Thursday 23 November 2017

Chuck Berry, 1926-2017: Rollercoaster life of a pivotal figure in rock and roll history

From superstardom to spells in jail, Chuck Berry left rich musical legacy

American guitarist, singer and songwriter Chuck Berry performs during the ‘Rose Ball’ in Monaco on March 28, 2009. Photo: AP
American guitarist, singer and songwriter Chuck Berry performs during the ‘Rose Ball’ in Monaco on March 28, 2009. Photo: AP
Independent.ie Newsdesk

Independent.ie Newsdesk

Chuck Berry, who has died aged 90, was a pivotal figure in the development of rock and roll, responsible for classics such as 'Johnny B Goode', 'Roll Over Beethoven' and 'Maybellene'; drawing on the roots of traditional blues, he brought the new genre into the mainstream, giving popular music a raw energy that influenced countless emerging bands, among them the Beach Boys, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

Berry was the rock-and-roll poet of the adolescent American dream, depicting a promised land of big-finned Cadillacs, soda fountains and blaring jukeboxes; a land in which, as his song 'Back in the USA' puts it, "hamburgers sizzle on an open grill night and day". As John Lennon was to say: "If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it 'Chuck Berry'."

A consummate entertainer, his act was remarkable for what was known as his "duck walk". As he delivered his distinctive guitar riffs, he would slink across the stage on one leg, both knees bent. The effect was more graceful than it sounds.

He claimed that he first performed this trick in New York in 1956, the aim being to conceal the wrinkles in his Rayon suit. "It got an ovation," he later recalled, "so I did it again and again."

He continued to perform regularly into advanced old age, likening himself to an "automobile that had a lot of miles but a good grease job".

Berry once observed: "I wasn't like Muddy Waters, people who really had it hard. In our house, we had food on the table. So I concentrated on fun and frolic. I wrote about cars because half the people had cars, or wanted them. I wrote about love, because everyone wants that. I wrote songs white people could buy, because that's nine pennies out of every dime."

Chuck Berry performs his famous ‘duck walk’ as he plays his guitar on stage in 1980. Photo: AP
Chuck Berry performs his famous ‘duck walk’ as he plays his guitar on stage in 1980. Photo: AP

Someone said of Berry that "his true god [was] the dollar sign", and he was famously parsimonious. When touring abroad, he would decline to go to the expense of bringing with him his own musicians, preferring the cheaper option of hiring a band on the spot. He insisted on being paid in advance, and would often still be haggling over his appearance fee while in the wings waiting to go on stage as the fans bayed for him to start his set.

On one occasion in Britain, Berry upped his fee by £5 moments before he was due to appear. Peter Grant (later the renowned manager of Led Zeppelin but then a tour manager working with Don Arden) did not have the money on him, and was forced to leave the theatre and break into a cigarette machine to get the cash.

The son of a carpenter, Charles Edward Anderson Berry was born on October 18 (or January 15 - sources differ), 1926, in St Louis, Missouri. Berry and his two brothers and three sisters were brought up in circumstances that were relatively comfortable: Goode Avenue (later immortalised in 'Johnny B Goode'), where the family lived, was considered "the best of the three coloured sections of St Louis".

Not that this background prevented Berry getting into trouble. "I was the first in my family to try smoking, to play hookey from school, the first to venture away from home, and the first to go to jail," he said. "On the other hand, I was the first child in the family to own a Cadillac, the first to have a formal wedding, the first to fly to Europe, the first to earn a half-million dollars - and the last one to admit I was wrong."

Fans visit the statue of Berry on the Delmar Loop, in University City, Missouri. Photo: David Carson/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP
Fans visit the statue of Berry on the Delmar Loop, in University City, Missouri. Photo: David Carson/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP

Robbery

As a teenager, Berry and two of his friends landed in jail after being convicted of armed robbery. They were sentenced to 10 years apiece. At Algoa Intermediate Reformatory for Young Men, Berry learnt that he had no talent for boxing, and in the event was released after three years.

"You might wonder," he later said, "if you are a female, what I wanted to do first after leaving Algoa. If you are male, you likely know." His first, fumbling attempt had been in the family's garage after a dance. On that occasion his parents had burst in "looking like Joseph and Mother Mary. My father spoke: 'You'll never turn this garage into a bordello'" - and he gave his son a whipping.

As a boy, Berry had sung with the Antioch Baptist Church Choir in St Louis, and at Sumner High School, which he left aged 15, he taught himself to play a six-string Spanish guitar. Nat King Cole was among his inspirations, but his greatest influence was the rhythm and blues musician Louis Jordan, known as the "King of the Jukebox".

Not long after leaving the reformatory, in October 1948, Berry married Themetta 'Toddy' Suggs, and to support her and their two children he worked in a factory and as a hairdresser (perhaps explaining his subsequent fondness for pomade).

At the same time he freelanced as a guitarist with orchestras before, in 1952, forming a trio with the pianist Johnnie Johnson and the drummer Ebby Harding, doing regular gigs in St Louis.

