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Chuck Berry

DESCRIPTION: Chuck Berry was an American guitarist, singer and songwriter, and is one of the pioneers of rock and roll music.


ACTIVITY PERIOD: 1955 - 2017

MUSIC GENRE: Rock and Roll


RECORD COMPANIES / LABELS (Current & Past): Chess, Mercury, Atco



Chuck Berry is one of the most important figures in Rock Music. As a pioneer of Rock N Roll he laid the groundwork for not only a rock and roll sound but a rock and roll stance as a guitarist and singer songwriter. Chuck Berry refined and developed rhythm and blues into the major elements that made rock and roll distinctive, with lyrics focusing on teen life and consumerism and utilizing guitar solos and showmanship that would be a major influence on subsequent rock music.

Berry was among the first musicians to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. With songs such as "Maybellene" (1955), "Roll Over Beethoven" (1956), "Rock and Roll Music" (1957) and "Johnny B. Goode" (1958), he is largely credited as one the primary key people (along with Jimmy Liggins, Jackie Brenston and Ike Turner) who is attributed to inventing Rock N Roll music.



Rocket 88 is widely acknowledged as the first "rock and roll" song recorded back in 1951. You can argue that one until the cows come home. At the time of writing this, Chuck Berry just turned 88, but he doesn’t have to sing a song he never wrote. Chuck Berry’s legacy is so staggeringly huge that it’s difficult to even wrap our heads around it. He is known as the “father of rock and roll” and for once that kind of grandiose label is 100% accurate. He is the king of rock n’ roll, not in an Elvis popularity kind of way, but certainly as the man who made it all possible and gave it to us all. All the materials for the creation of rock and roll were present before Chuck Berry arrived on the scene but a great intellect was needed to synthesise the elements and deliver them to the world with a concentrated impact. Chuck Berry is also a problematic figure. His best work was created 55-60 years ago. In the meantime he has played thousands of reportedly sloppy, indifferent concerts with local pickup bands who never saw him before or after and were happy to do so for the nickel and dimes they were paid to play with him. Chuck doesn't give a flying fuck. He has had some pretty rough scrapes with the law, some just, some apparently not, some absolutely horrifying. Many regard him with disdain, but there is a beginning to what many regard as a slide into assholhism.There is no doubt Berry has been harshly treated by authorities who objected not only to his music, but more the fact that white kids loved his music and he of course was black. This was 1950’s America. Hardened by mistreatment and carrying a rather large chip on his shoulder after spending some time in the slammer. Between 1960 and 1963, the man who pretty much invented rock and roll spent 20 months in federal prison following his conviction on charges of violating the Mann Act.

The Mann Act is the common name for a piece of federal legislation originally known as the United States White-Slave Traffic Act of 1910. The Mann act is the transport of "any woman or girl for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose". The Killer (Jerry Lee Lewis) can marry his 13 ear old cousin and get away with it, but he wasn't black. Authorities nailed former Heavyweight Champion Jack Johnson on the same Mann act charge way back in 1912 when Jack was King of the boxing world. Oh, did i mention he WAS black?

Berry's defence was not found credible by the all-male, all-white jury at his first trial, and he was convicted on March 11, 1960, and sentenced to five years' imprisonment and a $5,000 fine. Although he would have his conviction vacated and a new trial ordered by a Federal Appeals Court in October 1960 due to disparaging racial comments made by the judge in his original trial, (oh really) Berry would be convicted again on retrial in March 1961 and serve the better part of the next two years in prison. Berry was completely fucked over and the sentence effectively killed his career. It had a profound effect on him personally and also professionally and reportedly he’s been a hard person to like ever since. “Never saw a man so changed," is how the great Carl Perkins described the experience of touring England in 1964 alongside Chuck Berry. "He had been an easy going guy before, the kinda guy who'd jam in dressing rooms, sit and swap licks and jokes. [But] in England he was cold, real distant and bitter." The "before" to which Perkins referred was the four-year period from 1956 to 1959, when Berry established his reputation as one of rock and roll's founding fathers. Berry’s career was of course rejuvenated by the use of his songs by The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, but that chip on his shoulder would stay with him until this very day. Take a look at the 1987 movie Hail Hail Rock n’ Roll and it paints a vivid picture of the world’s most difficult and trying collaborator. Still, to set the record straight, Berry was no stranger to prison life, while still a high school student he served a prison sentence for armed robbery from 1944 to 1947!! Berry had trouble with the law in 1979 for Tax evasion due to his insistence on being paid in cash for performances; in 1990 he was in strife again for being an amateur voyeur after installing cameras in the ladies rooms of his restaurants. He was indeed a Brown Eyed Handsome Man. ( See Pamela De Barres books for further details) Upon release in 1947 Chuck Berry had a huge problem and that problem was a swing band called Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five and their song "Ain't That Just Like a Woman." Like a calling from the almighty Chuck Berry’s life was about to be turned upside down. If you were asked to pick five musical seconds that told the world everything they needed to know about rock music, the opening guitar riff of "Johnny B. Goode" would probably be it.

Except Chuck Berry didn’t really write it, he nicked it note for note; from a guitarist he later called his idol, Carl Hogan. Twelve years before "Johnny B. Goode" was a glimmer in Chuck's eye, Carl Hogan played that iconic riff on “Aint That Just Like A Woman” from a 1946 R&B album. And Berry later admitted to studying it and incorporating that riff not just into "Johnny B. Goode," but also "Roll Over Beethoven" and Carol. Chuck himself explains: “The first time I heard (the riff) was in one of Carl Hogan's riffs in Louis Jordan's band.So i put a little Carl Hogan, a little T-Bone Walker, and a little Charlie Christian together, and look what a span of people you will please! And making it simple is another important factor … in being able to play my music. If you can call it my music. Ain't nothing new under the sun.” Chuck being humble for a change? No matter where the tunes come from Chuck Berry is the Poet Laureate of Rock Music. He was our first guitar hero.

By Glenn Forsyth


Parent Category Page Links: Music Artists / Outfits - America

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