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Is Chuck Berry the King of Rock and Roll?

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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!

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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.

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Captain Berry

Captain Berry

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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

Comments

Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on February 17, 2016: