Roll Over Beethoven!
The name Chuck Berry is synonymous with rock ‘n' roll, but whether he is the king of rock 'n' roll is debatable. Nevertheless, Berry's influence on the musical form is beyond measure. Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards said he's stolen every Chuck Berry guitar lick he's ever heard. This is high praise indeed!
Chuck Berry was born on October 18, 1926, his address 2520 Goode Avenue in East St. Louis. (That's right - "Goode" Avenue. Get it?) Berry said he began doing his famous "duck walk" when he was but a child. When he was a little older, Berry developed a fondness for science and photography, developing his own photographs. (This interest in photography eventually got him into trouble.)
As a teenager, Berry began listening to what he called boogie woogie, as played on a local radio station. He started playing guitar when he was about 14, learning the chords to such tunes as "At Last," "Heart and Soul," "Blue Moon," "Stardust" and "Deep Purple." While dating in high school, Berry would sometimes sing to his date while she sat in his car.
About this particular point in his life, Berry wrote, "Looking back on myself then, I was the first in my family to try smoking, the first to play hooky from school, the first to venture away from home, and the first to go to jail. 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, first to earn a half-million dollars, and the last one to admit I was wrong."
All quotes in this article come from Berry's well-written autobiography, Chuck Berry, published in 1987.
But before Berry's musical career began he got busted. Berry and two friends went on a robbery spree outside of St. Louis. Berry was convicted of highway robbery and then incarcerated at the Intermediate Reformatory for Young men at Algoa, Missouri. His sentence was ten years!
While in the joint, Berry played music in a boogie band and also boxed as a heavyweight in the Golden Gloves competition in St. Louis. Berry was a model inmate and stayed out of trouble. He was paroled on his twenty-first birthday, carrying $69 he'd made in prison those three long years.
In October 1948, Berry married Themetta Suggs (he called her Toddy.) The couple eventually had four children and numerous grandchildren. But, on a related note, Berry had his share of extramarital sidetracks over the years - if the relevant passages in his book can be believed. (Regarding such, Berry's writing is so discreet and figurative, it's hard to tell for certain what the heck he did with these various women!)
In the early 1950s, Berry joined Sir John's Trio, often playing at the well-known Cosmo Club in East St. Louis. The band played blues and country-western or hillbilly music. Over half of the band's tunes were written by Nat King Cole or Muddy Waters.
Shortly thereafter, Berry started his own group, the Chuck "Berryn" Combo. Berry added the "n" to disguise his family name. He didn't want to upset his mother or father.
In 1955, Berry signed with Chess Records in Chicago. His first recordings were "Maybellene," "Wee Wee hours," "Thirty Days" and "You Can't Catch Me." "Maybellene" was inspired by the country-western tune "Ida Red." This one eventually rose to number one on Billboard's Rhythm and Blues chart. And, because he first played it on the radio in New York City, disk jockey Alan Freed was given partial writing credit (some guy named Fratto got partial credit too.)
Along the way, Berry thought he was being cheated by various people in the music business. Berry fired his first manager for taking more for services rendered than he was supposed to take, and then Berry became his own manager. His mother's advice was: "Don't let the same dog bite you twice."
Incidentally, Berry didn't receive full rights to "Maybellene" until 1986.
About this time, Berry began hearing the word "black" instead of "Negro" or "colored person." The times were changing regarding racial issues in the U.S., but Berry still received his share of prejudicial treatment at the hands of white folks, particularly in the jim crow dominated South, where, when he came anywhere near a white woman - look out!
At the age of 30 in 1956, as an adult playing teenage music, Berry recorded the songs "Too Much Money Business," "Brown Eyed Handsome Man," the Nat King Cole-inspired ballad "Havana Moon," as well as the timeless rock classic "Roll Over Beethoven."
Then, after putting up with his drunken band members for too long, Berry fired them and went solo (Berry didn't drink alcohol.) Berry remained essentially a solo act from then on, though he recorded with the same musicians such as pianist Johnnie Johnson for decades to come.
Berry began work in 1957 on Berry Park, a major commercial center in Wentzville, Missouri, featuring, among many other things, a guitar-shaped swimming pool. The park opened in August 1960.
The first movie Berry appeared in was Rock, Rock, Rock. Then he had a small speaking part in the film Go, Johnny, Go!
Then, once more, Berry tangled with Johnny Law.
In December 1959, Berry was arrested for taking a teenage girl across the state line, an apparent violation of the Mann Act, which pertains to white slavery. The young woman, Janice Escalante, an Apache Indian, had told Berry she was 21. But the age of the woman could not be ascertained. During the trial, the prosecution insisted that Escalante was only 14. She was also accused of being a prostitute. Berry was convicted and given five years in prison; however, he quickly won an appeal. Unfortunately, Berry lost this case as well, being sentenced to three years in prison and charged a $10,000 fine.
Berry was locked up at the Federal Medical Center at Springfield, Missouri. While waiting to be processed, he wrote, "Down from stardom, then I fell, to this lowly prison cell. Far from fortune, far from fame, where a number quotes my name. I, among these men in grief, must be firm in my belief, that this shall not be the end, but my chance to rise again. So with patience day by day, I will move to prove a way, back to freedom, maybe fame, clearing my encumbered name."
Berry spent this time in prison wisely. He completed his high school diploma, learned to type and also took a correspondence course in accounting. He also wrote songs such as "Nadine" and "No Particular Place to Go."
Upon his release in early 1964, Berry for the first time toured the U.K. and, later that year, France.
Did Chuck Berry Smoke Pot?
About this time, people started offering Berry marijuana, even during his concerts, but he never smoked it openly or advocated its use. In his book, Berry doesn’t admit to any drug use other than smoking cigarettes – Kools, to be exact. What else?
Late in the 1960s, Berry finally played on a dual bill with Little Richard, the self-professed “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” Of course, Richard, a homosexual, made a pass at Berry, but Berry refused the offer.
In the early 1970s, Berry had several music festivals at Berry Park. At one in 1972, he used 16 motorcycle club members for security. Hadn’t he heard of Altamont? One festival in 1974 attracted 60,000 people, some of whom caused trouble when Leon Russell didn’t show up because the promoter hadn’t paid him.
On February 3, 1972, Berry recorded in Coventry, England a live version of “My Ding-A-Ling,” his only number one hit on Billboard’s Hot 100. Berry said he didn’t know the number was being recorded!
During the 1970s, Berry traveled as a solo act, playing with acts such as Bruce Springsteen and the Steve Miller Band, figuring they would know enough of his material to get by. Often, Berry showed up at the gig with his guitar (a Gibson ES345), and that was it.
Then, in June 1979, Berry was busted again, this time for income tax evasion. Berry wrote that he had accepted some revenue “under the table,” as they say, from a promoter. He pleaded guilty and received a 120-day sentence plus 1,000 hours of community service.
While at Lompoc Prison Camp near Los Angeles, Berry began work on his autobiography, which took him eight years to complete.
After Berry’s release late in 1979, he toured places he had never been – Santiago, Chile, Manila in the Philippines and Tokyo, Japan.
Unfortunately, Berry’s legal troubles weren’t over. (Remember his interest in photography?) Several women in 1990 sued Berry who had allegedly installed a video camera in the ladies’ rooms at two of his St. Louis restaurants. A class action suit was eventually won by the women, costing Berry over a million dollars in damages and legal fees. And, during the investigation, police searched Berry’s home. As well as finding some incriminating video tapes, police confiscated 62 grams of marijuana. Berry was given a six-month suspended jail sentence for the marijuana possession, put on probation and ordered to pay $5,000 to a local hospital.
Over the decades, Chuck Berry has collected many accolades: in January 1986, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and in 2003 Rolling Stone magazine named him number six on its list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. Also, a recording of his rock standard “Johnny B. Goode” was sent into interstellar space via the Voyager 1 spacecraft, which lifted off September 5, 1977. (There are other awards, but the list is too darn long to put here!)
Now in his eighties, Berry still performs and probably will continue to do so for as long as he can pluck a guitar string.
So, is Chuck Berry the so-called King of Rock ‘n’ Roll? Well, he certainly has been one of the major forerunners of the genre, along with Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Bo Diddley, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, James Brown and even Ike Turner, who wrote the first rock tune, “Rocket 88,” way back in 1951. Or could the king be from a later era, somebody like Jimi Hendrix, Stephen Stills, Bob Dylan or David Bowie? But it doesn’t seem fair to pick one over the other, does it? At any rate, rock ‘n’ roll doesn’t need royalty of any sort; it needs rebels who would gag before uttering such a word as “king.” Of course, the critics can say what they want. But who gives a damn what they think?
