(born Charles Berry)
1926 - Present
Chuck Berry began his career as a rhythm &
blues performer, like Little Richard, Fats Domino, and other pioneering black rock &
rollers. Though he was influenced by jazz guitarist Charlie Christian and by Carl Hogan
(the guitar player in rhythm & blues artist Louis Jordan's
Tympany Five), two of Berry's biggest influences were Muddy
Waters and Howlin' Wolf. Chuck also recorded for Chess,
the major blues label in the 1950s, and used blues musicians on his records. Bass player Willie Dixon, drummers Fred Below and Odie Payne, Jr., and
pianists Johnnie Johnson and Lafayette Leake played on many of Berry's recordings, all of
which were made in Chicago. Though Berry drifted from the blues when he became a rock
& roll icon in the 1960s, blues remained woven into his music.
Berry was as important to the early development of rock & roll as Elvis, but for different reasons. Chuck was one of rock & roll's first great lyricists; Berry also gave rock & roll some of its earliest trademark guitar licks. One of them, the shuffling, boogie-woogie influenced riff that appears in the classic song "Johnny B. Goode" (117 k 10 sec.) is a primary tool in any rock guitarist's repertoire. Berry also blended rhythm & blues, country, swing, and blues strains into his music, which made him one of rock & roll's first great stylists.
Born and raised in St. Louis, Berry developed an early interest for the guitar. With local jazz guitarist Ira Harris as an early teacher, Berry learned the rudiments of the instrument on a four-string tenor guitar. By 1950, however, he had changed over to a six-string electric. Two years later Berry began playing professional engagements in St. Louis clubs. In 1952, on New Year's Eve, he played with the Sir John's Trio. The combo was led by pianist Johnnie Johnson and included drummer Eddie Hardy. Berry incorporated elements of country into the Sir John's Trio sound, but he also brought in some Muddy Waters songs. In effect, Berry's blend of blues and country eventually turned the Sir John's Trio into a prototype rock & roll band, though history has not accorded it that honor.
Chuck's connection with Muddy Waters didn't end there. In 1955, Chuck traveled to Chicago where he ran into Muddy, and asked him where he should inquire about doing some recording. Waters told him to see Leonard Chess at Chess Records. Berry took Waters' advice, and a few weeks later, Berry, Johnson, Willie Dixon, and drummer Jasper Thomas recorded a country-flavored blues tune called "Ida Red" (later changed to "Maybellene"), along with another tune titled "Wee Wee Hours." The record went to number 1 on the R&B charts and number 5 on the pop charts in 1955.
The Chess label had enjoyed considerable commercial success with artists such as Waters and Little Walter, but their appeal to that point lay principally in the blues and rhythm & blues markets. With the addition of Berry on the Chess roster, the label was able to attract a wider record-buying audience. By the end of 1956, Berry was selling more records than anyone else on Chess because white teens had picked up on his sound and his records were crossing over onto the pop charts. Berry's chart success would continue throughout the 1950s.
Berry had a batch of hits from 1956 through 1958, many of which became rock & roll standards. "Roll Over Beethoven," "School Day," "Rock & Roll Music," "Sweet Little Sixteen," "Reelin' and Rockin'," "Little Queenie," and the quintessential rock & roll song, "Johnny B. Goode," are just some of his early masterpieces. These, along with appearances in early rock & roll films such as Rock, Rock, Rock and Mister Rock & Roll and numerous cross-country tours with rock & roll package shows, made Chuck a major star.
Berry continued to recycle the classic blues-flavored rock & roll sound he created in the 1950s, despite changes in rock trends and styles. Occasional run-ins with the law didn't help his career, though he always rebounded from these and has retained his status as one of rock & roll's most influential original artists. His trademark double-string guitar riff and recognizable duckwalk, are all part of his legacy. Inducted into the Blues Foundation's Hall of Fame in 1985 and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, Chuck Berry released his autobiography Chuck Berry: The Autobiography in 1987. That same year the Chuck Berry rockumentary, Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll, was also released. Shot at the Fox Theatre in St. Louis, the film included guest appearances by Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards and Bruce Springsteen. Berry continues to perform on occasion.
"Johnny B. Goode" is from Chuck Berry - The Great Twenty-Eight Copyright © MCA Records Inc., 1984. Chuck originally cut this in December of 1957. Lafayette Leake, piano - Willie Dixon, bass - Fred Below, drums.