast riffs, just enough residual country twang, and a runaway lover in a Cadillac. A speedy mixture of Bob Willis’s country-swing, Louis Jordan’s chirpy lyrical timing, and T-Bone Walker’s stuttering guitar, “Maybellene” combined everything exciting from the last decade of American music into a single track.
Also in 1955, the term “rock ’n’ roll” was suddenly exploding into common public awareness thanks to the near-simultaneous success of Elvis Presley’s “That’s All Right,” Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock,” and Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene,” which sold a million copies within six months of its release. “Roll Over Beethoven" became Berry’s second hit in spring 1956 with lyrics that literally forecast rock ’n’ roll’s coming nationwide sweep. By 1959, Berry had over a dozen chart singles, including the top-ten hits “School Days,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” and “Johnny B. Goode,” all written in his small home on Whittier Street.
While other early rock ’n’ roll performers such as Elvis, Buddy Holly, and Little Richard sang mostly about romance, Chuck Berry became a mouthpiece for all things teenage America (despite already being in his late 20s). His hits were two-minute lectures on the teenage experience and the nation’s cultural changes—the freedom of cars; the tedium of school classrooms; the excitement of consumer products; and, most of all, the attitude of rock ’n’ roll—all delivered with an exclamation point of guitar.
Berry had 1960s chart hits with “No Particular Place to Go,” “You Never Can Tell,” and “Nadine.” He then spent much of the 1970s and 1980s touring alone, showing up with just his Gibson guitar. Finding a backup band usually wasn’t difficult: It had been two decades since Berry’s first hits, and an entire new generation of musicians had grown up playing along to his songs. John Lennon famously said, "If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it 'Chuck Berry.'" Bob Dylan called him “the Shakespeare of rock ’n’ roll,” and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones simply admitted “I lifted every lick he ever played.” Despite all of this, at the end of every trip, Berry came back home to St. Louis.
Although he radiated a larger-than-life stage presence as one of rock ’n’ roll’s founding immortals, behind the scenes in private life Berry was often unmistakably human. He was famously difficult to work with and got into legal troubles for serious crimes on more than one occasion. He was known to be dismissive of accompanying musicians, sometimes rarely speaking to the backing band or providing them with a set list, and he was bluntly honest about money driving his work, with quotes like “the dollar dictates what music is written.”
Taylor Hackford’s 1986 concert-documentary Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll, filmed in St. Louis at the Fox Theatre, documents two back-to-back shows in honor of Chuck Berry’s 60th birthday. Berry graced the stage, accompanied by Keith Richards, Linda Ronstadt, Eric Clapton, Robert Cray, Etta James, and Julian Lennon, among others. Later that same year, Berry was among the first musicians inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
From 1996 until his death, he played regular shows (usually once a month) at Blueberry Hill’s Duck Room in St. Louis’s Delmar Loop. Across the street, an eight-foot-tall statue of Berry commemorates his musical legacy and connection to St. Louis.
On his 90th birthday, just a few months before his death, Chuck Berry announced the upcoming 2017 release of Chuck, his first new studio album in 38 years. It will be a bittersweet recording for lifelong fans to hear, but although the guitar great has passed, the upcoming album may not be the last time his music is new.
At the Voyager 1 spacecraft’s 1977 launch, “Johnny B. Goode” was one of just four popular American songs placed on its Golden Record, created to portray the diversity of human achievement to any extraterrestrial life that may stumble across it. Voyager 1 is now roughly 18 billion miles away from the Earth—the most distant manmade object in existence—and it will continue to hurtle through space indefinitely, carrying “Johnny B. Goode” with it all the way. A thousand years from now some interstellar civilization may be hearing Chuck Berry shouting “Go, Johnny, go!” for the very first time.
—Andrew Wanko, Public Historian