Personalities | Chuck Berry | Rock’n’Roll’s Pioneer | Guitar Heroes
One of the founding fathers of rock’n’roll, Charles Edward (Chuck) Berry was born in 1926 in St Louis, Missouri, to a middle-class family. His interest in the blues began in high school, where he gave his first public performance.
In 1944, he was convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to three years in an Intermediate Reformatory for Young Men. He was released on his twenty-first birthday. Before his career in music, Berry worked as a hairdresser.
Influenced by the guitar styles of Carl Hogen, T-Bone Walker, Charlie Christian and Elmore James, by 1953 Berry was playing in the Johnnie Johnson Trio. The group mixed the blues with ballads and hillbilly music, and played the songs of Nat ‘King’ Cole alongside those of Muddy Waters. These combinations, along with Berry’s natural showmanship, began to attract a mixed black and white audience. A meeting with Muddy Waters in Chicago led to Berry contacting Leonard Chess, who had ambitions to expand his Chess label beyond the blues. Berry seemed the ideal artist to help achieve this.
Released in July 1955, Berry’s single ‘Maybellene’, based on an old country song, was one of the first rock’n’roll singles and became a Top 5 hit in America. The string of hits that followed were all self-penned, something that set Berry apart from the majority of his contemporaries. His songs defined rock’n’roll with their teen-oriented themes about cars, girls and dancing. The exciting, driving yet loose guitar sound came courtesy of Berry’s Gibson ES 350T. The opening riff of ‘Johnny B. Goode’ typifies Berry’s style and set the template for rock’n’roll for many years to come, exerting a fundamental influence on The Rolling Stones and The Beatles. Even the fledgling Sex Pistols used to practise with the song.
In 1959, Berry was sentenced to a second term in prison, this time under the US Mann Act for transporting a minor across the state line for immoral purposes. The charge involved a hatcheck girl at his nightclub in St Louis. On his release in 1963, Berry’s career prospered as The Beatles and The Stones recorded versions of his songs. Berry also inspired surf rock; he received a co-writing credit on The Beach Boys’ ‘Surfin’ USA’ because of its close resemblance to ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’. His recording career resumed in 1964, producing more standards, including ‘No Particular Place To Go’ and ‘You Never Can Tell’. Although he remained a popular live draw, Berry’s records became less successful as the 1960s progressed.
A return to Chess in 1970 resulted in Berry’s only No. 1 single, the suggestive novelty ditty ‘My Ding-A-Ling’, which was recorded live in England and reached the top of the charts in both the US and the UK. Berry remained unrepentant in the face of criticism, delighted at the money it made for him. The song did rekindle interest in Berry’s music and a live version of ‘Reelin’ And Rockin’’, issued shortly afterwards, also charted.
For the rest of the 1970s,...
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