A critical moment in Berry's career came three years later when, on holiday in Chicago, he met Muddy Waters, who introduced him to Leonard Chess, president of the eponymous record company. With Johnson, Berry performed for Chess two of his own songs, 'Maybellene' and 'Wee Wee Hours', and the former became a big hit record after being plugged by Alan Freed on his New York radio show. Berry was already 29, relatively antique for a new star in the business.

His initial success provided an early lesson in the harsh realities of showbusiness. The copyright for 'Maybellene' was not only in his name but also in that of the disc jockey Alan Freed; and while Freed's name on the song guaranteed that it got airplay, it also reduced Berry's royalty payments. At the same time, Berry discovered that his road manager, Teddy Reig, was pocketing money from his gigs. It was an experience that made him determined to take charge of his own affairs, sowing the seeds for the later allegations that he was difficult to work with.

'Maybellene' was the start of a highly successful relationship between Berry and the Chess label. In 1956, he released 'Roll Over Beethoven', an announcement that high culture had been superseded among the young by a new, unstoppable force. This was followed by 'Brown Eyed Handsome Man' and 'Too Much Monkey Business'.

Berry continued to churn out the hits - 'School Daze', 'Oh Baby Doll', 'Rock 'n' Roll Music' - before, in 1958, recording what is probably his best-known song, 'Johnny B Goode', about a country boy who makes it as a rock star in the big city; also that year he released 'Sweet Little Sixteen'.

During this period, Berry was often on tour, supported by acts such as Bill Haley and the Comets, Carl Perkins and Little Richard. By now a man of means, he moved his family into a large house in St Louis and opened his own club in the city, Chuck Berry's Club Bandstand.

On December 1, 1959, while playing a show at El Paso, Texas, Berry met Janice Escalanti, a young American Indian woman from Yuma, Arizona, whom he took back to St Louis, ostensibly to work as a hat-check girl at his club. Two weeks later, he fired her. For several nights, she solicited at a local hotel, then called the police in an attempt to find a way to get home.

This led to Berry being charged with violating the Mann Act - transporting a woman across state lines for immoral purposes. A first trial, in which he was found guilty, was overturned after the judge was found to have uttered racist remarks; at a retrial in October 1961 he was given three years in jail and a $10,000 fine.

While serving his sentence, Berry came under suspicion of planning an escape when he requested the use of an atlas. In fact, he wanted to check the route from Norfolk, Virginia, to Los Angeles, which was the basis of his song 'Promised Land'.

He re-emerged in early 1964 to find that the landscape of rock music had changed. Berry threw himself into touring with makeshift bands, but the creative force appeared to have died; songs such as 'No Particular Place To Go', 'You Never Can Tell' and 'Nadine' sold well but lacked the conviction of his earlier work.

Then, in 1966, he abandoned the Chess label for Mercury and expended much of his energy developing Berry Park, a country club and amusement park at Wentzville. By the end of the decade, however, he had returned to Chess, which released his albums 'Back Home Again' (1970) and 'San Francisco Dues' (1971).

In 1972, he released the somewhat unsubtle single 'My Ding-a-Ling', which sold more than a million copies. The song had been recorded live at the Lanchester Polytechnic in Coventry, England, and was edited down from its original 11 minutes. Berry's only No 1 hit in Britain, it owed some of its success to the intervention of Mary Whitehouse, who was outraged by its priapic content. Much kerfuffle was expected when Berry and Ms Whitehouse were invited by Eamonn Andrews to confront one another on television, but the protagonists were cordially polite.

Also in 1972, Berry released the hit single 'Reelin' and Rockin'', and the following year he featured prominently in the film 'Let the Good Times Roll', a documentary celebration of vintage rock-and-roll acts produced by Richard Nader.

Later in the decade, Berry found himself vigorously pursued by the Internal Revenue Service, and in 1979 he was sentenced to four months in jail for tax evasion. While in prison he took a class in accountancy. He also polished up the autobiography with which he had been tinkering for some 20 years, although there are those who considered that the time might have been better spent - a typical sentence runs: "I must admit I have never denied my eyes the beauty of femininity in the buff by turning my head there from."

In 1985, Berry received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. A year later - to celebrate his 60th birthday - Taylor Hackford filmed a documentary, 'Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll', featuring Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Etta James, Linda Ronstadt and other artists.

Berry's encounters with the law were not over. In 1990, he was sued by several women who claimed that he had installed a video camera in the ladies' lavatories at two restaurants he owned in St Louis. A settlement was eventually reached, but it was said that the episode cost him more than $1m.

Ten years later he was sued again, this time by his former pianist Johnnie Johnson, who claimed that he had co-written many of Berry's songs, including 'Roll Over Beethoven' and 'Sweet Little Sixteen'; the case was later dismissed.

Berry's appetite for performing never flagged, and in his eighties he was still appearing once a month at a nightspot in St Louis. He also undertook a seven-nation tour of Europe.

On his 90th birthday, he announced that he would be releasing a new studio album, 'Chuck', his first for 38 years. He dedicated it to his wife, who survives him with their son and three daughters.

Chuck Berry, born October 18, 1926, died March 18, 2017

Irish Independent

Promoted Links

Entertainment Newsletter

Going out? Staying in? From great gigs to film reviews and listings, entertainment has you covered.

Promoted Links

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment