Chuck Berry – circa 1957
“Way back in history, three thousand years / In fact, ever since the world began / There’s been a whole lot of good women sheddin’ tears / Over a brown-eyed handsome man” – ‘Brown-Eyed Handsome Man’ (Chuck Berry)
The police officer looks thoughtfully at the individual before him. An arrest has been made for a violation of The Mann Act A.K.A. the White Slave Traffic Act. The statute makes it illegal to coerce, entice, or transport females across State lines for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or any other immoral purpose. The person reporting the offence is the aforementioned female. Janice Norine Escalanti is a 14 year old Apache girl who only managed two years at high school. The alleged offender has a police record. He did a three year stint (1944 to 1947) in reform school for attempted robbery. It is now 23 December 1959. The accused is Chuck Berry.
Charles Edward Anderson Berry (18 October 1926-18 March 2017) is born at six fifty-nine a.m. at 2320 Goode Avenue, St Louis, Missouri, U.S.A. He is the son of Henry William Berry and Martha Bell Berry (nee Banks). Chuck Berry’s parents were the grandchildren of slaves. Henry Berry is a carpenter as well as a deacon at the Antioch Baptist Church. Martha Berry is ‘one of the few black women of her generation to gain a college education.’ She is a certified public school Principal.
Chuck Berry is the fourth of six children. His siblings are Henry, Thelma, Lucy, Paul and Martha.
The Berry family settles in Elleadsville – ‘The Ville’ – St Louis. This is ‘a self-contained middle class black community that is a haven for black-owned businesses and institutions.’ Little Chuck doesn’t even see anyone who is not African-American until he is 3 years old. The first white people he sees are firemen putting out a blaze. “Daddy told me they were white people, and their skin was always white that way, day or night,” Chuck recalls.
In 1929 the Berry family buys a radio. This brings a variety of sounds into the household. Chuck Berry remembers listening to country music on the radio at home in St Louis, though this is rather unusual in an African-American home since the audience for country music is predominantly white. The Baptist choir from Henry Berry’s church practices in the kitchen of the deacon’s home. When Chuck is 6, he begins singing in the church choir. The Berry family has a piano and Chuck’s eldest sister, Thelma, takes lessons in classical piano playing. Chuck is interested in the instrument too but his other big sister, Lucy, keeps her annoying kid brother away from the piano. Lucy sings and also plays classical music on piano.
Chuck Berry attends Cottage Avenue Elementary School. As a boy, his hobbies include carpentry and photography. His father, Henry Berry, is keen to encourage his son in woodwork since Henry is a carpenter. Similarly, it is Chuck’s uncle, Harry Davis – who is a professional photographer – who motivates the boy to take an interest in that craft.
Chuck Berry moves on to Sumner High School. This is ‘a prestigious private institution that is the first all-black high school west of the Mississippi’ river. Although he comes from a middle class background with relatively articulate and educated parents, at high school Chuck Berry’s attitude to school work does not reflect this. He is ‘uninterested in studies’ and is characterised as a ‘troublemaker.’
Chuck Berry’s first public performance as a singer takes place in 1941. Still at Sumner High, he sings ‘Confessin’ The Blues’. This is a recent hit recorded by Jay McShann’s Orchestra with Walter Brown on vocals. A blues song with a sassy sexual overtone, it’s a bold choice for a youngster. Chuck only sings; the guitar accompaniment is provided by fellow student Tommy Stevens. The experience does inspire Chuck to take up the guitar himself. He gets a second-hand guitar from Joe Sherman, a St Louis blues singer. Chuck is given lessons in playing the guitar by Ira Harris, a neighbourhood barber. Chuck Berry’s influences are a mixed bag. He looks up to blues guitarist T-Bone Walker; Carl Hogan, who plays guitar with saxophonist Louis Jordan’s rhythm and blues band; and Charlie Christian, guitarist in Benny Goodman’s big band swing group. “The big band is my era,” Berry later says proudly.
As a teenager, apart from music Chuck Berry’s interests are fairly typical. He tries to get girls to ride with him in his V-8 Ford motor car. His first regular girlfriend is a lass named Margie. Berry sings in his school glee clubs.
In 1944, while still at Sumner High School, Chuck Berry and two of his friends decide to drive all the way to California. They only go from St Louis to Kansas City on the other side of Missouri before their plans go astray. The boys find a pistol in a parking lot. Gun in hand, they rob three stores: a bakery, a clothing store and a barbershop. After stealing a car, Chuck Berry and his pals are arrested by the police.
Convicted of armed robbery, Chuck Berry is sent to the Intermediate Reformatory for Young Men at Algoa, near Jefferson City, Missouri. He serves a three year sentence from 1944 to 1947. During his time at reform school, Berry does some boxing and forms a singing quartet. The vocal group is good enough to be allowed to perform some shows outside the detention facility. Chuck Berry is released on his 21st birthday, 18 October 1947.
On 28 October 1948 Chuck Berry marries Themetta ‘Toddy’ Suggs. His wife’s father came from Calcutta, India. Chuck and his wife go on to have four children: Darlin Ingrid (born 3 October 1950), Melody Exes (born 1952), Aloha Isa Lei and Charles Edward Jr. In 1950 Berry buys a house in Whittier Street where he raises his family.
From 1948 to 1951 Chuck Berry works at a bewildering array of positions, trying to financially support himself and his family. He is employed by two automobile assembly factories, one of which is the General Motors Fisher Body Plant. Berry trains as a beautician at Poro College of Cosmetology and works as a hairdresser. He is a janitor at the apartment building where his wife lived and at the General Motors Fisher Body Plant. Chuck Berry assists his father as a carpenter and freelances as a photographer. Allegedly, he wants to become a professional photographer like his uncle and it is in order to earn money to buy cameras that he begins singing and playing music.
Chuck Berry aspires to be a big band guitarist but that style of music has all but died out by the early 1950s. Tommy Stevens, who accompanied Chuck at high school on ‘Confessin’ The Blues’, invites his friend to join his group for a gig at a club called Huff’s Garden on 13 June 1952. This is Chuck Berry’s first professional show…and he earns six dollars! Needless to say, Chuck has to continue doing carpentry jobs with his father to make some money. On the last day of 1952 The St John’s Trio find themselves without a saxophone player since their horn-man has caught a cold. Pianist Johnnie Johnson and drummer Ebby Harding are reluctant to give up the lucrative New Year’s Eve gig so Johnson calls upon guitarist Chuck Berry, whom he met a year earlier. The gig goes well, the saxophone player is permanently dropped and the act becomes The Chuck Berry Trio. Pianist Johnnie Johnson becomes Chuck Berry’s most frequent musical partner over the years to come.
The Chuck Berry Trio regularly plays at the Cosmopolitan Club in St Louis. The group plays blues and ballads but, unusually, they also play country music. Chuck Berry explains that, “Curiosity provoked me to lay a lot of our country stuff on our predominantly black audience and some of our black audience began whispering, ‘Who is that black hillbilly at the Cosmo?’ After they laughed at me a few times, they began requesting the hillbilly stuff and enjoyed dancing to it.”
In early May 1955 Ralph Burris, a friend of Chuck Berry, goes to Chicago, Illinois, to visit his mother. Chuck joins him for the trip. Chicago is an important city for blues music so Berry takes the opportunity to catch a show by the great blues artist Muddy Waters. After the show, Berry introduces himself backstage and asks Muddy Waters about who he can contact to get a recording contract. Muddy Waters suggests Chicago’s Chess Records, run by the brothers Phil and Leonard Chess. Two days later, Berry gets a meeting with Leonard Chess. The aspiring recording artist is told to submit a demo tape with a couple of songs. Back in St Louis, Berry prepares such a tape. Chess Records responds with an offer of a recording session. Chuck Berry’s career as a recording artist is about to begin.
Chuck Berry’s music is rock ‘n’ roll. He is described as ‘the father of rock ‘n’ roll.’ More accurately, he is one of a handful of artist who lay down the foundations of what will come to be called rock ‘n’ roll. Berry himself refers to the likes of Bill Haley, Fats Domino, Elvis Presley and Little Richard as being amongst this group of first generation rock ‘n’ roll acts. Rock ‘n’ roll is a collision of white country and western music with black rhythm and blues. As an African-American, Berry comes up through blues and its more danceable cousin, rhythm and blues. But his adoption of country music as well distinguishes him as a rock ‘n’ roll performer.
