HONR 269J The Beat Begins: America in the 1950s

Chuck Berry and Teenage Culture in the 1950s
© 2001, Michael Gallant-Gardner

Teenagers were a new species at the beginning of the 1950's. Before then, adolescents in America had traditionally gone to work to support their family or to start their own family as soon as they were old enough. However, the years of post-war prosperity and the expansion of suburbia provided teenagers (who were too young to remember the scarcities of the Depression and the war effort) with plenty of leisure time. At the same time, advances in technology made vinyl 45's cheap and easily accessible to both artists and listeners. White teenagers bought up pop hits coming off the Billboard 100, although many who were listening to black radio stations preferred rhythm and blues tunes which were always played by black performers. In fact rhythm and blues was pretty much used as a synonym for black music. Chuck Berry was one of the first black musicians to do well with a white audience. Because of his middle class background, his energetic performing style, and his youth-associated lyrics, Chuck Berry broke through the race barrier and became one of the first "rock stars."

Berry became a representative of the teenage generation, even though he recorded his first single at the age of 29. His experience growing up, though he was almost 15 years older than many of his fans, was similar enough to the suburban experience that he could easily identify with the restless attitude of white middle class teens. Berry was "a city kid from St. Louis . . . not rooted in the rural past as were the country blues artists at Chess." (DeWitt, 140) The joys of fast cars, young love, and a rockin' beat that Berry prized as a teenager did not diminish with his age.

Berry grew up around East St. Louis. Like other middle class families of the 1950's, the Berry's were upwardly mobile, moving from rented apartments to owned homes as the family grew. His father worked long enough hours that Chuck did not need to help provide for the family. The savings he made from jobs helping his dad with carpentry and bagging groceries all went to a down payment on a car. Berry purchased a '34 V-8 Ford from a fellow churchgoer, and he quickly discovered that automobiles would be a life long love. The car enabled him to travel in style to the USO dances where he could satisfy his other teenage cravings with plenty of records to spin and girls to dance with.

A run-in with the law unfortunately cut this high point in his life short. One day into a road trip with two of his friends out west, Berry had run out of money and wheels (literally). When the three tried to steal a car to continue their trip, they were arrested and he was given a 10-year sentence at the age of 17. Berry was released early on his 21st birthday, but he had still missed out on the rest of high school and his teenage years. Perhaps this lost opportunity was the reason that he remained enamored with teenage life well into middle age.

Chuck Berry's role as an "entertainer" often captivated his teenage audience as much as his music. His role on stage developed over his years of playing in both black and white clubs in St. Louis. Berry was very aware of the musical tastes that broke down along racial lines. White radio stations in the area all played country western music, while black stations provided rhythm and blues. Berry was a fan of both during his youth and he expanded his audience early in his career by catering different styles to different crowds. Chuck played in a blues band at a small black club every weekend, while performing "sentimental" love songs to white audiences at parties and events. In particular, Berry made sure to pronounce his lyrics clearly to white audiences, fearing they would be turned off by a "colored" dialect.

Berry's weekend gigs got him noticed by Johnnie Johnson, who invited him to replace the saxophonist in his band, Sir John's Trio. Berry accepted, and he started playing regularly at the Cosmo Club in East St. Louis, which was much bigger and more popular than any club that he had played at before. At the Cosmo, convinced the band to occasionally bust out a country western number just because "the simple audacity of playing such a foreign number was enough to trigger the program into becoming sensational entertainment." (Berry, 89) Once the novelty of the additions wore off, club goers began requesting the country western tunes. Meanwhile, more and more white people started showing up at the Cosmo and Berry varied the setlists to try to please a broader audience. At the time, Nat King Cole and Muddy Waters covers were about half of the band's repertoire. Singing Cole covers inspired Berry to sing with "distinct diction," while Waters covers were delivered in the "Negro dialect." (Berry, 90) By now, Berry had also adopted an energetic stage presence. He tried to adopt gestures that helped to tell the story of his song "squatting low to do a passage in a song that was sentimental and bluesy," or delivering "facial expressions that pronounced the nature of the lyrics." (Cohodas, 114) Though he originally used his act to distinguish himself to club owners from other musicians, he usually received a great response from the audience and it became Berry's way of connecting with the crowd. He also tried out a number of dance steps to go along with his country western numbers, leaving clubgoers wondering "Who was that black hillbilly?" (Cohodas, 114) On his first tour after recording "Maybellene," Berry experimented with different stage moves, such as the "hillbilly stomp" and the "chicken peck" while joking around in a southern accent. He was disappointed to receive applause only from the white side of the audience, and he realized the distance that still remained between his black and white fans. This gap had pointed out by Leonard Chess in the fact that "Wee Wee Hours," a slower, bluesier number had sold almost exclusively in the rhythm and blues market while "Maybellene" fared well in the pop market. Berry had realized the controversy his role as a black pop star had sparked on his tour of the south. However, his tour through New England gave him a new optimism about race relations in America. Playing at Northern clubs, he saw black and white concertgoers dancing and mingling together and realized it was possible in Missouri. With the money he made off of his newfound success, Berry challenged segregation in Missouri and provided entertainment for his teenage fanbase.

