The legendary guitarist and singer died in 2017 from natural causes at the age of 90. Chuck Berry lived an accomplished life as one of the most influential rock ‘n’ roll performers in the history of music. We all know and love his hits, Johnny B. Goode, Maybellene, and Roll Over Beethoven. He managed to breathe new life into the American music scene during the ‘50s. And to this day, if someone pops one of his songs on, your body just has to move.
While pretty much everyone on this earth knows of his music, not as many people know about the man himself and the interesting life he led. To pay tribute to Berry, let’s take a look back at his life story and see why and how he became the “Father of Rock ‘n’ Roll.”
Before his death, Chuck Berry could be seen in the studio, recording a new album titled Chuck. He announced the upcoming album on October 18, 2016, on his 90th birthday. The album was released in June of that year, after his death in March of 2017and it marked his first album since 1979’s Rockit.
His first record in 38 years includes his children, Charles Berry Jr. and Ingrid, on guitar and harmonica. According to his website, working to prepare the record brought Berry “a great sense of joy and satisfaction.” The album is also dedicated to his wife of 68 years, Toddy.
Before Berry became the “Father of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” he got to experience his first taste of performing at the age of six when he started singing at St. Louis’ Antioch Baptist Church, where his father was a deacon. Berry’s childhood was characterized by racial segregation. Until the age of three, he had never even seen a White person.
And it was only because the fire department had responded to a call from his community. Berry later admitted what he thought in those early days. “I thought they were so frightened that their faces were whitened from fear of going near the big fire,” he told The New York Times. “Daddy told me they were White people, and their skin was always white that way, day or night.”
Berry was born in St. Louis, Missouri, the youngest of four children. He grew up in a middle-class neighborhood known as the Ville. His father, Henry William, was a contractor and deacon of a Baptist church, and his mother, Martha Bell, was a public school principal. Berry’s childhood allowed him to indulge his interest in music from an early age.
Although his first time on stage was in his church choir, his first public performance came in 1941 when he was still a student at Sumner High School. He performed a song called Confessin’ the Blues in front of his entire school. The students loved it, but the adults? Not so much.
The song Berry chose was considered crude by 1940s standards. And while the teens enjoyed every second of it, he managed to offend all the adults in the room. Either way, it was this performance, as well as watching his friend play the guitar, which sparked a fuse within Berry.
”It was then that my determination to play guitar and accompany myself while singing became an amendment to my religion,” he later told The New York Times. We know now that the young star was on his way to becoming larger than life. But before he could kick off a whole new musical craze, the young musician got into a bit of trouble.
At the age of 17, Berry dropped out of high school. In 1944, he hit the road with his friends and headed to California. On the way, they stopped in Kansas City and went on a crime spree. He was arrested for armed robbery when he and his friends robbed three shops in Kansas City, Missouri. But it didn’t stop there.
They also stole a car at gunpoint. He ended up serving time in the Intermediate Reformatory for Young Men at Algoa, near Jefferson City, Missouri, until his 21st birthday in 1947. According to his autobiography, their car broke down, and so he flagged down a passing car, stealing it at gunpoint with a “nonfunctional pistol.”
It was during his stay in the correctional facility that he formed a singing quartet. The singing group was good enough that the authorities even allowed the boys to perform outside the facility. A year after his release, on October 28, 1948, Berry married a woman who came to be his “one and only,” Themetta “Toddy” Suggs.
She gave birth to their first child, Darlin Ingrid Berry, on October 3, 1950. The 22-year-old new father had to support his family by taking various jobs around St. Louis. At one point, he worked as a janitor in the apartment building they lived in. He also briefly worked as a factory worker at an automobile assembly plant.
Berry wore many different hats during his earlier years. Before making it big on the music scene, he was hired at his father’s construction company and even dabbled in freelance photography. But something many people would be surprised to hear is that he followed in his sister’s footsteps and trained as a beautician.
He graduated with a degree in hairdressing and cosmetology from the Poro College of Cosmetology (founded by Annie Turnbo Malone). Berry was then employed as a beautician in St. Louis. At least now we know where he got that signature perm! Anyway, Berry was doing well enough by 1950 that he was able to buy a small three-room brick cottage with a bath on Whittier Street (it’s now listed as the Chuck Berry House on the National Register of Historic Places).
Chuck Berry was eventually discovered by Chess Records’ biggest star at the time, Muddy Waters, in Chicago in 1955. But, before that, he needed to find gigs as an extra source of income, so he would perform with local bands in clubs. Since his teens, he had been playing the blues. He learned both guitar riffs and showmanship techniques from blues musician T-Bone Walker.
Berry also took guitar lessons from his friend Ira Harris, which essentially laid the foundation for his guitar style. By 1953, Berry was regularly performing with Johnnie Johnson’s Trio, which launched a long collaboration with the pianist. The trio would play blues, ballads, and country music.
At first, he was performing for mostly Black audiences. But things changed as he became the first Black artist to become just as popular with White audiences as he was with Black ones. He can be given credit for introducing Black audiences to White hillbilly music. With time and experience, Berry started to create his own style.
His showmanship and his fresh mix of country and R&B, sung in the style of Nat King Cole but set to the music of Muddy Waters, was what brought in a wider audience. In particular, he drew in affluent White people. Seeing and hearing a Black man play White country songs made him a top attraction with Missouri’s Black community.
It’s important to note that aside from the less-than-flattering facts about his later legal issues and further jail time (which we’ll get to later on in the article), the musician made a positive mark on American culture. Although he grew up during an era prevalent with discrimination and racial segregation, Berry intentionally made music to make a difference.
He purposefully blended music from both sides of the racial divide. “Curiosity provoked me to lay a lot of our country stuff on our predominantly Black audience,” he wrote in his autobiography. “After they laughed at me a few times, they began requesting the hillbilly stuff and enjoyed dancing to it.”
In May 1955, on a trip to Chicago, Berry met Muddy Waters, who suggested that he get in contact with Leonard Chess of Chess Records. Berry figured his blues music would interest Chess, but it turned out that Chess was a bigger fan of Berry’s version of the song Ida Red. The American traditional song (of unknown origins) was made famous in 1938 by Bob Wills.
It was Wills’ version of Ida Red that served as the main inspiration for Berry’s first big hit, Maybellene. And so, on May 21, 1955, Berry recorded Ida Red under the title Maybellene. Johnnie Johnson was on the piano, Jerome Green was on the maracas, Jasper Thomas was on the drums and Willie Dixon on the bass.
Maybellene ultimately earned Berry his first record deal. The single sold over a million copies, hitting number one on Billboard’s Rhythm and Blues chart and reaching number five on its Best Sellers in Stores chart. According to Berry, “It came out at the right time when Afro-American music was spilling over into the mainstream pop.” Many say that Maybellene is the first true rock ‘n’ roll song.
The song features rhythm and blues beat, and it has country guitar licks and a flavor of Chicago blues. Along with its narrative storytelling, the song was really unlike anything else on the radio at the time. By the end of June 1956, his next song, Roll Over Beethoven, made it big too.
Roll Over Beethoven reached number 29 on Billboard’s Top 100 chart. Berry started touring as one of the “Top Acts of ’56.” It was then that he became friends with singer-songwriter Carl Perkins. Perkins once said: “I knew when I first heard Chuck that he’d been affected by country music. I respected his writing; his records were very, very great.”
1957 was also a good year for Berry as he took part in Alan Freed’s “Biggest Show of Stars for 1957.” They toured the United States with the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, and others. Berry performed on ABC’s Guy Mitchell Show, singing another hit song, Rock ‘n’ Roll Music.
Berry’s hits were coming non-stop from 1957 to 1959, scoring over a dozen chart singles during those years. Some of his US Top 10 hits included School Days, Rock ‘n’ roll, Sweet Little Sixteen, and Johnny B. Goode. The hit Johnny B. Goode was a tune that happened to be autobiographical in nature — with a few exceptions.
