At Sumner, 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. When not working with his father, Berry began to cultivate a lifelong interest in photography through his cousin Harry Davis.
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 married Themetta Suggs and began a series of jobs: between 1948 and 1955, Berry worked at the Fisher Body auto assembly plant, trained to be a hairdresser at the Poro School, 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 combo's savvy selection of blues and r & b, Chuck soon took over the band, vying with Ike Turner and Albert King for popularity in the St. Louis area.
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 on WINS in New York. 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. Additionally, Berry discovered that his first road manager, Teddy Reig, was pocketing money from his live appearances. Learning from these initial pitfalls, Berry realized that self-sufficiency and independence were keys to long term survival in the business, and from this point on, he became determined to take charge of his own affairs, sowing the seeds for the later allegations of his being difficult to work with.
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.
Berry's success on the charts was accompanied by a number of appearances in Freed produced movies, including Rock, Rock, Rock in 1956, Mr. Rock and Roll in 1957, and Go, Johnny, Go in 1959, in which he had an extensive speaking part. Additionally, the touring continued unabated. On a tremendously successful package tour promoted by Irving Feld in late 1957 (visiting 75 cities in 75 days), Berry befriended newcomer Buddy Holly; their friendship continued during 1958's "Big Beat" tour. Promoted by Alan Freed, the tour was marred by controversy. Joining Berry and Holly on the tour was another newcomer, Jerry Lee Lewis. By the time of the tour, Lewis was hot property, having followed up "Whole Lot Of Shakin'" in March of 1957 with "Great Balls of Fire" in November and "Breathless" in February 1958. Lewis, who at the time was 22 and some 11 years Berry's junior, came to New York expecting to be the final act each night on the tour, but with his third consecutive top ten single, "Johnny B. Goode," in the charts, and a long-time association with Freed in his favor, it was Berry who was asked to close the show. This began a fierce rivalry between the two which lasted throughout the tour. However, the tour would be remembered mostly for what happened on May 3 when, with only a handful of dates remaining, they played Boston. While Berry was on stage, fights broke out in the audience, forcing the police to turn on the houselights, leading Freed to make comments about the Boston police which later got him arrested for inciting a riot. It was this incident that provided the inspiration for the climax of the 1978 movie American Hot Wax in which both Berry and Lewis starred.
With the money from all this success, he purchased some 30 acres of land in Wentzville MO (about 30 miles west of St. Louis) in April 1957, and 11 months later, he opened Club Bandstand. The Club was located at 814 North Grand Avenue between Delmar and Enright; in the 1910's and 1920's, this was St. Louis' Theater District, home to the Princess Theater, the St. Louis Theater and the Fox, all of which were segregated until the late 1950's. The area was also a bastion of white professional culture. Not only did fraternal organizations such as the Masons and the Scottish Rite build their temples there, but the area was home to a number of doctor and dentist offices and the gradually expanding St. Louis University. The appearance of a racially integrated nightclub owned by a successful black entertainer in such an area must have been a red flag to the local authorities, and it wasn't long before the St. Louis police had their chance to close it down in the scandal that very nearly put an end to Berry's career.
On December 1, 1959, while playing a show in El Paso, TX, 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.
On February 19, 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 in Springfield, MO, 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, heralding another decline in his career.
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. But a second irony emerged from the song's success. His greatest competitor from the early days of rock and roll, Elvis Presley, was enjoying his greatest year since coming out of the army, but his single "Burning Love" was held to the #2 spot by a song euphemistically describing the joys of masturbation. Regardless, the fact remains that the song was wholly owned by Berry's publishing company, Isalee, providing him the kind of financial reward that far better works never did.
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.
Since the release of Rock It, Berry's career has been marked by even more controversy. A brief jail term in 1979 for tax evasion, and a lengthy round of litigation in the early 1990's by a number of women who accused Berry of videotaping them as they went to the bathroom at Berry Park and Berry's Wentzville restaurant, The Southern Air, coupled with numerous erratic live performances, have added fuel to Berry's reputation of being difficult and unpredictable. Yet 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'."
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Last revised: February 15, 2000.
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