Chuck Berry passed away on March 18, 2017.
Click on the following link to hear some of Chuck Berry's music: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL14F8AA4796176BBF
© 2008 Kelley Marks
Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on February 17, 2016:
Yes, My-Ding-a-Ling, this story is certainly meant to be a biography and not a polemic for announcing the true King of Rock. Later!
My ding-a-ling on February 15, 2016:
Good job on writing this, but it was less of arguing any side, and more of a biography. :(
MickySee on January 21, 2015:
This can and will be debated for years to come however the facts are simple. The birth of Rock n Roll came when Elvis recorded That's Alright in 1954 and the simple fact is Elvis is the king of Rock n Roll. Ike Turner was a wife beating rapist, Little Richard was a puff with a high voice, Jerry Lee Lewis married his 14 year old cousin and Chuck Berry was a pot smoking criminal. Granted he was a damn good guitarist and song writer but the king is Elvis. End of chat.
? on July 11, 2014:
Easy Elvis was a white good looking guy in the 50s. He just had a good voice and looks but he wasn't a true pioneer of rock and roll. While the true ones weren't equally recognized. I don't care what sells tells you. Listening and buying a record from a white guy and going to a white guy concert than a black dude. Black artists were shamefully underrated in music back then when they were the best on most stuff. So no for me Elvis wasn't the king. He's just overrated. I would've taken him more seriously had he written a single of his hits.
G on January 13, 2014:
That's all irrelevant, Jason. Especially when it comes to Rock music.
Elvis is responsible for making Rock mainstream and starting a GLOBAL revolution with it. That's the historical fact that matters. The rest is all irrelevant opinion.
Jason English from Lisbon, Portugal on September 24, 2013:
Hype around Elvis being this and that was part of that racist system - white dominance of course over the blacks - and the media all helped strengthen that hype. They chose to ignore the real pioneers and award the one that copied them simply because of the colour of their skin.
Even that 1 billion sales claim was bohus, a myth, a marketing propaganda that the mindless public believed.
But let's face it now - Elvis was and is NOT the King of Rock and Roll. More than high time to give credit where credit is due. Lame how Elvis uses the guitar either as a prop or an extension to his d**k. He was just a good-looking white guy who could sing (and not write songs), capitalised on sex appeal, really. Worst was, he copied and stole from black music. Copied and did not even give credit to any of the pioneering blacks.
“If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’.” – John Lennon
G on February 27, 2013:
I'm not so sure. Rock was already dying by late 50's and early 60's. Elvis was in the army and came back singing opera, Chuck Berry was in prison, Little Richard became a preacher and Buddy Holly died.
The only reason it survived was because of the British Invasion of 1964, lead by The Beatles.
Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on February 24, 2013:
Hey, G, rock and roll would have been different without Elvis, but it would have survived. Guys like Chuck Berry and the rockers of the 1960s would have seen to that. Later!
G on February 23, 2013:
TOP FOUR 50's Rockers:
1) Elvis Presley
2) Chuck Berry
3) Little Richard
4) Buddy Holly
The rest ranks below them.
G on February 23, 2013:
"The Beatles and the Rollingstones said they where influenced by Chuck Berry".
True. But they were influence by Elvis Presley just as much (probably even more).
- John Lennon: "Before Elvis, there was nothing".
- Paul McCartney has said many times that the most important person for the development of The Beatles' music was Elvis Presley, followed by Bob Dylan later on.
- Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones said that he decided what he wanted to be after he heard Elvis sing 'Heartbreak Hotel'.
Elvis Presley is the King, folks. He made Rock'n'Roll what it is. He is the one who made it mainstream and started a global revolution with it. Without him, it would have remained a marginalised type of music.
And I'm not trying to put down the likes of Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Buddy Holly at all. All three are amongst the 10 most important, influential and impactful Rock artists ever.
