From the Vault: March, 2017
Chuck BerryBy Heather Wealot
Throughout an extensive career, Chuck Berry earned the title of "The Father of Rock and Roll." He helped to break down racial barriers in music, overcame personal and professional numerous obstacles, and became one of the most recognized artists in America. Berry's resilient personality enabled him to persevere through several criminal accusations as well as the segregation of the early rock and roll industry, cementing his status as one of the Founding Fathers of Rock and Roll.
Berry's first incarceration from 1944-47, led him to performing live as soon as he got out of prison. He started playing with longtime friend and pianist Johnnie Johnson, and their band, Sir John's Trio and quickly became the biggest act in the St. Louis area. They recorded their first record featuring "Ida Red," which Leonard Chess, a recording executive. He liked its "bouncy, hillbilly-influenced" beat. Chess thought Berry to be a perfect fit for the emerging rhythm and blues market, and signed Berry immediately. The song was rewritten to combine white pop music with the new sound of black rock and roll and given the title "Maybellene," after a popular mascara product that happened to be in the recording studio. Chicago was the "nerve center" of blues music at the time and proved to be a "natural environment" for Berry to grow and thrive. Berry credited the success of his first smash hit to his diction, (pop fans could understand what he was saying), and to his lyrics. His songs were not about him, but about his listeners. By reaching out to his audience, Berry was able to captivate a generation as no one had ever done before. In particular he wrote about teenage life and troubles, which struck a chord with adolescents, and skyrocketed his popularity with younger listeners.
After his first arrest and conviction for armed robbery in 1944, Chuck Berry had worked an assortment of odd jobs, and began playing guitar for various bands in St. Louis clubs. In 1955, he met legendary blues performer Muddy Waters in Chicago and gave him a record with his songs "Ida Red" and "Wee Wee Hours." Waters and his producer, Leonard Chess, were instantly taken with Berry's rendition of the country song "Ida Red," they believed that in order to make the song acceptable to a largely black audience, Berry would have to change the name. And so, "Maybellene" was released in early 1955, quickly jumped to #1 on the Rhythm and Blues chart and #5 on the Hot 100. Berry’s fame spread, earning him numerous chart-topping hits, a few more run-ins with the law, and an enduring role as the father of Rock ‘n’ Roll.
The next year, 1956, Berry’s new single “Roll Over Beethoven” rocked the charts. It had the rebellious spirit of the nation’s youth, while poking fun at older generations. This was another instance of Berry talking straight to teenagers, encouraging them to break free of the bonds of classical music that their parents, grandparents, and teachers listened to. Berry connected with his audience, putting "Roll Over Beethoven" #2 on the Rhythm and Blues charts and #29 on the pop chart. These results may indicate that segregation still held control over America, however, because while Chuck Berry may have been popular with both white and black audiences, he would still not gain mass approval until racism was no longer in the forefront of the nation’s mind. The results do prove that an African-American artist can, in fact, achieve unprecedented success in a white dominated society.
Berry had a number of other chart-topping hits throughout the ’50’s, but rock and roll as people knew it was forever changed in March of 1958. When Chess Records released Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” it jumped to the Top 10 on both the pop and R &B charts, and stayed on the Billboard charts for 15 weeks. In 2002, Rolling Stone magazine named it the seventh greatest pop song of all time and the number one greatest guitar song of all time, and Berry himself is ranked as the fifth greatest musician of all time. The song itself is fairly autobiographical in nature, but Berry admits that he wrote it "intending it to be a song for (his pianist) Johnnie Johnson." After 50 years, “Johnny B. Goode” is still revered as one of the best and most influential songs in rock n’ roll history.
Berry wrote this song to "create a story that paralleled" his own life and would reach across the racial gap to speak to all audiences. The title itself mimics Berry’s real life: the ‘e’ on the end of ‘Goode’ came from the street in St. Louis where he was born. Elements of the song are also a throwback to his younger days as a “country boy” who could “play the guitar like a ringing bell,” and the entire third verse was inspired by his mother’s encouragement and belief that Berry would grow up to be a “millionaire” and “Lucky in life.” The chorus as well was crafted to tell the listener that even though “Johnny” seemed to have made it to the top, he still heard his mother cheering him on, “Go, Johnny Go.”
