With his performing flair, pioneering guitar style and storytelling savvy, the great Chuck Berry was the epitome of early rock’n’roll. Michael Stephens charts the rise of a legend who was never far from genius or trouble.
The late John Lennon had a way with a soundbite. He famously declared the Beatles ‘more popular than Jesus’, and also said ‘before Elvis, there was nothing.’ He also noted, ‘if you tried to give rock’n’roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry.’ The Beatle’s epithet for Berry is arguably the most accurate of his three: the music of Charles Edward Anderson ‘Chuck’ Berry is so closely intertwined with rock’n’roll, the two may just as well be interchangeable.
Chuck Berry was never as diverse as the Beatles or as multi-faceted as Elvis, of course, but his songs are the simplest encapsulation of the music that changed the world. If aliens ever do visit this third stone from the sun and want rock’n’roll explained, don’t even say anything – just play them Chuck Berry’s Chess 45 Roll Over Beethoven. ET would understand, and will tap that long finger.
Like many an artist, Berry is a much more complex character than his rollicking tunes convey. Over his 85 years, he’s become infamous for his temper and his parsimony – Keith Richards says he was ‘disappointed’ when he worked with Chuck, and even ‘bullied’ by him. On top of that, Berry’s numerous brushes with the law suggest, to some, an unsavoury and occasionally dangerous man. In the preface of his astonishingly honest The Autobiography, Berry himself bluntly admits: ‘Every 15 years… it seems I make a big mistake.’
But what cannot be denied is Chuck Berry’s music. Lairy and lyrical, poetic and punchy, Berry’s best songs influenced millions, from songwriters to showmen to guitarists to fashionistas. Berry has his flaws – and he admits to them – but being dull has never been one of his faults.
Born to rock’n’roll
Despite his later lawlessness, Chuck Berry was born into a respectable middle-class family in St Louis, Missouri. His mother and father were both professionals and sang, as was customary, at their local Baptist church. But the Berrys also had a piano in their family home. ‘Long before I learned to walk I was patting my foot to those Baptist beats, rocked by the deacon’s feet, focussed on the tempo of the times,’ Berry wrote. ‘Oh, but the feeling it generated still stirs my memory of back when. Hallelujah!’
Berry says he fixated on the blues and country sounds of local radio at an early age. But then, he’s always claimed to be a ‘seeker’ – he says that by the time he was to seven, he not only knew how to cook but also knew the intricacies of sex. At 12, he had performed at his high school, singing Jay McShann’s big band hit Confessin’ The Blues, backed up by a guitar-playing friend. Chuck soon borrowed a guitar and began to learn to play with the help of Nick Mannaloft’s Guitar Book Of Chords. However, while still a high school student of 17, he served a prison sentence for armed robbery (from 1944 to 1947). In custody, he learned more cooking, boxing and playing music with fellow detainees. Released from jail on his 21st birthday, the wayward son of church deacon Henry Berry was ready to make music his life.
On his release, Berry settled into married life and worked at a car assembly plant. By early 1953 – he was already 26 – guitar playing and performing had become his real love. The showmanship and guitar licks of blues player T-Bone Walker were a big influence; after his car plant day was done, Berry was performing in the evenings with the Johnnie Johnson Trio.
Berry’s break was fortunate. Johnson’s regular band-member Alvin Bennett (a saxophonist) suffered a stroke and could not perform for a New Year’s Eve show. Pianist Johnson called Berry as the only musician he knew who, because of his inexperience, would unlikely to be booked on New Year’s Eve. Berry jumped at the offer. Replacing an ailing horn-man, he began his own climb.
Berry described the Johnson trio’s music as ‘country-western, which was usually called hillbilly music’. In many ways, Berry’s early career mirrored that of Elvis, playing this uptempo music – early rock’n’roll – that confused and scared some folks. But, unlike Elvis, Chuck Berry was a more of a ‘threat’. Why? His skin colour. He remembered the impact he made: ‘The clubgoers started whispering, “Who is that black hillbilly at the Cosmo [club]? After they laughed at me a few times they began requesting the hillbilly stuff and enjoyed dancing to it.’ Berry himself called the venues he played ‘salt and pepper clubs’ – white and black, together – but this was still then something of a rarity. America was still racially segregated, and Berry was a memorable frontman.