But Elvis Presley is in a different league and that's the fact.
jacob12 on February 12, 2013:
chuck berry is the king of rock and thats a fact adam b
joe on November 20, 2012:
Chuck Berry is the king and Godfather of Rock and Roll.
In the 60 and 70 is was not acceptable to promote a black guy.
Because of the race issue's
So Elvis was good looking and more likely for the record company's
But the true king on Rock and Roll is CHUCK BERRY
The Beatles and the Rollingstones said they where influenced by Chuck Berry
Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on April 17, 2012:
Thanks for the comment, otto fick. I like your picks. Later!
otto fick on April 16, 2012:
It's simple :
Woody Guthrie is the King of Folk
Hank Williams is the King of Country
Chuck Berry is the King Rock'n'Roll
RON on April 04, 2012:
Elvis the King of rock and roll. He got the numbers to prove it. I really think rock and roll started in the 40's. Call boogie woogie. You can spin it all you want. Mj calls himself king of pop. So what being white got to do with it... You can always tell when black people post. Always has to do race.
Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on January 26, 2012:
Thanks for the comment, KF Raizor, Chuck Berry as the Father of Rock is certainly an apt title. Later!
KF Raizor on January 25, 2012:
I don't think he's the King of Rock and Roll, I think he's the FATHER of rock and roll. Bob Seger summed it up best in the song "Rock and Roll Never Forgets:" "All of Chuck's children are out there playing his licks.
lorna on October 23, 2011:
without a doubt...chuck berry has had the most influence written the most songs and the most longevity as as any other mentioned....including elvis...elvis sung chuck's songs and little richards....elvis was great but he is not the king of rock and roll..he opened up a door because of his color but chuck came 1st..he should be king!!!!! without chuck there would be no elvis or little richard!!!! helllo!!!!!!
Rosa Carreira on August 02, 2011:
I'M SURE HE IS THE REAL KING OF ROCK AND ROLL.
Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on June 08, 2011:
That's right, Ike Turner, recorded the first rock tune in 1951, so maybe he's the King of Rock 'n' Roll. At any rate, making Chucky Berry the king would be fine with me. Later!
amca823 on June 08, 2011:
Elvis was only considered the king because of the open racism of the 1950s. It was whatever the white man wanted in those days. I consider elvis presley's whole career musical espionage. Stealing black music and making it popular in the white world. And who cares if elvis recorded before berry, in that case we might as well call ike turner the king of rock and roll. In my opinion that title of the king of those days would be chuck berry or maybe little richard.
Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on December 27, 2010:
Yes, Striker6676, I'm sure many people would pick Chuck Berry as the King of Rock, and that's why I wrote this article. Later!
striker6676 on December 25, 2010:
Interesting that predominantly white people proclaim Elvis as King. The king is the originator, the source deemed potent, the most influential. The king is not the first to produce/record something for commerce or disribution. Ike wasn't good enough to hold this rank. The king is Chuck !!!
Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on October 30, 2010:
Sometimes it's hard to nail down who started what and when. At any rate, it doesn't matter who started rock 'n' roll; it's who did it the best during it's formative years, say 1955 to 1970, which could put players such as Jimi Hendrix on this list. As far for rock and roll's beginning, Ike Turner wrote the first rock tune, "Rocket 88", way back in 1951. Facts are facts, dudes. Later!
Stanley on October 29, 2010:
Simon- Little Richard didn't write many of his hits. They were written by John Marascalco and Bumps Blackwell. Chuck Berry recycled guitar licks, even the opening note for note riff fro Johnny B Goode from Louis Jordan's "Aint that Just Like A Woman" Berry never grew as an artist, used the same guitar patterns, never wrote any new songs and was not close to being the singer and entertainer taht ELvis Presley became. And every artist covers Little richard and Berrys songs- what's the point? No one thinks Elvis wrote them. ( Oh, and Ray Charles didn't write Georgia on my Mind,Fats Domino didn't write Blueberry Hill, and hey- Whitney Houston didn't write " I Will Always Love You ( it's a Dolly Parton hit song years earlier - shame)
Paul on October 29, 2010:
Hate to break it to all you youngsters who like to rewrite Rock and Roll history- but Elvis Presley recorded BEFORE Chuck Berry. Elvis' Sun records were recorded in 1954 a year before Berry even went to Chess records to cut his first record. Bill Haley and Elvis were the two guys that brought Rock and Roll and Country music together first- it was called Rockabilly. Without Elvis causing such a stir among the white teenage population, ( who had the money to create a product) Rock and Roll would have died out like the RnB stars that came before them. ( Anyone know who Louis Jordan is? Hardly.