Club Bandstand was Berry's greatest challenge to the segregation he had dealt with in his career. Originally designated as a headquarters for his fan club, the club soon began holding dances in March of 1958, providing a spot for black and white teenagers to feel safe dancing together. As Berry remembers from his performances in the early 1950's, a black and white couple pulled over by the Missouri state police had to go down to the station to get a "mandatory shot for venereal disease." (Berry, 90) Berry's club was also a venue for himself and local performers to play. The club grew in popularity and the teenagers had to be moved next door when it applied for a liquor license. The fan club remained a setting for black and white teens to have fun without being harassed, while Club Bandstand provided one of the few biracial businesses in the state. The successful bar was staffed only by Berry and his secretary Francine Prager. But local authorities did not appreciate Club Bandstand's unique atmosphere. Francine was often stopped and questioned on her way to work. She was a white woman in a black neighborhood, and the police knew that she worked for Chuck Berry (who they were not fond of either). As Berry became involved in other legal troubles and Francine continued to be harassed by the police, managing the club became too much. Berry closed down the club early in 1960; his time and money dedicated to Berry Park from then on.

Berry Park was established, in the spirit of Club Bandstand, as a biracial country club. It was Berry's answer to the posh white country clubs his family had been prohibited from in his teen years. Berry opened the park in August of 1960, and was soon averaging 200 customers a day. The Park contained a lodge for families staying overnight, a large, guitar-shaped pool, picnic tables, and thirty acres desegregated space. Later it served as the scene for several of Berry's rock festivals, another celebration of teenage culture in themselves. While Berry glorified the bored, restless character of teenage culture in many of his hit singles, he also helped to end repressive traditions that kept black and white teenagers from associating.

Unlike his fellow recording artists at Chess records, Berry's lyrics were innocent and universal enough to be played on mainstream radio stations. Chess's singles had been highly successful on rhythm and blues stations regionally, but they had not been able to break into a national audience. The lyrics of Berry's early signals struck chords in the hearts of teenagers across the country. Many of his songs were odes to the icons of teenage life, especially fast cars, dances, and above all rock and roll. Berry's first single Maybellene, was probably most radical in its musical originality, but the lyrics proved that Berry was still in touch with his teenage spirit despite being almost thirty. Maybellene expressed Berry's love of automobiles and the open road. In the song, he describes a drag race between a Cadillac and his Ford, alluding to his repeated attempts to pick up the driver of the Cadillac. "School Day" could easily have been called "Teenage Blues" for the expression of teenage anxiety it gave. The lyrics "You studyin' hard and hopin' to pass," and "Workin' your fingers right down to the bone," were more accessible to white suburban teenagers who had no identification with the conditions that made the blues so meaningful to black audiences. The solution that the song provides to the teenage blues is of course the jukebox. The later verses, "Hail, hail rock and roll / Deliver me from the days of old," emphasize the youthful identity of the rock and roll. "Roll over Beethoven," likewise, became an anthem for the arrival of rock and roll music into mainstream music. The song was so representative of the changing music scene that that it became universal, it was fittingly the first successful single by the Beatles, a tribute to their roots before they led the British Invasion in 1964.