Berry was in demand, whether it was down to his talent, showmanship or ‘negro novelty’. He got a contract to front his own shows at St Louis’s Cosmopolitan club with his own newly-recruited band – though Berry’s backing bands have never been there to do anything but one thing… make Chuck Berry look good. He debuted as a solo act as ‘Chuck Berryn’; adding the ‘n’ to try and not alert his father. Still, his guitar playing, singing and own songs were impressing everyone else who saw him perform, and soon he’d make his major breakthrough beyond St Louis.
Sweet Home Chicago
With an old school friend, Berry visited Chicago for a vacation. He lapped up the amateur blues clubs everywhere, but scrimped 50 cents to see Muddy Waters play at a bigger venue. Berry, being persistent, got to meet the blues master after the show. ‘It was the feeling I suppose one would get from having a word with the president or the pope. I quickly told him of my admiration for his compositions and asked who I could see about making a record. Other fans of Muddy were scuffling for a chance just to say hi to him, yet he chose to answer my question.’
Muddy’s answer was: go and see Leonard Chess at Chess Records. Berry stayed in Chicago one extra day than planned, to try and get an audience with Chess, and it became the most pivotal 24 hours of his life. He got to meet Chess the next morning. ‘I had been taping on a $79 quarter-inch reel-to-reel recorder that I’d purchased in contemplation of such an audition,’ Berry wrote in his autobiography. ‘I told him I was visiting from St Louis, but could return with the tapes (which I hadn’t truly made yet) whenever he could listen to them… He stood all the while with a look of amazement that he later told me was because of the businesslike way I’d talked to him.’
Berry swiftly drove back to St Louis – getting his kicks on Route 66, no doubt – and rehearsed with fervour. With his friends Johnnie Johnson and Ebby Hardy, Berry honed his own proto-songs: ‘Leonard Chess explained to me that it would be better if I had original songs.’
Johnson was happy to become backup to the young man he had hired in desperation only a few years before: ‘I figured we could get better jobs with Chuck running the band. He had a car, and rubber wheels beat rubber heels any day. [Chuck] did so many things for the band… we didn’t have a booking agency, so he got out and hustled up the jobs.’
Berry and company recorded quite a few tracks, but there were two standouts when they returned to Chicago. Ida Red was an old uptempo country tune – a hit for Bob Wills & The Texas Playboys in 1938. Chuck had added new lyrics and renamed it Ida May. He also put forward a slower-burning blues number, Wee Wee Hours, itself a ‘reworking’ of Joe Turner’s Wee Baby Blue.
Leonard Chess was intrigued. Berry said the label owner was enthusiastic about the commercial possibilities in a ‘hillbilly song sung by a black man’. Chess wanted a bigger beat for the song, and added a bass and maracas player to the trio at Berry’s debut Chess session. He also felt the titles Ida Red or Ida May were ‘too rural’. According to pianist Johnnie Johnson, Chess spotted a lipstick tray on the studio floor and said, ‘Well, hell, let’s name the damn thing Maybellene’ (the spelling was altered to avoid a suit by the cosmetics company). Perhaps typically, Berry claimed the song’s name-change was his own idea. He also rewrote his lyrics at the direction of Leonard Chess; ‘The kids wanted the big beat, cars, and young love,’ Chess later recalled. ‘It was the trend, and we jumped on it.’
Berry’s first attempt at recording a 45 was draining. Every recording was live, of course, and Berry initially struggled to impress Chess. It took, remembered Berry, ‘35 tries before completing a track that proved satisfactory to Leonard.’ A recording of Wee Wee Hours, plus Thirty Days and You Can’t Catch Me followed. Leonard Chess then treated the young men to ‘hamburgers and pop’ at a local diner before, at 10pm, taking them back to Chess studios.
