Charles Edward Anderson or "Chuck" Berry was an American singer, guitarist, and a songwriter. He was one of the pioneers of Rock and Roll music. He was born into a middle-class African-American family that lived in St. Louis, Missouri.
Chuck Berry was born in St. Louis, Missouri to Henry William Berry, who was a contractor and also a deacon of a nearby Baptist church. His mother was Martha Bell (Banks) who was a certified public school principal. He was the fourth child in the family of six members. During his formative years, he grew up in the north St. Louis neighbourhood that was popularly known as The Ville. Many middle-class people lived in this area.
Music became his passion
During his initial years, he developed interest in music and he pursued it from a very early age. He gave his first public performance in the year 1941 while he was still a student at Sumner High School.
On October 28, in the year 1948, Berry married Themetta "Toddy" Suggs. The couple had their first child Darlin Ingrid Berry on 3rd October 1950.
His struggling days
During his struggling period, Berry took up various jobs in St. Louis where he worked briefly as a factory worker at two automobile assembly plants to support his family. He also worked as a janitor in the apartment building where he lived along with his wife. He also received training as a beautician at the Poro College of Cosmetology, founded by Annie Turnbo Malone.
Hence, he managed to meet his family requirements and was settled by the year 1950. It was during this time that he purchased his house that is now popularly known as Chuck Berry House located at Whittier Street and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places
His career as a Musician
During the time of early 1950s, Berry started working with the local band that performed in the clubs of St. Louis to earn some extra money to sustain. He was an ardent follower of Blues and he had been playing their songs since his teenage. He also befriended T-Bone Walker who was one of the Blues musicians. Berry learned technical know-how of guitar playing, etc. from him. Further, he also took guitar lessons from one his friends Ira Harris and it was during this phase that the foundation of his guitar playing style was laid down.
In the earlier part of the year 1953, Berry started performing with Johnnie Johnson’s trio. He started a long-time collaboration with the pianist. The band mostly played blues, ballads and country that was the most popular music during that era.
His association with Chess:
In May of the year 1955, Berry travelled to Chicago. On reaching there, he met Muddy Waters, who suggested him to contact Leonard Chess, of the famous Chess Records. Unlike Berry’s expectations, Chess liked his country music tune and not his Blues music.
It was mainly due to the fact that Chess sensed that the market for rhythm and blues started shrinking. Consequently, on 21st May 1955, Berry recorded an adaptation of the "Ida Red", under the title "Maybellene." The music became an immediate hit and was sold over a million copies. Hence, it reached at the number one position on Billboard magazine’s chart in the Rhythm and Blues category. Also, it ranked at number five in the best Seller’s list of the magazine’s stores chart on 10th September 1955.
After this huge success came a series of success. In June 1956 his song “Roll Over Beethoven” reached at number 29 on the Billboard’s top 100 chart.
In the late 1957, Berry took part in Alan Freed's "Biggest Show of Stars for 1957." He toured the United States with Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers, and many others. Also, he was invited as a guest on ABC's Guy Mitchell Show where he sang his hit song "Rock 'n' Roll Music".
His hits continued from the year 1957 to 1959, and he scored over a dozen chart singles during this period. Some of his popular music includes the US Top 10 hits:
• "School Days",
• "Rock and Roll Music",
• "Sweet Little Sixteen", and
• "Johnny B. Goode"
Berry also marked his appearance in two early rock-and-roll movies titled:
• Rock Rock Rock released in the year 1956, in which he sang "You Can't Catch Me", and
• Go, Johnny, Go! It was released in the year 1959 in which he had a speaking role as himself. Also he performed “Memphis”, "Johnny B. Goode", “Little Queenie” and Tennessee."
• One of his notable performances of "Sweet Little Sixteen" at the Newport Jazz Festival in the year 1958 was captured in the motion picture Jazz on a summer’s Day.
By the end of the 1950s, Berry was a high-profile established star with several hit records and film appearances and a lucrative touring career.
Berry opened St. Louis nightclub that was considered racially integrated. He also started Berry's Club Bandstand, and invested in several real estate ventures as well. However, his fate took a U-Turn when in December of the year 1959 he was arrested under the Mann Act with allegations that he had sex with a 14-year-old waitress, Janice Escalante who worked at his club. Several trials were held and he was imprisoned.
His only final single release before he was imprisoned was "Come On.”
When Berry was released from prison in the year1963, it was easier for him to return to recordings, as there was still a lot of scope for his music. Notable bands viz. the Beatles and the Rolling Stones had released the cover versions of his songs and some of the other bands had reworked his work. Thus, his popularity did not decline despite the controversy.
In the years, 1964 and 1965 Berry released eight singles, including three that were commercially successful. Thus, he again reached the top 20 of the Billboard 100. Some of his notable works from this period were the following:
• "No Particular Place to Go"
• "You Never Can Tell", and
Between the years, 1966 and 1969 Berry released five albums for Mercury Records. This included his first live album, Live at Fillmore Auditorium, in which he was backed by the Steve Miller Band.
His last years
Berry continued his tours and played around 70 to 100 one-nighters per year in the decade of 1980s. He used to travel alone and took the help of a local band for every concert.
In the year 1986, Taylor Hackford made a documentary film, “Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll” as a part of celebration concert for Berry's sixtieth birthday. It was organized by the following eminent artists:
• Keith Richards,
• Eric Clapton,
• Etta James,
• Julian Lennon,
• Robert Cray and
• Linda Ronstadt
In the late 1980s, Berry bought The Southern Air, a restaurant in Wentzville, Missouri.
In the year 2008, he toured Sweden, Finland, Norway, The Netherlands, The United Kingdom, Spain, Poland, Ireland, and Switzerland.
In the mid-2008, he played at the Virgin Festival in Baltimore, Maryland.
On New Year's Day in 2011 Berry was performing in Chicago, when he suffered from exhaustion and almost passed out. He was immediately given medical aid to revive.
Berry lived in Ladue, Missouri, that was approximately 10 miles or 16 km west of St. Louis.
During his peak old age i.e. from the year 1996 to 2014, he regularly performed one Wednesday of each month at Blueberry Hill that was a restaurant and bar located in the Delmar Loop neighbourhood of St. Louis.
Berry announced on his 90th birthday that his first new studio album since Rock It in the year 1979, entitled Chuck, would be released in the year 2017. It was his first new record in the last 38 years that featured his children, Charles Berry Jr. and Ingrid, on guitar and harmonica, respectively. The work was dedicated to his wife Themetta Berry.
Beery was found dead in his house at St. Charles County, Missouri. Police reached his house and found him unresponsive on March 18, 2017. He was 90 years old.