In order to appeal to both the white and black markets, Berry became “racially ambiguous” and watered down some of his lyrics. Originally, the first verse was written “a colored boy named “Johnny B. Goode,” but was changed to “country boy” because Berry felt that saying “colored boy” would be “biased to white fans.” By making these subtle references and changes, Berry was able to garner mass approval and acceptance front the white population, while still “celebrating the achievement of the common black man.” Berry’s instincts were often right, and led him to immeasurable success. In his autobiography, Berry writes that no white person will understand the struggle of a black man to gain respect in a white man’s world and he modeled “Johnny” with this belief. “Johnny” was talented, but “the name and the light” did not simply come to him: he had to “Go!” and take it.
In 1959, however, Chuck Berry’s career was put in jeopardy. Berry had transported a 14-year-old Native American girl across state lines to work as a hat-check girl in his club, Club Bandstrand. After a short-time, the girl quit her job and went to the police to try to get back home, to Yuma, Arizona. When the police heard that the rock and roll singer Chuck Berry had driven her across state lines, they charged Berry with violation of the Mann Act, which in essence meant that he was accused of transporting a woman across state lines “for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for another immoral purpose.” Berry was found guilty in the first trial in 1959 and was sentenced to five years in jail and a $5,000 fine, a judgment later overturned when it was discovered that the judge made racist comments. In the second trial, Berry was again found guilty and was this time given a three year prison sentence and a $10,000 fine. Berry served only 20 months of his sentence, and got out in October of 1963. By this time, the Beatles had hit the scene and it would become much harder for Berry to make a comeback. Nevertheless, Berry released a slew of new hits throughout the ’60s and ’70s, and continued to influence the rock and roll industry.
John Lennon is credited with saying that “if you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’.” This reflects the vast extent of Berry’s influence across the music industry. The Rolling Stones are probably the most well-known Berry fans; he was a mentor to Keith Richards. Later, Richards along with Eric Clapton and several other prominent musicians put on a grand show for Berry’s 60th birthday. The Beatles, the Beach Boys, and Bob Dylan all have songs that sound remarkably similar to famous Berry tunes, and most rock groups today have at least one Chuck Berry inspired song in their repertoire. Berry is often considered the most important figure in the history of rock and roll, regardless of his race, for the most part because he wrote and composed virtually all his own material. He gained mass popularity with the young white audience through his lyrics, upbeat music, and again, his uncommonly clear diction. His songs appealed to young people’s concerns of school, dancing, the opposite sex, and breaking away from their parent's ideas of what teenagers should do and how they were supposed to behave.
Although it is arguable when Berry’s career peaked, the culmination of all his efforts got him inducted into the Blue’s Foundation’s Hall of Fame in 1986. His autobiography, written without any co-writers or ghost writers, was published in 1987, and the movie Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll was recorded and released the following year. While Berry received countless accolades for his accomplishments, he was still plagued by lawsuits. In the 1970’s he was accused of chronic income tax evasions and sentenced to four months imprisonment and 1,000 hours of community service. The very same year, he was enlisted at the request of Jimmy Carter to perform at the White House. Later, in 2000, Berry’s former pianist Johnnie Johnson sued him, claiming that he had co-written over 50 of Berry’s songs which were credited to Berry alone. The case was dismissed, however, when the judge declared that too much time had gone by since the songs had been written and released. More recently, Berry toured Europe in the summer of 2008, and has continued performing at Blueberry Hill, a restaurant in St. Louis one Wednesday every month, which usually sells out far in advance. Despite all his legal troubles and racial struggles, Berry rose to the top of rock and roll and continued to prosper as the decades passed, rightfully earning his place in the Hall of Fame.
Chuck Berry’s career took off in the mid 1950s, when he had a good ten years on most of his fellow musicians, such as Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis, and a lifetime of experience to build on, including jail time and his efforts striving to succeed as a black man in front of a white audience. But he did it all - the catchy songs popularized across the board, the infamous and imitated Duck Walk, and the personality to pull it all together. At 90 years of age, Berry is still performing “Johnny B. Goode” as if for the first time, bringing the character to life as only the Father of Rock ‘n’ roll could.