Chuck Berry: an obituary 1926-2017
A tribute to the rock ‘n’ roll pioneer.
Any history of rock’n’roll music that will ever be written must, by rights, start with the words ‘Chuck Berry’. They’re the two words that will feature most regularly too; when tracing the setlists of The Beatles in Hamburg, recalling the records that Mick Jagger and Keith Richards bonded over when they ran into each other at Dartford Station, tracing the roots of Bowie’s glam and Led Zeppelin’s hard rock, or simply trying to fathom his fundamental influence on the entirety of modern-day pop culture.
“While no individual can be said to have invented rock and roll,” read his induction to the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame address, “Chuck Berry comes the closest of any single figure to being the one who put all the essential pieces together.” “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’,” quipped John Lennon. Put simply, most music as we know it today simply would not exist had Charles Edward Anderson Berry not meshed rhythm and blues into swing music in the mid-1950s to help create what we now call rock’n’roll. And how different might wider society have been without its impact? Without the teen rebellion cyclone of rock’n’roll in the 50’s, would the counter-culture movements of the 60’s been so prevalent, helping to advance civil liberties, women’s rights and individual freedoms? By helping create rock’n’roll, Berry arguably become on of the few musicians that changed the world.
Born on October 18, 1926, into a middle-class family in St Louis Missouri – his father a Baptist deacon, his mother a school principal – Berry’s youth was a mixture of musical performance and crime. While playing early blues shows at Sumner High School he also took to armed robbery, robbing three stores in Kansas City before hijacking a car at gunpoint. For this he was sentenced to three years in reformatory in Jefferson City, where he started a singing quartet deemed professional enough to perform outside the facility.
On his release in 1947, aged 21, he married Thernetta Suggs and found employment as a factory worker and janitor, and by the early 50’s he had fallen in with the local St Louis band scene. In 1953 he joined pianist Johnnie Johnson’s trio before getting his big break in May 1955, when he met Muddy Waters in Chicago and was encouraged to play his music to Leonard Chess of Chess Records. Leonard loved the amalgamation of rhythm and blues and country fiddle on Berry’s song ‘Ida Red’ and released the song as ‘Maybellene’. The song sold one million copies and reached the Billboard Number One.
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