Berry got his first taste of stardom, singing Jay McShann's "Confessin' the Blues" in the All Men's Review in 1941; it was a song he was later to record on the 1960 album "Rockin' at the Hops". But music was not his only focus at that time. When not working with his father, Berry began to cultivate a lifelong interest in photography through his cousin Harry Davis. Before he could graduate from high school, Berry encountered his first problem with the law. In 1944, on a joy ride to Kansas City, Berry and two companions were arrested and found guilty of armed robbery. Each was sentenced to 10 years in the Intermediate Reformatory for Young Men at Algoa, Missouri. At Algoa, drawing on his Baptist roots, Berry joined a Gospel group. He also engaged in a brief career as a boxer before being released on his 21st birthday in 1947.
A year later, Berry married Themetta Suggs and began a series of jobs. Between 1948 and 1955, Berry worked at the Fisher Body auto assembly plant, trained to be a hairdresser at the Poro School, freelanced as a photographer, assisted his father, and began his career as a musician. Inspired by Carl Hogan, the guitarist in Louis Jordan's Timpani Five, and Charlie Christian, he continued to hone his craft and in 1951 purchased a tape recorder to capture ideas for compositions. Eventually, on New Years' Eve, 1952, he was asked to join the Sir John's Trio, a small combo consisting of pianist and leader Johnnie Johnson and drummer Ebby Hardy. Adding showmanship and hillbilly music to the combo's savvy selection of blues and R&B, Chuck soon took over the band, vying with Ike Turner and Albert King for popularity in the St. Louis area.
In 1955, during a visit to Chicago, Berry met bluesman Muddy Waters, who advised the young singer to approach Leonard Chess, the owner of Chess Records. He did, and one song on the tape called "Ida Mae" impressed Chess, and after a re-write, turning the song into "Maybellene", Chuck Berry had his debut single at nearly thirty years old! Chess gave a copy of the record to the influential disc jockey Alan Freed, who played it for two hours straight one night on his show on WINS in New York. The song went on to sell over a million copies, reaching #1 on Billboard's R&B chart and #5 on the Pop chart.
The Chess label had enjoyed considerable commercial success with artists such as Muddy Waters and Little Walter, but their appeal to that point lay principally in the Blues and Rhythm & Blues markets. With the addition of Berry on the Chess roster, the label was able to attract a wider record-buying audience. By the end of 1956, Berry was selling more records than anyone else on Chess because White teens had picked up on his sound and his records were crossing over onto the Pop charts. Berry's chart success would continue throughout the 1950s.
Berry's initial success was tempered by the hard reality of showbusiness. The copyright for "Maybellene" contained the names of Alan Freed and Russ Fratto as well as Berry's. While Freed's name on the song ensured airplay, it also reduced Berry's royalty payments. Additionally, Berry discovered that his first road manager, Teddy Reig, was pocketing money from his live appearances. Learning from these initial pitfalls, Berry realized that self-sufficiency and independence were keys to long term survival in the business, and from this point on he became determined to take charge of his own affairs, sowing the seeds for the later allegations of his being difficult to work with.
Aside from "Roll Over Beethoven", which reached #29 on Billboard's Hot 100 in May 1956, Berry found the initial success of "Maybellene" hard to follow. Subsequent singles, such as "Thirty Days", "No Money Down", "Too Much Monkey Business" and "You Can't Catch Me" sold respectably but failed to cross over. But a song released in March 1957, "School Days" was to change all that. Like "Roll Over Beethoven", it drew on a universal adolescent theme and made #5 on the Hot 100, leading to bookings for 240 one-nighters in that year alone. With only one exception (1958's "Beautiful Delilah"), Berry was to enjoy an unbroken string of chart hits for the next two and-a-half years: "Oh Baby Doll" (#57) and "Rock and Roll Music" (#8) in 1957, "Sweet Little Sixteen" (#2), "Johnny B. Goode" (#8), "Carol" (#10), "Sweet Little Rock and Roller" (#47), and "Merry Christmas Baby" (#71) in 1958; and "Anthony Boy" (#60), "Almost Grown"(#32), and "Back in the USA" (#37) in 1959. These songs are, without doubt, some of the greatest and most enduring songs in the history of Rock 'n' Roll.
