Chuck Berry was born 1926 in St. Louis, USA . Berry got his first taste of stardom, singing Jay McShann's "Confessin' the Blues" in the All Men's Review in 1941; it was a song he was later to record on the 1960 album Rockin' at the Hops. But music was not his only focus at that time. Berry has also had a lifelong interest in photography.
Before he could graduate from high school, Berry encountered his first problem with the authorities. In 1944, on a joy ride to Kansas City, Berry and two companions were arrested and found guilty of armed robbery; each was sentenced to 10 years in the Intermediate Reformatory for Young Men at Algoa, near Jefferson, Missouri. At Algoa, drawing on his Baptist roots, Berry joined a gospel group; he also engaged in a brief career as a boxer before being released on his 21st birthday in 1947.
A year later, Berry got married and began a series of various jobs. He worked at an auto assembly plant, trained to be a hairdresser, freelanced as a photographer, assisted his father, and began his career as a musician. Eventually, on New Years' Eve, 1952, he was asked to join the Sir John's Trio, a small combo consisting of pianist and leader Johnnie Johnson and drummer Ebby Hardy. Adding showmanship and hillbilly music to the bandīs selection of blues and r & b, Chuck soon took over the band.
Eventually, Chuck visited Chicago where, on the advice of Muddy Waters, he sought out Leonard Chess, owner of Chess Records. Chess, along with house producer Willie Dixon, was immediately impressed by an upbeat country tune Berry had written called "Ida Red"; they asked Berry, Hardy and Johnson to return. On May 21, 1955, the song, now renamed "Maybellene," was recorded with Willie Dixon on bass; immediately, Chess gave a copy of the record to the influential disc jockey Alan Freed, who aired the single for two hours straight one night on his show. The song went on to sell over a million copies, reaching #1 on Billboard's R & B chart and #5 on the Hot 100.
Berry's initial success was tempered by the hard reality of showbusiness. The copyright for "Maybellene" contained the names of Alan Freed and Russ Fratto as well as Berry's; while Freed's name on the song ensured airplay, it also reduced Berry's royalty payments. Aside from "Roll Over Beethoven," which reached #29 on Billboard's Hot 100 in May 1956, Berry found the initial success of "Maybellene" hard to follow; subsequent singles, such as "Thirty Days," "No Money Down," "Too Much Monkey Business," and "You Can't Catch Me" sold respectably but failed to cross over. Berry's first release in March 1957, "School Days," was to change all that. Like "Roll Over Beethoven," it drew on a universal adolescent theme and made #5 on the Hot 100, leading to bookings for 240 one-nighters in that year alone.
With only one exception (1958's "Beautiful Delilah"), Berry was to enjoy an unbroken string of chart hits for the next two and-a-half years: "Oh Baby Doll" (#57) and "Rock and Roll Music" (#8) in 1957; "Sweet Little Sixteen" (#2), "Johnny B. Goode" (#8), "Carol" (#10), "Sweet Little Rock and Roller" (#47), and "Merry Christmas Baby" (#71) in 1958; and "Anthony Boy" (#60), "Almost Grown"(#32), and "Back in the USA" (#37) in 1959. These songs are, without doubt, some of the greatest and most enduring songs in the history of rock and roll.
On December 1, 1959, Berry met Janice Escalanti, a young Native American woman from Yuma, AZ. They discussed the possibility of her working as a hat check girl at Club Bandstand, which she agreed to do. She was terminated after two weeks, and after soliciting for several nights at a local hotel, she called the Yuma police to find a way to get home. The call led to charges of violating the Mann Act -- transporting a woman across state lines for immoral purposes. A first trial, in which Berry was found guilty, was overturned after the judge was found to have uttered racist remarks; a second trial in October 1961 arrived at the same verdict, however, and Berry was sentenced to 3 years in jail and a $10, 000 fine.
February 1962 Berry began serving his sentence; his music, however, was not so easily restrained. In March of 1963, The Beach Boys released a note-for-note cover of "Sweet Little Sixteen" which they called "Surfin' USA." Meanwhile in England, newcomers The Rolling Stones released their first single, a version of "Come On"; in quick succession, they went on to cover "Carol," "You Can't Catch Me," and "I'm Talkin' About You." And just 5 days before his release on October 18, 1963, Beatlemania began to take hold on the world as 15 million viewers watched The Beatles, who had begun their rise to the top with covers of "Rock and Roll Music" and "Roll Over Beethoven," perform on Sunday Night at the London Palladium.
The time was ripe for a comeback, and Berry did not disappoint. From February, 1964 to March 1965, Chess released six singles, all of which made the top 100. "Nadine" (#23), "No Particular Place To Go" (#10), "You Never Can Tell' (#14), and "Promised Land" (#41), were all written in the Federal Medical Center and rank among the very best songs in the Berry catalog. Sadly, the last of these singles, "Dear Dad" (#95), was to be Berry's last chart success for seven years.
Berry's signing with Mercury Records in 1966 contributed much to that decline. Whereas the small, family owned Chess Records could accommodate his idiosyncratic ways of doing business, the corporate make-up of Mercury could only antagonize a feisty, independent artist like Berry. Constant battles with producers, and a reluctance to keep up with the changes in musical taste produced a series of lackluster albums and watered-down remakes of his old hits. Only the album Live at the Fillmore with the Steve Miller Band remains as a worthwhile addition to Berry's body of work from that time.
Unfortunately, when Berry resigned to Chess in 1970, his old record company was showing the same signs of corporate identity. In January 1969, Chess was sold to GRT, the tape manufacturing giant; later that year, on October 16, Leonard Chess died, leaving the company to his son Marshall and brother and partner Phil. In less than two years, they too, had gone, but not before they managed to bring back a little of the Berry magic. The appropriately titled Back Home featured "Tulane" and "Have Mercy Judge," some of Berry's best work since 1964.
But Berry's greatest success was yet to come. In a supreme twist of irony, one of the greatest songwriters of the rock and roll era achieved his only number 1 hit with a sophomoric schoolyard ditty entitled "My Ding-A-Ling." Originally recorded under the title "My Tamborine" on the 1968 Mercury album From St. Louis to Frisco, it became Berry's best-selling single ever in July of 1972. The year ended with Berry's last chart success, a live version of "Reelin' and Rockin'" from The London Chuck Berry Sessions which made #27.
The recordings that followed, the half-hearted Bio and the underrated, back-to-roots Chuck Berry for Chess, the moderately successful Rock It for Atco and a godzillian number of greatest hits packages, showed that his days as a recording artist were all but over; again, Berry's fierce independence placed him at odds against a system that increasingly demanded artist conformity. Rock It, his last album released in 1979, was a good example of that, having been produced at Berry Park and delivered to Atco sight unseen.
His contribution to rock and roll is enormous and still being felt, as his 1986 induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the 1987 release of his autobiography and accompanying movie Hail, Hail, Rock and Roll have proved. Perhaps John Lennon said it best -- "If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it 'Chuck Berry'."