Charles Edward Berry was born in St. Louis, Missouri on October 18th, 1926. “Chuck” got his first taste of show business when he performed the Jay McShann song “Confessin’ the Blues,” at Sumner High School, where he was a student. After receiving an ecstatic response from the crowd, Berry knew that he wanted more. He learned the guitar and began adding songs to his repertoire, but Berry’s career in music was soon put on hold. In 1944, after his car had reportedly broken down on the side of the road, Berry waived down a passing driver and proceeded to steal his car using a weapon. The law soon caught up with Berry and he was arrested and sent to jail. Berry regained his freedom in 1947 and soon married. Needing some extra money, Berry began playing with different bands. He eventually joined Sir John’s Trio in 1953.
Berry was heavily influenced by musicians such as Nat King Cole and Muddy Waters, but was very aware of how popular Country music was with white folk. Understanding its potential, he started to incorporate elements of country music into his guitar playing. At first, this confused his mostly black audience, but they soon came around, and his new style began appealing to whites, who joined black fans at Berry’s shows. In May of 1955, while in Chicago, Berry met his idol Muddy Waters, who had just finished a gig. Seeking advice about how to go about recording, Waters suggested Berry speak to Leonard Chess, owner of Chess Records. Berry later recorded the song “Maybellene,” with Chess Records, and the song would go on to sell more than a million copies and top the US R&B charts.
In 1956 Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven,” which placed #29 on the US charts, helped solidify Berry’s interracial fan base. Berry set out touring, and in 1957 did so with legends The Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly. Berry soon appeared on The Guy Mitchell Show, which undoubtedly helped him reach a broader audience. Throughout the remaining 1950’s Berry released hit after hit, which included the songs “School Days,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” and the incredibly famous “Johnny B. Goode,” which all claimed top 10 spots on the US charts.
With numerous hit songs, television and movie appearances, Berry had become quite successful. He had opened “Berry’s Club Bandstand” in St. Louis and things were going relatively well. Unfortunately, after one of his former employees, a 14-year-old girl, was arrested for prostitution, Berry again found himself on the wrong side of the law, which earned him another stint in jail, this time for 5 years. By 1963, Chuck was a free man once again. Due to the fact that superstar bands like the Rolling Stones and the Beatles were covering his songs, Chuck returned to the public’s consciousness very quickly. He played live and proved he was still hugely popular by headlining the Schaefer Music Festival in New York City in July 1969.
Strangely enough, it wasn’t until 1972 that Berry scored his first and only #1 hit on the US Top 100 Charts with a live recording of the song “My Ding-a-Ling.” He then released the album “Bio,” in 1973 and began touring. Banking on the fact that he was famous enough to find musicians that already knew his music, Berry toured by himself, using different back up bands in different cities. Both Steve Miller and future megastar Bruce Springsteen were, at one point or another, in Berry’s back up bands. In 1977, Chuck performed on Saturday Night Live, but by 1979 found himself back in prison on tax evasion charges for a short time. Berry paid off the rest of his debt to society in the form of community service, which, for him, meant playing benefit shows. On June 1st, 1979 Chuck played at the White House for president Jimmy Carter. Later that year he released the record “Rock It,” which became his last studio album to date. Berry was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 and has since continued to perform throughout the world. Berry is still alive and well and plays regularly in St. Louis, Missouri.
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