It was good news: Chuck Berry had won a recording contract. Because of a fairly old tune, new lyrics and a title inspired by a chance spotting of a lipstick case, Maybellene made Chuck Berry a rock’n’roll star and it went to #1 on the R&B charts in July 1955. After that, Chuck landed an improved contract with Chess – a guaranteed $40,000 (equivalent to £250,000 in 2013) of work every year for the next three years.
The Shakespeare of rock’n’roll
Leonard Chess’s decree of ‘big beat, cars, and young love’ was dead on the money. Chuck Berry’s hits kept on coming, and they mostly fitted that lyrical template. In the next two years, Roll Over Beethoven, Too Much Monkey Business, Rock And Roll Music, Sweet Little Sixteen and the indelible Johnny B Goode all kept Berry busy, and they also kept Chess’s cash-tills ringing like bells.
Berry quickly grew into an enviable performer. Whether it was his guitar-soloing ‘duck walk’, addressing the audience between lyrics, or toting his guitar like it was his snake (you know what we mean), Chuck nailed ‘the business of show’. If Elvis was ‘the pelvis’, Chuck was the cock(erel) – a true show-off, a flash dandy, crowing from the rooftops about the lusty joys of rock’n’roll. Singles were Berry’s bread and butter; he was never much of an album artist. As a live draw, cranking the hits, he was phenomenally successful.
Perhaps it was Berry’s lyrics? His words have been dissected thousands of times, of course, but Berry had something special: cadence, rhyme and (self?) mythologizing all rolled into one. Johnny B Goode is a classic case in point. The starting point was Berry’s appreciation for Johnnie Johnson, his one-time mentor and his pianist. Then, however, Berry the poet stepped it up. Is the lyric about a mythical guitar-man? Or is it Chuck Berry writing what Chuck Berry hoped others believed about Chuck Berry himself? He changed his original line of ‘coloured boy’ to ‘country boy’ at the last minute, wary that he may not have a hit if he mentioned colour when referring to the Louisiana-residing star of the song.
Berry has often been called rock’n’roll’s ‘poet laureate’, and it’s understandable why. His words – though simple – not only scan without music, they perfectly embody rock’n’roll’s devil-may-care obsessions: cars, sex, ambition, guitars, dancing, wild youth, high living, jukeboxes and working hard just to play the music… and, eventually, get the girl. John Lennon understood. He remarked: ‘Chuck Berry is one of the all-time great poets, a rock poet, you could call him. He was well advanced of his time, lyric-wise. We all owe him a lot, including [Bob] Dylan. I’ve loved everything he’s ever done.’
For AC/DC’s Angus Young – not a man you’d usually associate with appreciation of wordcraft – it’s simple. ‘He basically wrote the book. The Beatles, the Stones, even Elvis Presley, they all took a leaf from Chuck Berry. Of rock’n’roll, he’s probably the Shakespeare.’
Storming the States
In late 1957, Berry was booked for DJ Alan Freed’s Biggest Show Of Stars For 1957, a USA tour where he shared bills with the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly and others. Berry fitted well with such exalted company. From ’57 to ’59, he scored over a dozen chart singles – even his B-sides became radio hits. Like Elvis, he was persuaded to appear in movies. The first was Rock Rock Rock (from 1956) where he sang You Can’t Catch Me. He graduated to a speaking part in 1959 movie Go, Johnny, Go! along with DJ Alan Freed, and performed Johnny B Goode, Memphis, Tennessee and Little Queenie. Yet Berry still felt like an outsider. He was no natural actor; he was a hustler, and aware of his skin colour.
Alan Freed championed Berry, but Chuck still felt in awe of the company he was keeping. ‘Back then, it was no way popular for a black person to be invited to an all-white get-together,’ he wrote, ‘so I hung around for the experience and information I could get about the music business.’ Berry did learn something. It was only in the late 1970s that he got back the writing copyright for Maybellene from Leonard Chess… even if Berry had based the song on a ‘standard’.
By the end of the 1950s Berry had earned a great deal of money, even if he wasn’t topping the charts every time. He established a racially-integrated St Louis nightclub, Berry’s Club Bandstand. He bought big houses. He lived a high life of which his churchman father was possibly despairing. And then, in archetypal rock’n’roll style, it all went wrong.
In December 1959, Berry was arrested under the USA’s Mann Act after an allegation that he had sex with a 14-year-old waitress whom he had transported over state lines to work as a hat check girl at his St Louis club. He was found guilty and, after appealing a sentence of five years, eventually served 18 months in prison [February 1962 to October 1963.] Berry had other notable hits after – No Particular Place To Go is another classic cars/girls/guitars 45, and Nadine is great – but soon Chuck Berry’s career as a musical trailblazer was over.
Even as his own star slowly faded, Berry’s influence continued to burn brightly. His songs were covered by an astonishing array of acts from 1960 onwards: Maybellene (Gerry and the Pacemakers), Johnny B Goode (Elvis, Beach Boys, Hendrix, Beatles), Roll Over Beethoven (Beatles, the Sonics, ELO), Brown-Eyed Handsome Man (Buddy Holly, Paul McCartney, Nina Simone), Run Rudolph Run (Keith Richards, and also The Muppet Show’s Dr Teeth And The Electric Mayhem – though that is hardly essential listening).
Berry’s effect on British rock’n’roll was huge. The teenage Mick Jagger bought Chuck’s records by mail-order from the USA: the Stones’ first single was a cover of Come On. The Stones then covered Carol. Fellow Stone Keith Richards was in awe of Berry. In his Life autobiography, Richards writes, ‘I could never overstress how important he was in my development. It still fascinates me how this one guy could come up with so many songs and sling it so gracefully and elegantly.’
The Beatles also owed a huge debt – they played many Berry covers in their Hamburg days. Paul McCartney’s Back In The USSR was a light-hearted riposte to Berry’s Back In The USA. John Lennon was smitten by Berry: Come Together is ‘influenced’ by Berry’s ’56 hit You Can’t Catch Me: the lyric ‘here come old flat-top’ is a straight steal. Berry was an admirer and friend of Lennon, but his publishing company sued. Lennon’s 1975 Rock’n’Roll covers LP included You Can’t Catch Me – a way of paying back the money. No Chuck Berry? No Beatles or Rolling Stones.
Chuck Berry remains one of music’s ‘badasses’ – he’s been bad, and he’s been an ass, too. There’s a scene in the movie Hail! Hail! Rock’n’Roll (1987) when Berry chides Keith Richards for getting the guitar intro to Carol wrong. It’s possibly the only time you will ever see ‘Keef’ look like a scolded schoolboy. He took credit for most of his hits, but did he really write them all? In Life, Keith says that, when he worked with Berry and Johnnie Johnson, ‘everything Chuck wrote was in Eb or C# – piano keys! Not guitar keys.’ Johnson’s piano melodies were possibly the real bedrock of most of Chuck’s hits.
However, Berry’s contribution to rock’n’roll is up there with Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly and many others. As a guitarist, he nailed a new style. As a vocalist/lyricist, he flowed and told stories. As a showman, Chuck Berry was one of the best. Bruce Springsteen – maybe the USA’s designated ‘rock’n’roll poet’ of recent years – wrote the foreword to Berry’s autobiography. It starts; ‘I met Chuck Berry once…’ It ends after ‘the Boss’ ends up playing guitar for Chuck, the ‘Godfather’. In closing, Springsteen writes, ‘When I’m 65 or 70, I’ve got to tell my grandkids. Yeah, I met Chuck Berry. As a matter of fact, I backed up Chuck Berry one night. It’s a story you’re always going to tell.’ For all the good times and all the bad times, Chuck Berry remains Mr Rock’n’Roll.