Berry's success on the charts was accompanied by a number of appearances in Freed produced movies, including Rock, Rock, Rock in 1956, Mr. Rock and Roll in 1957, and Go, Johnny, Go in 1959, in which he had an extensive speaking part. Additionally, the touring continued unabated. On a tremendously successful package tour promoted by Irving Feld in late 1957 (visiting 75 cities in 75 days), Berry befriended newcomer Buddy Holly. Their friendship continued during 1958's Big Beat tour. Promoted by Alan Freed, the tour was marred by controversy. Joining Berry and Holly on the tour was another newcomer, Jerry Lee Lewis. By the time of the tour, Lewis was hot property, having followed up "Whole Lot Of Shakin'" in March of 1957 with "Great Balls of Fire" in November and "Breathless" in February 1958. Lewis, who at the time was 22 and some 11 years Berry's junior, came to New York expecting to be the final act each night on the tour, but with his third consecutive top ten single, "Johnny B. Goode" on the charts, and a long-time association with Freed in his favor, it was Berry who was asked to close the show. This began a fierce rivalry between the two which lasted throughout the tour. However, the tour would be remembered mostly for what happened on May 3 when, with only a handful of dates remaining, they played Boston. While Berry was on stage, fights broke out in the audience, forcing the police to turn on the houselights, leading Freed to make comments about the Boston police, which later got him arrested for inciting a riot. It was this incident that provided the inspiration for the climax of the 1978 movie American Hot Wax in which both Berry and Lewis starred.
With the money from all this success, he purchased some 30 acres of land in Wentzville MO (about 30 miles west of St. Louis) in April 1957, and 11 months later, he opened Club Bandstand. The area was also a bastion of White professional culture. Not only did fraternal organizations such as the Masons and the Scottish Rite build their temples there, but the area was home to a number of doctor and dentist offices and the gradually expanding St. Louis University. The appearance of a racially integrated nightclub owned by a successful Black entertainer in such an area must have been a red flag to the local authorities, and it wasn't long before the St. Louis police had their chance to close it down in the scandal that very nearly put an end to Berry's career. On December 1, 1959, while playing a show in El Paso, TX, Berry met Janice Escalanti, a young Native American woman from Yuma, AZ. They discussed the possibility of her working as a hat check girl at Club Bandstand, which she agreed to do. She was terminated after two weeks, and after soliciting for several nights at a local hotel, she called the Yuma police to find a way to get home. The call led to charges being filed against Berry for violating the Mann Act, transporting a woman across state lines for immoral purposes. A first trial, in which Berry was found guilty, was overturned after the judge was found to have uttered racist remarks. A second trial in October 1961 arrived at the same verdict, and Berry was sentenced to 3 years in jail and a $10,000 fine.
On February 19, 1962 Berry began serving his sentence. His music however, was not so easily restrained. In March of 1963, The Beach Boys released a note-for-note cover of "Sweet Little Sixteen" which they called "Surfin' USA." Chuck would later sue and was eventually granted writing credit and royalties from the record. Meanwhile in England, newcomers The Rolling Stones released their first single, a version of "Come On". In quick succession, they went on to cover "Carol", "You Can't Catch Me", and "I'm Talkin' About You". Just five days before his release on October 18, 1963, Beatlemania began to take hold on the world as 15 million viewers watched The Beatles, who had begun their rise to the top with covers of "Rock and Roll Music" and "Roll Over Beethoven", perform on Sunday Night at the London Palladium.
The time was ripe for a comeback, and Berry did not disappoint. From February, 1964 to March 1965, Chess released six singles, all of which made the top 100. "Nadine" (#23), "No Particular Place To Go" (#10), "You Never Can Tell' (#14), and "Promised Land" (#41), were all written in the Federal Medical Center in Springfield, MO, and rank among the very best songs in the Berry catalogue. The last of these singles, "Dear Dad" (#95), was to be Berry's last chart success for seven years, heralding another decline in his career. Berry's signing with Mercury Records in 1966 contributed much to that decline. Whereas the small, family owned Chess Records could accommodate his idiosyncratic ways of doing business, the corporate make-up of Mercury could only antagonize a feisty, independent artist like Berry. Constant battles with producers, and a reluctance to keep up with the changes in musical taste produced a series of lackluster albums and watered-down remakes of his old hits. Only the album "Live at the Fillmore with the Steve Miller Band" remains as a worthwhile addition to Berry's body of work from that time.
Unfortunately, when Berry re-signed to Chess in 1970, his old record company was showing the same signs of corporate identity. In January 1969, Chess was sold to GRT, the tape manufacturing giant. Later that year, on October 16, Leonard Chess died, leaving the company to his son Marshall and brother and partner Phil. In less than two years, they too, had gone, but not before they managed to bring back a little of the Berry magic. The appropriately titled LP "Back Home" featured "Tulane" and "Have Mercy Judge," some of Berry's best work since 1964.
Chuck Berry's greatest success was yet to come. In a supreme twist of irony, one of the greatest songwriters of the Rock 'n' Roll era achieved his only number 1 hit with a sophomoric school yard ditty entitled "My Ding-A-Ling." Originally recorded under the title "My Tambourine" on the 1968 Mercury album "From St. Louis to Frisco", it became Berry's best-selling single ever in July of 1972. But a second irony emerged from the song's success. His greatest competitor from the early days of Rock 'n' Roll, Elvis Presley, was enjoying his greatest year since coming out of the Army, but his single "Burning Love" was held to the #2 spot by a song euphemistically describing the joys of masturbation. Regardless, the fact remains that the song was wholly owned by Berry's publishing company, Isalee, providing him the kind of financial reward that far better works never did.
