Charles Edward Anderson Berry was born on October 18th, 1926, the third of six children of Martha and Henry Berry, a Baptist deacon in St. Louis. His music career began on New Year’s Eve in 1952, when Berry joined a local band called Sir John’s Trio. His showmanship and hillbilly music made him a local star and rival of Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm. He once said, “Curiosity provoked me to lay a lot of our country stuff on our predominantly black audience, and some of our black audience began whispering, ‘Who is that black hillbilly at the Cosmo?’ After they laughed at me a few times, they began requesting the hillbilly stuff and enjoyed dancing to it.”
The door to a recording career opened after a visit to Chicago at the request of Muddy Waters. During the visit, Berry sought out Leonard Chess of Chess Records. Chess, along with producer Willie Dixon,was impressed with Berry and his upbeat country song, “Ida Red” — later re-named and recorded as “Maybellene.” The single reached number-one on Billboard’s R&B chart and number-five on the pop chart.
He reached the Billboard Top 40 14 times in all, scoring his only number-one in 1972 with a live rendition of the dirty joke song “My Ding-a-Ling.” The classics in his canon, all of which have been covered innumerable times over the past six decades, include “Roll Over Beethoven,” “School Day,” “Carol,” “You Can’t Catch Me,” “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Sweet Little Sixteen” and “Johnny B. Goode.”
During the ‘50s, Berry had cameos in various films, including Rock, Rock, Rock; Mr. Rock and Roll;and Go, Johnny, Go. In 1978, the film American Hot Wax, which told the story of Alan Freed, featured Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis, and recounted the riot at one of Berry’s concerts promoted by Freed.
Berry had a number of run-ins with the law. As a teen, he and a few friends were sentenced to 10 years to prison for armed robbery, although he only served three. In 1961, Berry began a three-year term for transporting a minor across state lines for immoral purposes after a young Native American girl working at his Club Bandstand couldn’t produce a birth certificate. In 1979, he went to jail briefly for tax evasion, and during the early 1990s, a few women accused Berry of videotaping them at his Berry Park recording studio and his Wentzville restaurant. Though he eventually settled with all 59 women before a verdict was reached, a police raid on Berry’s home revealed several video tapes of women in the restroom, as well as 62 grams of marijuana. He was subsequently sentenced to six months in jail, as well as two years probation and other fees.
In 1986, Berry was inducted into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and in 1987, published Chuck Berry: The Autobiography. Also in 1987, the documentary Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll, based on a concert in honor of Berry’s 60th birthday, was released.
In 1985, his trademark duckwalk was copied by Michael J. Fox in the movie Back to the Future.
Berry toured around the world through the tail end of his life, but succumbed to the physical pressures of the life towards the end of his run. The legendary guitarist had to be helped off the stage after passing out from exhaustion during a New Year’s concert in 2011. He was legendary for always demanding payment in full before setting foot on stage and using unrehearsed pickup bands wherever he performed. Countless veteran musicians have stories about the hair-raising experience of backing Chuck in concert.
Berry is survived by Themetta “Toddy” Suggs, his wife of over 50 years, and his four children Ingrid Berry-Clay, Chuck Berry Jr., Aloha Isa Lei Berry and Melody Exes Berry.