Importantly, Chuck Berry is not just a singer or a guitarist, he is a songwriter. Although he will record cover versions of others’ songs, he writes most of his own material. Certainly, Chuck Berry’s best known songs are those he pens himself. In writing his songs, Berry codifies the nature of rock ‘n’ roll. He writes songs about teenagers’ main concerns: cars, girls, school, rock ‘n’ roll. At this point, Berry is around 30 years old. He is not a teenager. It is a commercial decision to write songs to appeal to a teenage market. This does not detract from the canny and incisive accomplishment of his body or work. Though Berry does nothing to disguise his racial origins, he concentrates on clear diction to better emphasise his witty words, eschewing the blurring of notes and vocal stylings of many other black recording artists. “I’d rather have more people hear the melody and the words than a few people have a good feeling from a complex arrangement of a song…The lyrics were what we were pushing,” he says. There is a playful quality to Chuck Berry’s lyrics. He delights in the joys of the English language, but is not averse to bending rules of grammar, pronunciation and logic to accentuate his humour and verse. “I love poetry. I love rhyming,” says Berry. But these are songs, not sonnets. Chuck Berry’s music has a drive and vitality that gives it both wide appeal and longevity. “My music is simple stuff,” he shrugs, but this elemental nature makes them the bedrock of so much music that follows in rock’s history. “The nature and backbone of my beat is boogie, and the muscle of my music is melodies that are simple,” Berry testifies. The country twang of Chuck Berry’s guitar may be a novelty to African-American listeners, but the rowdy burst of noise – a kind of supercharged blues – is a revelation to white kids.
Chuck Berry’s first recording session takes place on 21 May 1955. He cuts two songs. They are the two pieces that secured him a recording contract with Chess Records. They become the songs released on his first single.
Chuck Berry’s debut single, ‘Maybellene’ (US no. 5) backed with ‘Wee Wee Hours’, is released in July 1955. Backing up Berry’s vocals and guitar are Johnnie Johnson (piano), Willie Dixon (bass), Jerome Green (maracas) and Jasper Thomas (drums). ‘Maybellene’ is adapted from a traditional country song called ‘Ida Red’, popularised in a version by Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys in 1938. Berry’s mutated version had been going under the name of ‘Ida May’, but Leonard Chess – as co-producer with his brother Phil – is not entirely satisfied. The name of the song is changed to ‘Maybellene’, but there are conflicting accounts of where that name comes from. Pianist Johnnie Johnson recalls that there was a discarded box of ‘Maybellene’ brand mascara in the studio and it was this that inspired Leonard Chess to choose it as the song’s new title. Chuck Berry claims that the name comes from a cartoon cow in a third grade reader. ‘Maybellene’ sets out Berry’s style with its storyline of fast cars and girls. “’Maybellene’ was very much a country song, with country lyrics,” claims Chuck Berry. “Maybe a little faster, but basically it was country.” In practice, ‘Maybellene’ springs to life with an over-amplified guitar that skates perilously close to distortion and then engages in a call-and-response trade with Berry’s voice for the focus. The drumbeats seem to be moving too fast for the rest of the song and the guitar and voice spend the running time caught in the current, trying to catch up. Now, ‘Maybellene’ is credited to Chuck Berry as sole author, but originally it was co-credited to Berry, Alan Freed and Russ Fratto. Alan Freed is the radio disc jockey who devises the term ‘rock ‘n’ roll.’ Charitably, it has been said that Freed ‘possibly suggested modifications to enhance [‘Maybellene’s] commercial potential.’ More cynically, it is argued that Freed ‘accepted the payola perk of a credit as co-author and added “Maybellene” to his playlist.’ Russ Fratto is also a DJ (disc jockey) but a local one who is also a friend of Chuck Berry. Fratto gives his share of the royalties to the singer. His name was added to the credits in a wily move to ensure that Berry receives more money from the sales of the single than Freed. In any case, ‘Maybellene’ becomes a hit. “There is no way to explain how you feel when you first hear your first recording for the first time in your first new car,” exults Chuck Berry. The single’s flipside, ‘Wee Wee Hours’ (also written by Chuck Berry) is a slower, more traditional blues song, reportedly inspired by his teenage girlfriend, Margie. The original plan had been for ‘Wee Wee Hours’ to be the A side (a blues song for a Chicago record label) but Leonard Chess preferred the more unusual ‘Maybellene’.
While promoting ‘Maybellene’, Chuck Berry and his band pile into a car wearing the outfits in which they will perform. On arrival, Berry finds his suit badly creased and crumpled. To avoid displaying this mishap, Berry does an old party trick on stage. “When I was a kid,” Chuck says, “I used to scoot under the table whenever company would come around. My sisters or parents would tell me to go under the table, y’know. And I’d do it. It was like an entertainment for the family or aunts or whatever. And one time, Paramount it was, the Brooklyn Paramount [Theatre], I did it in the act on an instrumental and played my guitar and I got a big ovation. So I coined it as one of the things I should do in the act.” Crouched down over his guitar, Chuck Berry hops around in a squatting posture. This is the origin of his trademark ‘duck walk’. While Berry may be the originator of one of rock’s most identifiable guitar sounds, he is – first and foremost – a showman.
Chuck Berry releases two more singles in 1955 and though both of them do well on the rhythm and blues charts, unlike ‘Maybellene’ they are not hits on the pop chart. ‘Thirty Days’ is described as a ‘more self-consciously hillbilly’ song. The other single is ‘No Money Down’ b/w ‘Downbound Train’. ‘No Money Down’ is a tale of “motorvatin’” as Chuck the narrator trades in his “broken down, ragged Ford” for a new convertible with “TV and a phone / So I can call my baby when I’m drivin’ alone.” The flipside, ‘Downbound Train’, is an anomaly. It is full of gospel dread and involves an encounter with Satan. It is about the only evidence in his musical catalogue of Berry being raised in the household of a Baptist deacon.
Moving into 1956, Chuck Berry returns to the pop charts with ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ (US no. 29), released in May. The song is inspired by memories of his sister Lucy’s domination of the family record player with her classical music discs. Chuck’s composition is a song of praise for the new born medium of rock ‘n’ roll: “Gonna write a little letter / Gonna mail it to my local DJ / It’s a jumpin’ little record / I want my jockey to play / Roll over Beethoven/ Gotta hear it again today.” As happened the previous year, Chuck Berry’s other singles for 1956 fail to connect with a wider pop audience. ‘Too Much Monkey Business’ b/w ‘Brown Eyed Handsome Man’ is released in September. ‘Too Much Monkey Business’ is a catalogue of frustrations with such things as working at a filling station (i.e. petrol station) and serving in the army. ‘Brown Eyed Handsome Man’ is a sly tribute to black men everywhere. ‘Brown eyed’ is just a more subtle way of saying ‘brown skinned’. Chuck Berry’s other single for 1956 is ‘You Can’t Catch Me’ b/w ‘Havana Moon’. ‘You Can’t Catch Me’ is another of Berry’s car songs. He boasts about his brand new “air mobile” over a flirting tempo. ‘Havana Moon’ has a pseudo-Caribbean feel, complete with Berry’s mock-patois lyrics and vocals.
Chuck Berry’s motion picture debut comes in ‘Rock, Rock, Rock’ (1956) which premieres on 17 November. This is not really a ‘Chuck Berry film’; he is just one of a menu of artists appearing in the film. The true ‘star’ of the show is disc jockey Alan Freed. Berry performs ‘You Can’t Catch Me’ in ‘Rock, Rock, Rock’. Other performers in the movie include Frankie Lymon And The Teenagers and La Vern Baker. ‘Rock, Rock, Rock’ is the first of three such films from the 1950s in which Chuck Berry appears.
From 15 January 1957 to 5 May 1957 Chuck Berry tours the United States with promoter Irvin Feld’s ‘Greatest Shows of 1957.’ This rock ‘n’ roll package tour finds Berry sharing the bill with the likes of Fats Domino and La Vern Baker.
On 1 March 1957 Chuck Berry’s single ‘School Day’ (US no. 3, UK no. 24) is released. ‘School Day’ seems to be more consciously targeted at a teenage audience, especially a white audience. Berry contends, “I made records for people who would buy them, no colour, no ethnic, no political – I don’t want that, never did.” In any case, ‘School Day’ becomes Berry’s biggest hit to date. It is an account of that most basic nemesis of teenagers, the humdrum torture of the classroom. Berry’s guitar work on ‘School Day’ is exemplary. A charging riff pauses only for the vocals to slip in another line and builds to an explosive, wiry solo.
Chuck Berry’s first album, ‘After School Session’ (1957), is issued in May. Like most of Berry’s discs, ‘After School Session’ is co-produced by Leonard Chess and Phil Chess and is released on the Chess label. The album includes ‘Wee Wee Hours’, ‘Downbound Train’, ‘Too Much Monkey Business’, ‘Brown Eyed Handsome Man’, ‘Havana Moon’ and ‘School Day’. In the 1950s (and the early 1960s), the focus of rock ‘n’ roll was on the singles market. Consequently, albums were just a bunch of singles and some filler and their sales were comparatively weak. Chuck Berry’s albums were no better – or worse – than most of his contemporaries.
