"Way down Louisiana close to New
Way back up in the woods among the evergreens
There stood a log cabin made of earth and wood,
Where lived a country boy name of Johnny B. Goode
He never ever learned to read or write so well,
But he could play the guitar like ringing a bell."
Chuck Berry was born on October 18, 1926 in St. Louis, Missouri. Berry's mother proved to be a gospel influence on Berry, as he remembers constantly singing with her in the house as a child. As a teenager, Berry was fascinated by photography, joining his high school's camera club. He also picked up the guitar in high school. Berry remembers, "I had learned enough from Nick Mannaloft's Guitar Book of Chords to strum out the progression to most of the popular love while singing at backyard parties." (Berry, 42) After a trip to Kansas City, Missouri left Berry and his friends practically broke, they held up a barbershop. Eventually they were caught and Berry was sent to the institution of Algoa. Berry was only seventeen. He was released after 3 years and in 1948 he married Themetta Suggs. In 1950, when working as a janitor at the WEW radio station in St. Louis, Berry bought an electric guitar from Joe Sherman, a renowned guitarist in the area. Finding the frets on an electric guitar easier to finger, he practiced as often as he could. In the summer of 1951, Chuck purchased a secondhand reel-to-reel magnetic wire recorder from a friend. Recording brought him in contact with Ira Harris. Berry credits Harris with inspiring him with his style and riffs, laying the foundation of the "Chuck Berry Sound."
In June of 1952 Berry joined together with Tommy Stevens on lead guitar and Pee Wee(no relation to Pee Wee Herman) on alto sax to form a three piece combo. At first Berry's repetoire consisted mainly of Nat "King" Cole and Muddy Waters songs. As soon as he began to develop his skills, Berry broke away from Stevens and Pee Wee, forming his own group, called the Chuck Berryn Combo. Playing around town, Berry gained popularity, playing additional gigs outside of St. Louis in neighboring cities. While visiting Chicago with his high school classmate and long-time friend Ralph Burris, they checked out the club secene. Seeing Howlin' Wolf and Elmore James for the first time on that faithful Friday night, Berry was amazed and "never wanted to leave place where Elmore James was performing."(Berry, 97) Burris wanted to scope out another act that night though. Muddy Waters was performing at the Palladium on Wabash Avenue. Berry was elated to have the opportunity to witness one of his idles performing. After the show Berry went backstage and spoke with Waters himself, talking of his admiration for the bluesman and asking him for advice on his own career. Waters famous advice was, "Yeah, see Leonard Chess. Yeah, Chess Records over on Forty-seventh and Cottage." (Berry, 98) Next Monday, Berry drove to 4720 Cottage Grove Avenue, the home of Chess Record Company. In a chance meeting with Leonard himself, Berry agreed to bring Leonard a demo tape. Berry returned by the end of the week, and Chess was amazed that a "hillbilly song" could be written and sung by a "black guy." A recording session was set up for May 21, 1955. The first two sides that Berry cut were, "Ida May" and "Wee Wee Hours." "Ida May" was later renamed "Maybellene." Willie Dixon sat in on the session, playing bass. "Maybellene" went on to reach number one on the Billboard R&B chart. Berry went on to record such classic tunes as "Sweet Little Sixteen," "School Day," "Johnny B. Goode," "Rock & Roll Music,'" and "Roll Over Beethoven." He reached the top of the charts in the late 1950s again with "School Days" in 1957 and "Sweet Little Sixteen" in 1958. On his recordings he teamed up with Willie Dixon throughout the 50s and 60s.
" 'The Blues had a baby,' Muddy Waters sang, 'and
they called it rock and roll.' "(Davis, 209) Chuck Berry possessed
something that many other artists at Chess did not, a gimmick. Berry
represented the eternal teenager with his “sly winks” and “duck walk”,
singing about high school girls and cars. "School Day", debuting
in April of 1957, hit the streets at the perfect time. The Weather
was becoming warm, the school year was entering its final excruciating
six to seven weeks.
With the song he was capturing every child's feeling of being trapped within
the walls of school, itching to "close up your books," and "get out of
your seat." Berry’s music has been described as a “blending of white
country and black blues,” with his guitar work being
“straight country filtered through rhythm and blues,” and vocals sounding
the “opposite of the slurred, idiosyncratic performances common to most
other black music.” (Bane, 100) His style was rooted in the traditional
blues, like that of Muddy Waters ,
yet unlike many other blues artists who sang about womenizing, his words
would describe more innocent topics. Topics appealing to a younger audience.
This no doubt contributed to the success he experienced and the influence
he had on the infant Rock and Roll. Though Berry may have had more
chart success than Waters, or Howlin'
Wolf or Elmor James, he still fell victim to the tactics of Leonard
Chess. His first single, "Maybellene" credits Alan Freed on the copyright.
Though Freed may have had much to do with the birth of Rock and Roll, he
definitely had nothing to do with the recording or writing of the song.
Berry claims to have known of Chess's mannerisms quite well, "I don't think
Leonard ever knew I caught on to one of his tactics which was that whenever
he was about to do something that was not in your favor, he would inevitably
precede the science with an unexpected good deed." (Berry, 130) Regardless,
Berry marked a revolution toward Rock and Roll, his style a transformation
of the blues. His influence is still is and will always be remembered.