This is The Turnaround with Rev. Zach Chandler, where, every week, we’ll be breaking down a different aspect of the blues for a deeper understanding of the music, culture, and people that are the blues. For the next several weeks, we’ll be examining some of the most influential bluesmen of the last century to try to understand where the blues comes from. As an art form centered around expression, the personalities around it are part of what makes this music so special.
Last week, we rode with John Lee Hooker.
This week, we’ll rock out with Chuck Berry.
Here’s what we know: Charles Edward Anderson Berry was born October 18, 1926 in St. Louis, Missouri. His father was a contractor and his mother was a school principal. This middle class upbringing allowed him to pursue music from an early age.
While in high school, he had a run-in with the law when he was arrested for three counts of armed robbery in Kansas City with some friends and carjacking a passerby when his car broke down. He was released on his 21st birthday.
Berry married his first wife in 1948 and had his first child in 1950. Through the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, Berry worked to support his young family as a factory worker, a janitor, and a barber, playing the blues with local bands for some side cash. T-Bone Walker, a Texas bluesman, Jimmie Rodgers, Willie Dixon, Nat King Cole, and Muddy Waters were the primary inspiration for his musical style and also his on-stage showmanship. The famous antics of Chuck Berry, such as playing the guitar behind his head, windmilling his arm around, and duck-walking were taken straight out of T-Bone Walker’s catalogue.
By 1955, Chuck Berry was a wildly popular local act. He met Muddy Waters in Chicago and signed on to Chess Records. His song “Maybellene”, recorded in 1955, was instantly a national hit. Billboard charted it number one. Through the rest of the 1950’s, Berry was touring the country, playing with the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, and several other pop stars and artists of the burgeoning “rock and roll” genre, which combined elements of electric jump blues, swing, and country music.
In 1959, Chuck Berry had another famous encounter with the law. He was arrested under the Mann Act after transporting a 14 year old Apache girl across state lines to work as a hatcheck girl in his club. He was fined $5000 and sentenced to five years in prison.
After his release in 1963, he returned to the national spotlight, now working with bands like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Beach Boys.
In 1979, after traveling around on the “oldies” circuit, he faces criminal charges a third time for evading $110,000 in income tax for 1973. After four months in prison and 1,000 hours of community service (which consisted of benefit concerts), he went back on the road.
Chuck Berry continued to tour and play. He faced a number of other legal charges through the last few decades of the 20th Century, including assaulting a woman in New York, installing a video camera in the bathroom of his restaurant (allegedly, to catch a worker who was stealing), a videotape of him having carnal knowledge of a minor among other women, and possession of 62 grams of marijuana.
On March 18, 2017, Chuck Berry’s body was found in his house and was pronounced dead at the scene, having suffered a heart attack at the age of 90.
Chuck Berry brought the blues to the world under the guise of “rock and roll”. He is one of the most influential artists of all time and has been cited as a major inspiration by Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, Carl Perkins, Electric Light Orchestra, AC/DC, Bryan Adams, David Bowie, The Yardbirds, The Kinks, Buddy Holly, Bob Dylan, Ted Nugent, and so, so many more. He was inducted as part of the first class of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 and was awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1984. Chuck Berry was not a drinker (surprisingly), swearing off of the stuff since 1944. As the reefer he was a big enough fan of to be caught with 62 grams may or may not be legal in your current location, I’d say grab your best gal, cruise on down to the ice cream shop and split a chocolate malt. Throw on some Chuck Berry and reminisce about the lost innocence of 1950’s middle America. Hail to the true King of Rock and Roll!