Personalities | Chuck Berry | Fifties | Rock

Charles Edward Anderson Berry, known to all as Chuck, was born in St Louis, Missouri, on 18 October 1926, at the family’s home in Goode Avenue. The local gospel choir used it for their rehearsals and there was a well-employed piano in situ.

Berry began learning the guitar in his mid-teens. At 17 he was involved in a string of robberies which led to a tough jail sentence, and he was released on his twenty-first birthday.

A Long Apprenticeship

On release, Berry played pick-up gigs wherever he could, while studying to be a hairdresser and looking after his wife and children. On 30 December 1952, he got a call from piano-player Johnnie Johnson who had a gig at the Cosmopolitan Club in East St Louis. It soon began to live up to its name, becoming a haunt for both blacks and whites. Berry was used to playing white bars, and started to introduce country songs alongside the blues and standards that Johnson’s band played. While Elvis was a hillbilly singer who sang the blues, Berry was a bluesman who sang hillbilly. They both ended up with the same result. Rock’n’roll.

In early 1955, he saw Muddy Waters in Chicago and afterwards asked his advice on getting a record deal. The great man recommended going to see Leonard Chess. Berry did just that and was asked if he had a demo. He returned to St Louis and made one with Johnson and Ebby Hardy, their regular drummer.

Chess Mate

Both Leonard Chess and bassist/fixer Willie Dixon were intrigued by the sound of Berry’s ‘Ida May’, which he had developed from country bopper Bob Wills’s ‘Ida Red’. But they counselled a further bit of disguise, and the song became ‘Maybellene’, recorded at Chess Records on 21 May 1955. Around this time the band also stopped being the Johnnie Johnson Trio and became Chuck Berry’s. The song appealed to both races, naturally, and stormed up all three American charts: pop, country and R&B, reaching No. 5 on the one that mattered most – the Billboard Hot 100 chart – several months before Elvis appeared as a national star.

The band soon set out on the hardly glamorous, endless rounds of touring, though sell-out residencies at one of DJ Alan Freed’s promotions at the Paramount in New York, and at Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theatre were highlights. It was around this time that Berry started bringing the house down with his trademark duck walk. ‘Thirty Days’, a hurriedly issued follow-up did not fare so well, and it was not until mid-1956 that another classic Berry composition, ‘Roll Over Beethoven’, breached the US Top 30. Berry’s juices were in full flow. He could afford to consign the superb ‘Brown Eyed Handsome Man’ to the B-side of ‘Too Much Monkey Business’ (which became the template for Dylan’s ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’). Almost unbelievably the single did not chart, though Buddy Holly soon recorded a cover of ‘Brown Eyed…’. The next...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, general editor Michael Heatley


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