Simon on October 16, 2010:
No Chuck Berry - No elvis! Chuck Berry was elvis role model. Chuck and little richard has wrote many songs people think elvis wrote...ashame.
epigramman on October 13, 2010:
...and yes we were talking about that at work the other night and I said - 'NO ELVIS - NO BEATLES - NO ANYBODY......."
....and I also say "No Kosmo - no great music hubs"
Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on October 13, 2010:
Yes, it certainly could be stated that Chuck Berry is the King of Rock and Roll, though Elvis was certainly comparable. Later!
epigramman on October 13, 2010:
...well his legacy and music still holds up very well today - just look at the list of people who would agree and have been influenced by him over the years - and speaking of which - the King of the Rock 'n Roll hubs is undoubtedly you - I am so very impressed by your output, passion and knowledge!
I will be back tomorrow to see if Courtney Love really did put Kurt out of his misery .......
j c on July 24, 2010:
I have believed that Chuck Berry was the
King of Rock and Roll Elvis could never write
like Chuck no disrespect intended.
He was the first guitar hero
Angus Young owes Gratitude
and everyone who plays or loves Rock music .
Chuck Berry is the King of Rock and Roll end of story.
Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on July 21, 2010:
Good! You spotted the contradiction! Berry claimed he didn't smoke pot, yet he was eventually busted with a fair amount of it. Only Berry knows for sure what's up. Maybe he decided to give it a try to liked it. Thanks for the comment. Later!
ry k on July 20, 2010:
Are you sure Chuck didn't smoke weed? Didn't he get caught with like 8 Gs one time??
music messenger on June 15, 2010:
Great info and hub. I am from St. Louis and Berry performs once a month at Blueberry Hill a local music venue!! I have some new hubs about the local record stores and music reviews. Stop by. Thanks - I will vote!
Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on April 23, 2010:
Well written, Moncrieff, Berry certainly added his share to the genre, and I agree that the title of "King" is more hype than anything else. Later!
moncrieff from New York, NY on April 22, 2010:
Good article. People tend to forget that the title "king" was merely applied to loudness & royal flashiness that was peculiar of Elvis Presley and to a certain extent to Little Richard. But the true merits are not covered by that title. It's true to say that rock'n'roll had been shaped already by the time Chuck Berry released Maybelline (1955), but for sure without his advent subsequent rock music would have been completely different.
Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on March 02, 2010:
I've never heard the label "Grandfather of Rock and Roll." At any rate, it certainly fits for someone of Berry's advanced age and influence. Thanks for the comment. Later!
Michele from Reno, Nevada on March 02, 2010:
I go with Chuck Berry being the "Grandfather of Rock n Roll", which is a term used often when referring to his influence on music that imerged in the 60's.
Pauley on January 06, 2010:
Chuck Berry is great in my book! The man can do it all and has done it all. I saw him in Wichita in the 80's and he was great. The backup band was The Wichita Lineman and I doubt that Chuck knew any of them. Someone in the audience had a video camera and chuck stopped the show and demanded the tape or the show would be over. They did and he finished his part of the show. The guy deserves all the fame and accolades he gets. Hail,Hail, Chuck Berry!!
Coolmon2009 from Texas, USA on December 16, 2009:
I like Chuck Berry's singing and the music of that era didn't know he went to jail so much. Good hub
ldkarlton from Los Angeles on November 29, 2009:
Sweet hub man!! Well written indeed.
Pott54 on November 11, 2009:
Elvis is not the King of Rock N Roll--he may be one of them--but he's not THE KING...he's not even one of the ARCHITECTS. Sorry. If he is--then Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bo Didley, Fats Domino, Ruth Brown, etc. are GODS - LOL!
Adam B on April 01, 2009:
Great article, I had no idea Chuck Berry was arrested so many times. I am of the Elvis camp though and think Elvis is the king of Rock.
r.b. on February 09, 2009:
2 thumbs up!!!!!!!!!!!!!!