The 1957 single ‘Baby Doll’ (US no. 57) is a nostalgic remembrance of school days and a young sweetheart.
The anthemic September 1957 single ‘Rock And Roll Music’ (US no. 8) becomes one of Chuck Berry’s signature tunes. “It’s gotta be rock ‘n’ roll music,” he insists, “If you wanna dance with me.”
The motion picture ‘Mister Rock and Roll’ (1957), released on 24 September, purports to tell the story of disc jockey Alan Freed. As with the previous year’s ‘Rock, Rock, Rock’, Chuck Berry is one of the acts performing in the film. Other singers seen in the film include Little Richard and Frankie Lymon And The Teenagers.
Chuck Berry makes his television debut on 8 November 1957 when he performs ‘Rock And Roll Music’ on ‘Dick Clark’s American Bandstand’ on the U.S. ABC Network.
Some kind of peak is achieved with the January 1958 single ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’ (US no. 2, UK no. 16) b/w ‘Reelin’ And Rockin’’. ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’ opens with a utopian vision of a whole country full of rock ‘n’ roll fans: “They’re really rockin’ in Boston / In Pittsburgh, PA / Deep in the heart of Texas / ’Round the ‘Frisco bay / All over St Louis / And down in New Orleans / All the cats want to dance with / Sweet little sixteen.” It then becomes a lustful ode to a ripe teenager: “Sweet little sixteen / She’s got the grown-up blues / Tight dresses and lipstick / She’s even sportin’ high-heeled shoes.” But the song closes with a touching image of a young fan: “Her wallet filled with pictures / She gets ‘em one by one…Sweet little sixteen / Back in class again.” The flipside, ‘Reelin’ And Rockin’’, will actually do better later in Berry’s career when it gets a second life.
In addition to albums and singles, Chess Records releases five EPs by Chuck Berry. An EP is a middle-sized disc; less than an album, but more than a single. For the most part, Berry’s EPs are unremarkable rehashes of material from the singer’s albums and singles. His third EP, ‘Sweet Little 16’, deserves a mention because it includes Chuck Berry’s most famous instrumental, ‘Guitar Boogie’. Berry’s guitar twangs insolently over a shuffling rhythm in this piece which is unavailable elsewhere – at least until reissues in later years. The five Chuck Berry EPs are: ‘After School Session’ and ‘Rock And Roll Music’ (both 1957); ‘Sweet Little 16’ and ‘Pickin’ Berries’ (both 1958); and ‘Sweet Little Rock & Roller’ (from 1959).
Chuck Berry’s second album, ‘One Dozen Berrys’ (1958), is released in March. This disc includes ‘Oh Baby Doll’, ‘Rock And Roll Music’, ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’ and ‘Reelin’ And Rockin’’.
The 1958 single ‘Johnny B Goode’ (US no. 8) introduces one of rock ‘n’ roll’s folk heroes. The iconic title character is a “little country boy” who can “play the guitar just like ringin’ a bell.” Some suggest that ‘Johnny B Goode’ is actually an alias for Chuck Berry himself and the song is autobiographical (after all, he was born at Goode Avenue). The B side is the danceable call-and-response of ‘Around And Around’.
Chuck Berry performs ‘Johnny B Goode’ on the first episode of ‘The Big Beat’. Screened on 1 July 1958, this program comes from WABC-TV in New York and is hosted by disc jockey Alan Freed. Starting on 29 July 1958 and running for a week, Freed puts on a Big Beat Show at Brooklyn’s Fox Theater. Berry is amongst the performers involved. Other notable names appearing in the shows are Bill Haley And The Comets, Bobby Freeman and The Elegants.
Chuck Berry’s 1958 singles continue with ‘Beautiful Delilah’ (US no. 81), a winking appreciation of the female form. In fact, Delilah is so tantalising that “Rebecca don’t allow me / To fool around with you.” This is followed in September by ‘Carol’ (US no. 18), a more wholesome teen queen whom Chuck’s narrator is teaching to dance. The dashing guitar intro and raw riff makes that sound a bit less innocent though. The title character of ‘Jo Jo Gunne’ (US no. 83) is not a girl, but is instead a monkey in this whacky fable set in the African jungle. ‘Sweet Little Rock And Roller’ (US no. 47) sounds a bit like the kid sister of ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’. Berry closes out the year with a pair of seasonal singles for the holidays: a cover version of ‘Merry Christmas Baby’ (US no. 71), a song first recorded by Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers in 1947, and the original ‘Run Run Rudolph’ (US no. 69), a nod to Santa’s best known reindeer set to a rockin’ beat.
