The rock ’n’ roll pioneer who started it all
Chuck Berry 1926–2017
Chuck Berry was rock ’n’ roll’s greatest architect. His guitar lines on 1950s hits like “Johnny B. Goode,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” and “Maybellene” fused the bite of the blues with the twang of country, creating a set of riffs that remain at the core of rock music. He paired those licks with an unrelenting R&B backbeat and sly, smart lyrics about fast cars, young love, dance parties, and rebellion, laying a template that’s still influencing pop musicians today. “If you tried to give rock ’n’ roll another name,” John Lennon once said, “you might call it Chuck Berry.” Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards offered similar high praise, saying, “I’ve stolen every lick he ever played.” Berry shrugged off this adoration, and offered a more pragmatic view of his work. “I wrote about cars because half the people had cars, or wanted them,” he said in 2002. “I wrote about love, because everyone wants that. I wrote songs white people could buy, because that’s nine pennies out of every dime.”
Charles Berry was born into a middle-class family in “segregated urban St. Louis,” said TheAtlantic.com. He was 14 when he started playing guitar and performing at parties, but his musical career was interrupted four years later when he was sent to a reformatory after being convicted of attempted robbery. Released on his 21st birthday, he worked on a car assembly line while training as a hairdresser and beautician; on weekends, he played music in local bars and clubs. “In 1955, Berry headed to Chicago to meet one of his heroes, Muddy Waters,” said the Los Angeles Times. After a show, he asked the blues great for advice about cutting a record—Waters told him to visit the city’s famous Chess Records. He did, and ended up recording a rocked-up version of the folk tune “Ida Red,” which the label renamed “Maybellene.” “The record came out in July 1955, and reached No. 5 on the pop singles chart.” More hits followed, and “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “School Day,” and “Johnny B. Goode” “became essential pillars of the rock ’n’ roll canon.”
The musician “went through a rough stretch in the early 1960s,” said CNN.com. Convicted in 1961 of transporting a 14-year-old across state lines for immoral purposes—“it was a tangled tale, involving a runaway”—he spent 20 months in jail. “Upon his release in 1963, Berry found his music had reached a new generation.” The Beach Boys reworked “Sweet Little Sixteen” as “Surfin’ U.S.A.”—he sued and won a songwriting credit— and the Beatles and the Rolling Stones covered his songs. His career rejuvenated, Berry recorded a string of new hits, including “No Particular Place to Go” and “Nadine.” In 1972, he had the biggest smash of his career with “‘My Ding-a- Ling,’ a double-entendre novelty song,” said The New York Times. It was Berry’s only No. 1 pop single. “It was also his last hit.” Still, Berry kept busy. He toured constantly and in July 1979 performed for President Carter at the White House. Three days later, he was sentenced to 120 days in federal prison for tax evasion. Berry had more legal troubles in 1990 when police raided his home and found 62 grams of marijuana and videotapes from a camera inside the women’s room of a restaurant he owned. He agreed to a misdemeanor count for the former and settled out of court on the latter.
By the late 1970s Berry “had stopped bothering to make new records and made his money from touring,” said The Times (U.K.). He “became infamous for checking his watch in midsong” to avoid performing any longer than contracted, and rather than having a permanent backing band, he used a “cheap pickup group at each venue.” Despite his decline in output, Berry’s legacy was secure. In 1977, a recording of “Johnny B. Goode” was among the cultural artifacts blasted into deep space aboard the two Voyager space probes. A new album—Berry’s first since 1979—is set for release in June. He hadn’t produced anything before that, he said, because “I felt it might be ill-mannered to try to top myself.”