"My Ding-A-Ling" proved to be his last major hit, and despite several new recordings, Berry became increasingly confined to the oldies circuit. He gained an uncomfortable reputation as a hard, shrewd businessman and disinterested performer, backed by pick-up bands with whom he refused to rehearse. Tales abound within the Rock fraternity of Berry's refusal to tell the band which song he was about to launch into. Pauses and changes would come about by the musicians watching Berry closely for an often disguised signal. Berry has insisted for years upon pre-payment of his fee, usually in cash, and he would only perform an encore after a further negotiation for extra payment.
1972 ended with Berry's last chart success, a live version of "Reelin' and Rockin'" from The London Chuck Berry Sessions which made #27. The recordings that followed, the half-hearted "Bio" and the underrated, "back-to-roots Chuck Berry" for Chess, the moderately successful "Rock It" for Atco and an endless number of greatest hits packages, showed that his days as a recording artist were over. Again, Berry's fierce independence placed him at odds against a system that increasingly demanded artist conformity. "Rock It", his last album released in 1979, was a good example of that, having been produced at Berry Park and delivered to Atco sight unseen.
Since the release of "Rock It", Berry's career has been marked by even more controversy. His continued legal entanglements resurfaced in 1979 when he was sentenced to a third term of imprisonment following a conviction for income tax evasion. Upon release, he embarked on a punishing world tour, but the subsequent decade proved largely unproductive musically and no new recordings were undertaken. In 1986, the artist celebrated his 60th birthday with gala performances in St. Louis and New York. Keith Richards appeared at the former, although relations between the two men were strained, as evinced in the resultant documentary "Hail! Hail! Rock 'N' Roll", which provided an overview of Berry's career.
Sadly, the '90s began with further controversy and allegations of indecent behavior when a number of women accused Berry of videotaping them as they went to the bathroom at Berry Park and Berry's Wentzville restaurant, The Southern Air, coupled with numerous erratic live performances that have added fuel to Berry's reputation of being difficult and unpredictable. Yet his contribution to Rock 'n' Roll is enormous and still being felt, as his 1986 induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the 1987 release of his autobiography and accompanying movie, Hail, Hail, Rock and Roll, have proved. As a tribute to the pervasiveness of Chuck Berry in the realm of Rock 'n' Roll, a clip of "Johnny B. Goode" was chosen as a representation of Rock music in the Voyager I spacecraft, proving Chuck Berry and his Rock legacy are truly out of this world.
In November 2000, Chuck was once again facing legal charges when he was sued by his former pianist Johnnie Johnson, who claimed that he co-wrote over 50 songs, including "No Particular Place to Go", "Sweet Little Sixteen" and "Roll Over Beethoven", that credit Berry alone. The case was dismissed when the judge ruled that too much time had passed since the songs were written.
Well into his 70s, Chuck Berry continued to perform one Wednesday each month at Blueberry Hill, a restaurant and bar located in the Delmar Loop neighborhood in St. Louis. In 2008, he toured Europe, with stops in Sweden, Norway, Finland, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Ireland, Switzerland, Poland, and Spain. He took up residence in Ladue, Missouri, approximately ten miles west of St. Louis. During a New Year's Day 2011 concert in Chicago, Berry, suffering from exhaustion, passed out and had to be helped off stage. On July 29th, 2011, Chuck attended the dedication ceremony of an 8 foot tall statue of himself, erected along the St. Louis Hall Of Fame. In July, 2012, Cleveland's Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame announced that Chuck Berry would be honored by The Hall as part of its American Music Masters series at a ceremony next Fall. In early May, 2014, it was announced that Chuck Berry would be honored with the Polar Music Prize at a ceremony in Stockholm in late August. The award, which includes a cash prize of nearly $170,000, was founded by late ABBA manager Stig Anderson, who wanted it to "break down musical boundaries by bringing together people from all the different worlds of music."
On October 18th, 2016, Berry celebrated his 90th birthday by announcing his first new album since 1979's "Rock It". Titled simply "Chuck", the LP, which contained mostly new material, was dedicated to his wife of 68 years, Thelmetta. Unveiling his new disc, Berry told the Press: "This record is dedicated to my beloved Toddy. My darlin' I'm growing old! I've worked on this record for a long time. Now I can hang up my shoes!"
The music world was shocked and saddened to learn of Chuck Berry's death on March 18th, 2017. Emergency responders were summoned to his residence West of St. Louis by his caretaker about 12:40 p.m. and found him unresponsive. Attempts to revive the music legend failed and he was pronounced dead shortly before 1:30 p.m. In the aftermath, it was estimated that Chuck Berry left behind an estate worth an estimated fifty million dollars.
Perhaps John Lennon said it best. "If you tried to give Rock And Roll another name, you might call it 'Chuck Berry'."