Chuck Berry’s association with disc jockey Alan Freed continues when Berry appears in Freed’s Christmas Rock & Roll Spectacular, a ten-day series of shows at Loew’s State Theater in Manhattan, New York, beginning on 25 December 1958. The star-studded line-up includes Bo Diddley, Eddie Cochran and The Everly Brothers.
In 1958 Chuck Berry opens his own nightclub, Club Bandstand, in St Louis.
Moving into 1959, Chuck Berry’s first single of the year is ‘Anthony Boy’ (US no. 60), a song with a nursery rhyme-like structure about a school boy. This is followed in April by ‘Almost Grown’ (US no. 32) b/w ‘Little Queenie’ (US no. 80). ‘Almost Grown’ regards a young man making his way in the world. Aside from its humorous lyrics, ‘Almost Grown’ is noteworthy for some strong backing vocals from fellow Chess Records artist Etta James & The Marquees. ‘Little Queenie’ is another of Berry’s adolescent beauties.
‘Go, Johnny, Go’ (1959), released on 22 April 1959, is the third and last of Chuck Berry’s 1950s movie appearances. Like its two predecessors, the focus of the film is disc jockey Alan Freed (though the title is borrowed from Berry’s ‘Johnny B Goode’). Other rock ‘n’ roll acts in the film include Eddie Cochran, Jackie Wilson and Ritchie Valens.
The single ‘Back In The U.S.A.’ (US no. 37) b/w ‘Memphis, Tennessee’ (UK no. 6) is released in June 1959. The ‘patriotic consumerist anthem’ ‘Back In The U.S.A.’ was reportedly composed by Berry ‘after a two-week tour of a then hot dog-less Australia.’ It’s a fun frolic packed to the gills with Berry’s witty wordplay and an appealing flat-to-the-floor guitar riff with Johnnie Johnson’s piano serving as an attractive counterpoint. ‘Memphis, Tennessee’ is quite different. It’s a rambling story-song about a phone call from the titular city. Although for most of the running time Berry’s narrator strings the listener along into thinking the call is from his estranged spouse, the finale reveals it is actually their little daughter Marie who is phoning daddy. It’s a tear-jerker.
‘Chuck Berry Is On Top’ (1959) comes out in July. Berry’s third album is almost a ‘greatest hits’ set, pulling together tracks from the start of his career to the present that were not on his previous albums. The line-up includes ‘Maybellene’, ‘Roll Over Beethoven’, ‘Johnny B Goode’, ‘Carol’, ‘Jo Jo Gunne’, ‘Sweet Little Rock And Roller’, ‘Anthony Boy’, ‘Almost Grown’ and ‘Little Queenie’.
Chuck Berry releases one more single in 1959, a dream of a past love entitled ‘Childhood Sweetheart’. It is his first single since 1956 to fail to reach the pop chart.
On 23 December 1959 Chuck Berry is arrested and charged under The Mann Act. Berry’s version of events has it that he meets Janice Escalanti on 1 December 1959 when he and his three-piece backing band perform in El Paso, Texas. Escalanti works in town as a waitress/prostitute. “She was anything but innocent,” says Berry. He offers the 14 year old a job as a hatcheck girl at Club Bandstand, the nightclub Berry owns in St Louis. Berry and his band offer to take her there but they still have tour commitments to fulfil so Janice Escalanti is asked to sell souvenir photographs at each show. Escalanti hops in the Cadillac and travels with the group to Phoenix and Tucson (both in Arizona); Santa Fe (New Mexico); Pueblo and Denver (both in Colorado); and Kansas City and St Louis (both in Missouri) – though Chuck Berry catches a flight to St Louis for the final leg, arriving ahead of the girl and group who drive into town. Berry sets up Escalanti at the nightclub. Around 18 December, he has her dismissed. Berry gives Escalanti five dollars and a one-way ticket back to El Paso. She doesn’t leave. Instead, she returns to Club Bandstand. Berry is incensed and destroys the bus ticket, leaving Escalanti to fend for herself. She goes to the police and, based on her information, the rock ‘n’ roll star is arrested. In other words, she is a disgruntled employee out for some payback.