Most of Chuck's early singles retained a degree of innocence, and they probably had to. Berry and the Chess brothers were quite aware of how provocative it was for Berry's music to even be played on "white" radio stations. But if his music did not express the resentment or discontent that many teenagers of the 1950's felt, it did provide them with an outlet to forget about the doldrums of school days and the suburbs. The music had a beat you had to dance to, and it satisfied Berry and his fans desire to have a good time. Alienated teenagers of the time easily identified with "Too Much Monkey Business," a song about the frustrations of modern life. This song also exemplified Berry's unique lyrical style. Chuck delivers quick, short phrases like, "Take home- something wrong- dime gone- will hold" to convey the frenzied pace of modern life. Also, Berry made up words like "botheration" (just like motorvatin' in Maybellene) to express concepts that as he puts it, "wouldn't be hard to decipher by anyone from the fifth grade on. (Berry, 150)

In the same spirit as "Roll Over Beethoven," "Rock and Roll Music," released a year later, celebrated the rock music fever spreading through juke joints and radio stations everywhere. The lyrics "It's got a back beat you can't lose it / Any old time you use it. / It's gotta be rock and roll music /If you want to dance with me," provide a diagnosis of that fever. The beat was what made rock and roll catch on with teens so fast. It was the rhythm in rhythm and blues. It was what made dancers vibrate and gyrate in ways that mortified their parents. The beat was what connected Berry to the audience. It made him twist and stomp and duck walk to the music as his audience attempted to do the same. The energy that rock music evoked enabled teenagers to get down and let loose during a time period that frowned heavily on such behavior. Berry provided his teenage fans with an outlet to express the feelings and desires that 1950's society taught them they were not supposed to have.

Not all of Berry's association with teenagers helped his career. After a show in Meridian, Mississippi in 1959, A white girl grabbed Chuck and planted a kiss on him that he returned in surprise. The girl's brother turned out to be watching the exchange, and his shouts of "Yankee" and "nigger" incited a small mob. Police officers escorted Berry out of the parking lot and straight to the jailhouse where they fined him for disturbing the peace. A positive outcome of the entire incident came when a reporter spotted Berry being hauled in. The next day, headlines up north proclaimed that Chuck Berry had been arrested in Mississippi for kissing a white girl helped to fuel the fight against segregation. (Reese, 20) In 1958 and 1960 Berry was arrested for violations of the Mann Act, an anti-prostitution measure that prohibited transporting underage women across state lines for immoral purposes. Berry had innocent reasons for travelling with both women, but he was being tried under a law that assumed him guilty until proven innocent. Joan Mathis, the girl travelling with Berry when he was arrested in 1958, refused to cooperate with the prosecution. The second case resulted in a mistrial; the judge was so biased that he would only refer to Berry as "this Negro." Unfortunately, the prosecution was out to make an example of Berry. He was found guilty in the second trial, and sentenced to the three years at a federal penitentiary. Berry resolved himself to make the best of his time. He earned his high school diploma and studied business management and accounting to avoid getting swindled as he had early in his career. He also began writing. "Nadine," "You Never Can Tell," and "Promised Land" all came from that period. When he was released in 1963, the British Invasion was about to transform for rock and roll. But lyrics that he rewrote for "School Day," which he titled, "No Particular Place to Go," proved that he was still in touch with teenage culture. The single broke the top 10 Billboard Pop charts, and Berry began one of several revivals in popularity that he would ride over the next few decades.

Chuck Berry's rise to popularity in the 1950's did not influence rock and roll, it defined rock and roll. At the same time, teenagers were coming into their own as an economic and cultural force and they adopted rock and roll music as their own. Berry arrival on the Billboard charts in 1955 began a mutual relationship with the first of several teenage generations that would discover his music. Teens elected Mr. Rock and Roll with their dollar votes, and he agreed to be their cultural representative. Berry reflected teenagers' departure in racial attitudes, musical tastes, and general interests from their Depression- era parents. Without Chuck Berry teenage culture would not have developed in the way it did, but without teenage fans, Chuck Berry might never have recorded a song.


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Chapple, Steve and Rebecca Garofolo. Rock 'n' Roll is Here to Pay. Chicago: Nelson Hall, 1977.

Cohodas, Nadine. Spinning Blues into Gold: The Chess Brothers and the Legendary Chess Records. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000.

DeWitt, Howard. Chuck Berry: Rock 'n' Roll Music. Freemont, CA: Horizon Books, 1981.

Halberstam, David. The Fifties. New York: Villard Books, 1993.

Hendler, Herb. Year by Year in the Rock Era. London: Greenwood Press, 1983.

Reese, Krista. Chuck Berry: Mr. Rock and Roll. London: Proteus Books, 1982.

Rudolph, Dietmar. A Collector's Guide to the Music of Chuck Berry: Lyrics. http://members.tripod.com/~buitendeboot/LYRICS.HTML. 2001.

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