Although it is difficult to pinpoint exactly when rock and roll started, it would not be untoward to say it was born in The Cosmopolitan club in East St. Louis, Illinois. That is where a band called The Johnny Johnson Trio entertained its audience with a mix of ballads and blues. Although East St. Louis was predominantly black, about a third of the audience comprised whites, and the band’s guitarist Chuck Berry decided to incorporate a little hillbilly music into the mix. The audience ate it up. What was this strange new sound? It was a mixture of rhythm-and-blues and country-and-western that would soon come to be known as rock and roll.
In one fell swoop, Chuck Berry had not only brought together black and white music, but its fans. It was a significant step in the history of music and the history of American culture. It was also the beginning of the Chess and checkered career of Chuck Berry. In 1955, he went to a Muddy Waters concert in Chicago, Illinois, and introduced himself. To his surprise, Waters encouraged him to check out Chess Records, a blues label that was flagging at the time and needed some new blood. Berry thought, great, here’s my chance to lay down some blues numbers on vinyl. To his astonishment, Leonard Chess was much more interested in a remake Chuck had done of an old Bob Wills tune called “Ida Red”. It was the kind of hillbilly music The Johnny Johnson Trio had been playing at the club, but now a record executive was taking it seriously.
On 21st May 1955, Berry, along with Johnson, Willie Dixon, Jerome Green, and Jasper Thomas layed down a recording of “Ida Red” which they had renamed “Maybelline”. It rocketed to #1 on the rhythm and blues chart and crossed over onto the pop chart. In the summer of 1956, a follow-up entitled “Roll Over Beethoven” went to #29. A year later, he found himself on stage with The Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly in a tour of the U.S., exposing his music to a national audience, which couldn’t have hurt the subsequent success of hits such as “Johnny B. Goode “, “Rock and Roll Music”, “School Days” and “Sweet Sixteen”, all of which reached the top ten.
Trouble was brewing for Berry, however, in December 1959. He had hired a 14-year-old Mexican girl to work at a nightclub he had started in St. Louis called Berry’s Club Bandstand. Things might have been all right if she hadn’t been arrested for prostitution, which violated the Mann Act, the former White-Slave Traffic Act which had been expanded to protect women from being trafficked for “immoral purposes”. Berry would spend the next three-plus years in prison. When he got out, he found himself faced with The British Invasion. It was a movement that had been kind to him by keeping his music in the limelight during his days behind bars. Acts like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones had been covering his songs and imitating his guitar licks. The Beach Boys had imitated him a little too well. ” Surfin’ U.S.A.” was so similar to “Sweet Little Sixteen” that Berry accused Brian Wilson of ripping off the melody. Unbeknownst to Brian, his father Murry signed over all rights to the song to Chuck Berry, including the lyrics, making a bad situation even worse. (The mistake was remedied some twenty-five years later.) When he wasn’t having a battle of the bands with The Beach Boys , Berry was still cranking out the hits, including “Nadine”, “No Particular Place To Go”, and “You Never Can Tell”, all released in 1964.
He would not hit the charts again for another eight years. When he did, he did it in a big way: It was a novelty song he had performed in adult venues called “My Ding-A-Ling ” that finally gave him his first #1. A live version of “Reelin’ and Rockin'” reached #27 in the U.S. and #18 in the U.K. It was the last time Chuck Berry would hit the charts.
It was not, however, the last of his legal woes. A class action lawsuit was filed against Berry in 1990 by fifty-nine women who claimed he had videotaped them in the bathrooms of two restaurants he owned in St. Louis. The lawsuit cost him well over a million dollars. Johnny Johnson filed a lawsuit against him in 2001 for rights to songs he claimed to have re-written with Berry, although it was dismissed for lack of any physical documentation.
Berry’s sixtieth birthday was physically documented, however, by filmmaker Taylor Hackford in Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll, a celebratory concert that included Eric Clapton, Robert Cray, Etta James, Keith Richards, and Linda Ronstadt . Richards would later participate in Chuck Berry’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame when it opened in 1986. Three years later, Berry was given his own star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame at 6504 Delmar in The Loop, just outside Blueberry Hill, where he still performs once a month.
On his 90th birthday he announced that he would be releasing his album Chuck in 2017 which would be 38 years after his last album Rock It.
On 18th March 2017 he was found dead in his house in St. Charles County near St. Louis, Missouri. He was 90 years old.
Here he is performing “Johnny B. Goode” live on television in 1958…