This would be more convincing if Chuck Berry had not registered himself and Janice Escalanti as ‘Mr and Mrs Janet Johnson’ in a room with one bed at the Drexel Hotel in Denver during their travels. In the subsequent trial, Escalanti testifies that she and Berry had sex a number of times, not only in the hotel room, but in the Cadillac, a motel in Tucson, and in the home of the nightclub manager.
Chuck Berry pleads not guilty to the charges levelled against him. He is convicted on 11 March 1960, sentenced to five years imprisonment and ordered to pay a fine of five thousand dollars. Berry appeals on the grounds of the judge’s hostile and prejudicial conduct. A retrial changes the sentence to three years. Another appeal fails. Ultimately, Chuck Berry serves a year and a half – February 1962 to October 1963 – in prison at Terre Haute, Indiana. The singer completes his high school equivalency in 1963 while in prison.
While all these legal matters are going on, Chuck Berry’s life – and music career – proceeds.
Five Chuck Berry singles are issued in 1960. ‘Let It Rock’ (US no. 64, UK no. 6) is a clownish number about high living railroad labourers having a close encounter with “an unscheduled train.” ‘Too Pooped To Pop’ (US no. 42) is one of Chuck Berry’s funniest pieces. It tells of a fellow whose “hips are getting weak when he tries to rock ‘n’ roll.” ‘Bye Bye Johnny’ is a sequel to ‘Johnny B Goode’. The insistent ‘I Got To Find My Baby’ is festooned with saxophones. (Neither of the two singles ‘Bye Bye Johnny’ nor ‘I Got To Find My Baby’ register on the pop charts.) ‘Jaguar And Thunderbird’ (US no. 109) is a ‘car race romp’.
‘Rockin’ At The Hops’ (1960) is released in July. ‘Childhood Sweetheart’, ‘Let It Rock’ and ‘Bye Bye Johnny’ are all on this album. This disc’s ‘Betty Jean’ is an overlooked Chuck Berry original that is another entry in his catalogue of tunes devoted to pretty girls. Six of the twelve tracks on ‘Rockin At The Hops’ are cover versions. Amongst the non-originals can be found ‘Confessin’ The Blues’ (the song Chuck sang back in 1941 at high school as his first public performance) and ‘Down The Road Apiece’, which is virtually an advertisement for a roadside venue. ‘Down The Road Apiece’ was recorded by The Will Bradley Trio in 1940.
In February 1961 Chuck Berry issues the (non-charting) single ‘Little Star’ b/w ‘I’m Talking About You’. ‘Little Star’ is a cover version of a track recorded by The Elegants in 1958, a doo wop number that borrows from the children’s song ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’. ‘I’m Talking About You’ is a sly Chuck Berry composition in which he reveals that the beautiful girl he is singing about is also the girl to whom he is singing.
Both ‘Little Star’ and ‘I’m Talking About You’ are on Chuck Berry’s album ‘New Juke Box Hits’ (1961), released in March. Four of the album’s twelve songs are cover versions.
Chuck Berry releases one more single in 1961: ‘Go-Go-Go’ (UK no. 38) b/w ‘Come On’ (UK no. 38). Both tunes are originals. ‘Go-Go-Go’ is about a guitarist named Johnny so it seems like another instalment in the cycle of songs that began with ‘Johnny B Goode’ and continued with ‘Bye Bye Johnny’. Johnny duck walks in this song, adding to the idea that ‘Johnny’ is really Chuck Berry since the duck walk is his signature move. The sharp burst of day-to-day frustrations that make up ‘Come On’ makes it perhaps the more interesting of the two songs.
On 31 May 1961 Chuck Berry opens his own amusement resort, Berry Park, in Wentzville, Missouri, about twenty miles outside St Louis. Berry Park features a miniature golf course, a swimming pool, a Ferris wheel, a children’s zoo, a ballroom, and a picnic and barbeque area.
With Chuck Berry in prison, the only discs attributed to him in 1962 and 1963 are the compilation albums ‘Chuck Berry Twist’ (1962) and ‘More Chuck Berry’ (1963) (UK no. 9), the latter being a U.K. only release on the Pye label.
After his release from jail in October 1963, things are different for Chuck Berry. ‘He emerges from prison a moody, embittered man.’ It is said that he separates from his wife, Toddy, but this appears to be incorrect. The couple remain married, but it is fair to say the relationship is strained. Chuck Berry has ‘many external affairs’ over the years.
