Learn about Chuck Berry and his roller coaster career. Despite brushes with the law, his outstanding records made him Mr. Rock and Roll.
Born Charles Edward Anderson Berry in 1926 in St. Louis, Chuck Berry was to become the epitome of rock and roll. He turned to music as a profession at the relatively late age of twenty-six. He had performed while in school and taken guitar lessons in his formative years. His other main interest, developed at school, was photography, and this interest became a lifelong hobby.
A warning to the darker side of Chuck Berry came in 1944, while he was still in school. He was charged with armed robbery and served three years of a ten-year sentence. He was released on his twenty first birthday in 1947. He was married the next year to Themetta Suggs, and in the next five years held a variety of jobs, including hairdresser and freelance photographer.
1952 saw his first paid performance with the St. John’s trio. In 1955 he traveled to Chicago and recorded "Maybelline" with Chess records. It was a hit and sold over a million copies in the States. He soon found that other people had been sharing his credit for the record, thus sharing the royalties, so this initial success was tempered by a lesson in business education.
The next couple of years saw moderate success for Chuck Berry, with songs such as "You can’t catch me", but this changed in 1957 with the rock and roll hit "School days". This song explored the adolescent experience, as did many others, and it was this theme that became popular with young Americans of the time. It was around this time that Berry was also featured in movies such as "Go, Johnny, Go", in 1959.
Trouble was never far away from him though, and this is partly what formed the image, and sometimes ideology, of the latter day rock and roll stars. In 1961 he was found guilty of ‘transporting a woman across State lines for immoral purposes’, for which he spent two years in jail. While in jail, The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones, and The Beatles all used Chuck Berry songs as a basis for kick-starting their careers.
He enjoyed more success on his release, including several hits he wrote while in jail, such as "Promised Land". It was perhaps Berry’s skill as a lyricist that marked him as a true great. However, this skill was not allowed to blossom when he signed for Mercury records, as the producers of that large company wanted to control the output. Berry was often allowed little say, and this resulted in some of his worst recordings.
The summit of Chuck Berry’s career came in 1972, when "My Ding-a-ling"’ sold over a million copies in the UK. He later went to jail in 1979 for tax evasion, and in the 1990’s was in court over pornography charges.
Although Chuck Berry frequently tangled with the law, his abilities as a musician and lyricist have, over the years made him Mr. Rock and Roll.