Berry explained to Rolling Stone that the original words were “that little colored boy could play.” But he changed it to “country boy” because otherwise, it wouldn’t have gotten on the radio. The lyric about Johnny never learning to “read or write so well” isn’t correct, but the theme of finding unexpected fame does ring true.
By the end of the ‘50s, Berry established himself as a high-profile star with multiple hit records and film appearances under his belt. He appeared in two rock ‘n’ roll movies: Rock Rock Rock (1956) where he sang You Can’t Catch Me, and Go, Johnny, Go! (1959) where he played himself and performed the hit, Johnny B. Goode.
Then, his performance of Sweet Little Sixteen at 1958’s Newport Jazz Festival was captured in the motion picture called Jazz on a Summer’s Day. Aside from being on the big screen, Berry also scored himself a lucrative touring career. Despite his new success, Berry continued to have run-ins with the law over the years.
In 1959, Berry opened a racially integrated nightclub in St. Louis called Berry’s Club Bandstand. He also invested in real estate around that time. But, in December of that year, he was arrested under the Mann Act after being accused of having sexual relations with a 14-year-old Apache girl, Janice Escalante. He was arrested for “illegally transporting a woman over state lines for ‘immoral purposes.’”
Escalante was hired to work as a hatcheck girl and waitress at his nightclub. The girl was later arrested for prostitution. After a two-week trial in 1960, Berry was convicted and fined $5,000. He was then sentenced to five years in prison. He appealed the decision, claiming that both the judge’s comments and attitude were racist and had turned the jury against him.
Ultimately, his appeal was upheld, and a second trial was conducted in 1961, resulting in yet another conviction. This time, he was sentenced to three years. After a second appeal failed, Berry ended up serving one and a half years in prison, from February 1962 to October 1963. He continued recording and performing during these trials.
But, as a result of his time spent with lawyers and his legal case, his output slowed along with the decline of his popularity. The final single released before being imprisoned was Come On. When Berry was released in 1963, returning to the recording studio and the stage was made easier thanks to all the British invasion bands, notably the Beatles and The Rolling Stones.
The British invasion helped Berry’s career because these bands released cover versions of his songs. Some bands had even reworked some of his songs. For example, the Beach Boys’ 1963 hit Surfin’ USA used the melody of Berry’s Sweet Little Sixteen. Beach Boy songwriter Brian Wilson wrote the lyrics.
Needless to say, Berry and his lawyers weren’t thrilled about it. And so, to avoid a lawsuit, the Beach Boys’ manager gave Berry songwriting credit, along with the copyright.
As a result of the help from these British bands covering his songs, Berry released eight singles in 1964 and 1965. Three of them were commercially successful, reaching Billboard’s top 20. The three songs? No Particular Place to Go, You Never Can Tell, and Nadine.
In 1964, he went on a successful tour of the UK, but when he returned to the United States in January 1965, he was acting noticeably erratic and moody. Due to his touring style of taking unrehearsed local backing bands and the fact that he had a strict, non-negotiable contract – Berry was starting to earn himself a bad reputation.
He played at large venues in North America, including the Schaefer Music Festival in Central Park and the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival festival in 1969. Between 1966 and 1969, Berry released five albums with Mercury Records, including his second live album, Live at Fillmore Auditorium, where he was backed by the Steve Miller Band.
Berry returned to Chess Records from 1970 to 1973. And it was during these years that Berry toured mostly on the strength of his earlier works. He was on the road for years, only taking with him his Gibson guitar. He was confident that he would find a band to hire – one that already knew his music – no matter where he went. He was being seen as a difficult and boring performer.
AllMusic reported that during this period on the road, his “live performances became increasingly erratic… working with terrible backup bands and turning in sloppy, out-of-tune performances.” These shows “tarnished his reputation with younger fans and old-timers” alike.
In March 1972, Berry was filmed (at the BBC Television Theatre) for Chuck Berry in Concert. It was part of a 60-date tour with the band Rocking Horse. Among the bandleaders who backed for Berry in the ‘70s were Bruce Springsteen and Steve Miller – each just starting his career. Springsteen said in the documentary Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll that Berry never gave the band a setlist.
He described how Berry would expect the musicians to simply follow his lead after each guitar intro. Furthermore, Berry didn’t speak to the band after the show. But, regardless of the difficulty of working with him, Springsteen backed Berry again at the concert for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995.
In 1972, Chess released a live recording of My Ding-a-Ling, a song which he recorded as a different version of My Tambourine from his 1968 album, From St. Louie to Frisco. My Ding-a-Ling became his only number-one single. Despite his numerous cleverly written songs, this one hit like none other. Surely, there are a handful of other songs that Berry’s fans would call more worthy of the top spot, but Berry himself always stood by his naughty sing-a-long tune.
He claimed that he was simply giving the audience what they wanted. “There’s certain songs and thoughts, for that matter, that almost make tears come to their eyes,” he once told Rolling Stone. “I’d give it to them if that’s what they wanted.”
His live recording of Reelin’ and Rockin’ was his last Top 40 hit in both the US and the UK. Berry’s second period with Chess Records ended with the 1975 album Chuck Berry. After that album, he didn’t make a studio record until Rockit (for Atco Records) in 1979. It would also be his last studio album for the next 38 years. Not only that, that album would also serve as the last one that he would live to see released.
Berry always insisted on getting paid in cash before he would go on stage. On one occasion, in 1975, he was stopped at Sydney Airport because he was carrying a case filled with over £40,000 in cash.
Traveling the “oldies” circuit in the ‘70s and getting paid cash only added ammunition to the Internal Revenue Service’s accusations against Berry – that he evaded his income taxes. But it wasn’t until 1979, a few weeks after performing for President Jimmy Carter at the White House, that his tendency to dodge taxes caught up with him.
At this point, Berry was facing criminal sanctions for the third time. He ended up pleading guilty to not paying nearly $110,000 in federal income tax owed on his earnings in 1973 alone. According to newspaper reports in 1979, his 1973 joint income (with his wife) stood at $374,982. He was ultimately sentenced to four months in prison and ordered to do 1,000 hours of community service performing benefit concerts in 1979.
And then, in the ‘80s, Berry was accused of something else. In 1987, he was charged with assaulting a woman at Gramercy Park Hotel in New York. He pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and paid a $250 fine. In the late ‘80s, Berry bought a restaurant in Wentzville, Missouri, called the Southern Air. And, in 1990, he was sued by several women who claimed that Berry had installed a video camera in the bathroom.
According to Berry, he had the camera installed to catch a particular worker whom he suspected of stealing from the restaurant. His guilt was actually never proven in court, but Berry opted for a class action settlement.
Biographer Bruce Pegg estimated that with 59 women involved in the case, it cost Berry over $1.2 million, not including legal fees. According to Berry’s lawyers, he was the victim of a conspiracy against him to profit from his wealth. Berry also ran into trouble regarding drug possession, which left him serving two years of unsupervised probation. He also had to pay $5,000 for a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program.
Berry expressed remorse about the poor choices he had made throughout his life, especially in his later years. “Anything to do with crime, I wouldn’t do,” he told The Mirror. “I would finish high school because it took me three times as long to finish as it would have if I’d have stayed.”
For 18 years straight, between 1996 and 2014, Berry played a monthly gig at Blueberry Hill, a restaurant and live music bar in St. Louis. His friend owned the venue and told a local paper in 2015 that Berry, who was 88 when he finished his 18-year streak, even drove himself to the club. He did a total of 209 shows, with his last one on October 15, 2014.
Here’s a fun and random fact: his famous “duck walk” dance originated way back in 1956 when he tried to hide wrinkles in his rayon suit. The crowd would go nuts, giving him a standing ovation. That’s why he continued doing the dance for the rest of his career.
Here’s another fun fact: In 1977, NASA launched Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 into space. Each one carried a 12-inch gold-plated record with music, images, and noises from different cultures and genres. Berry’s Johnny B. Goode was included on the record. According to NASA, the golden record is “intended to communicate a story of our world to extraterrestrials.”
What better way to introduce rock ‘n’ roll to our alien friends than through the sounds of the “Father of Rock ‘n’ Roll” himself? Also noteworthy is the fact that, unlike most artists, Berry wrote his autobiography without the help of a ghostwriter. In Chuck Berry: The Autobiography, he wrote: “Try as I did, day after day, to cling to righteousness, I was washed down in suds of sinful surroundings.”
On March 18, 2017, Missouri police were called to Berry’s home, where he was found unresponsive. They pronounced the 90-year-old dead at the scene. TMZ posted an audio recording online, in which the 911 operator was heard responding to a report of cardiac arrest at Berry’s home. Berry’s funeral was held on April 9, 2017, in his hometown of St. Louis.
His cherry-red guitar was bolted to the inside lid of his coffin. Also inside were flower arrangements, including one from The Rolling Stones in the shape of a guitar. Gene Simmons gave an impromptu eulogy at the service. Many St. Louis area bars and restaurants held a mass toast at 10 p.m. in Berry’s honor.
It was estimated, by one of Berry’s attorneys, that his estate was worth $50 million. $17 million of that estate is just music rights. Berry’s music publishing alone accounted for $13 million. The Berry estate owned half of his songwriting credits (most of which were from his later career), while BMG Rights Management claimed the other half. Most of Berry’s recordings are now owned by Universal Music Group.
Berry was a pioneer of rock ‘n’ roll. He was a significant influence on the development of both the music and attitude associated with the rock lifestyle. He refined and developed RnB into the major elements of rock, with lyrics that appealed to the teenage market. According to critic Jon Pareles, Berry invented rock as “a music of teenage wishes fulfilled and good times (even with cops in pursuit).”
Berry contributed three things in particular to rock music: swagger, a focus on the guitar riff, and an emphasis on songwriting as storytelling. His records are rich with the lyrical, showmanship and musical components of rock ‘n’ roll. Aside from The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, many significant pop music performers recorded Berry’s songs.
His guitar style is distinctive, and he incorporated electronic effects similar to “bottleneck” blues guitarists. He drew on guitar players like Carl Hogan and T-Bone Walker to create a fresh and exciting sound that later guitarists would say influenced their own styles. It was also Berry’s showmanship that influenced other rock guitarists, particularly his duck walk.
In 2011, years before his death, Berry was honored with an eight-foot, in-motion statue in the Delmar Loop in St. Louis – right across the street from Blueberry Hill. Berry said: “It’s glorious. I do appreciate it to the highest, no doubt about it. That sort of honor is seldom given out. But I don’t deserve it.”
Rock critic Robert Christgau refers to Berry as “the greatest of the rock and rollers,” and John Lennon once said, “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’.” According to Ted Nugent, “If you don’t know every Chuck Berry lick, you can’t play rock guitar.”
Bob Dylan said Berry was “the Shakespeare of rock ‘n’ roll.” Bruce Springsteen tweeted once: “Chuck Berry was rock’s greatest practitioner, guitarist, and the greatest pure rock ‘n’ roll writer who ever lived.” When Berry himself was asked what caused the explosion of rock ‘n’ roll in the ‘50s, he 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 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.”
Berry received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1984 as well as the Kennedy Center Honors in 2000. He was ranked seventh on Time’s 2009 list of the 10 best electric guitar players of all time. He was also included in a bunch of Rolling Stone’s Greatest of All Time lists. In 2003, the magazine ranked him number six in its list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.
Journalist Chuck Klosterman argued that in 300 years, Chuck Berry will still be remembered as the rock star who most closely captured the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll. Time magazine stated: “There was no one like Elvis. But there was ‘definitely’ no one like Chuck Berry.”