A new generation of rock acts like The Beach Boys, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones are covering Chuck Berry songs and publicly praising his music. Seizing the opportunity, Chuck Berry returns to the recording studio to capitalise on his credibility with younger fans. There is a lingering suspicion that the handful of hits that follow were written prior to his incarceration. Nonetheless, with a slightly more professional studio sound, they are welcome additions to the Chuck Berry songbook.
The February 1964 single ‘Nadine’ (US no. 23, UK no. 27) is perhaps the best song of Chuck Berry’s career. A lowing saxophone chases Berry’s vocals as avidly as his narrator chases his “future bride” of the title: “I saw her from the corner when she turned and doubled back / Started walking toward a coffee-coloured Cadillac / I was pushing through the crowd tryin’ to get to where she’s at / And I was campaign shoutin’ like a Southern diplomat / Nadine! Honey, is that you?” Here is the quintessential Chuck Berry. It is a song full of wit and musical verve, it is a tribute to a pretty girl and cars are name dropped into the scenery. Berry may have enjoyed greater commercial successes, other tunes may have become more crucial parts of his legend, but ‘Nadine’ encapsulates the author’s greatest charm and boasts a timeless appeal.
Chuck Berry’s back catalogue is mined for the benefit of new fans. This takes the forms of April’s ‘Chuck Berry’s Greatest Hits’ (1964) (US no. 34) and May’s U.K. only release, ‘The Latest And The Greatest’ (1964) (UK no. 8).
Chuck Berry goes on a U.K. concert tour in May 1964.
May 1964 also sees the release of Chuck Berry’s next single, ‘No Particular Place To Go’ (US no. 10, UK no. 3). This song finds our Romeo frustrated with a mechanical mishap in his vehicle and its effect on his female passenger: “Can you imagine the way I felt? / I couldn’t unfasten her safety belt.” Or, maybe there is another subtext to the song? “Riding along in my calaboose / Still tryin’ to get her belt unloosed / All the way home I held a grudge / For the safety belt that wouldn’t budge.”
‘Two Great Guitars’ (1964) is co-credited to Chuck Berry and fellow first generation rock ‘n’ roll star Bo Diddley. The disc is released in August on the Checker label, a subsidiary of Chess. The disc holds only four songs, but two of them are elaborate jam sessions that clock in at over ten minutes apiece.
The Chuck Berry single ‘You Never Can Tell’ (US no. 14, UK no. 23) is issued in August. Both sweet and funny, ‘You Never Can Tell’ is a yarn about two young newlyweds defying expectations of those around them.
The U.K. only compilation ‘You Never Can Tell’ (1964) (UK no. 18) borrows the title of Chuck Berry’s most recent hit. This disc is released in September.
The October 1964 Chuck Berry single ‘Little Marie’ (US no. 54) is a sequel to ‘Memphis, Tennessee’ with the little girl from that song elevated to title status. It is marginally rockier than its forebear.
The last Chuck Berry single for 1964 is ‘Promised Land’ (US no. 41, UK no. 26). This patriotic piece is a spiritual successor to ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’ and ‘Back In The U.S.A.’
The album ‘St Louis To Liverpool’ (1964) (US no. 124) comes out in November. It includes ‘No Particular Place To Go’, ‘You Never Can Tell’, ‘Promised Land’ and the 1958 seasonal song ‘Merry Christmas Baby’. The album title emphasises the influence Chuck Berry (from St Louis) has on British group The Beatles (from Liverpool) who are the current sensations in pop music.
Chuck Berry tours the U.K. again in January 1965.
‘Chuck Berry In London’ (1965) continues the effort to link the veteran rocker with the younger breed of rock stars coming from the U.K. Released in April, this album includes the single ‘Dear Dad’ (US no. 95). This is a tale of a young man pleading with his father for a new car. The twist in the tail is that the narrator is the son of Henry Ford, founder of the Ford motor vehicle empire. Another notable track, ‘I Want To Be Your Driver’, continues the automotive theme with the singer requesting the pleasure of becoming a chauffeur for a pretty gal…though it’s possible to give the song a more sexual interpretation if that is desired.
‘Fresh Berry’s’ (1965), issued in November, is Chuck Berry’s last release on Chess…at least for a while.
In 1966 Chuck Berry moves to Mercury Records. The albums Berry records at Mercury are viewed as ‘terrible’ or at least ‘unsatisfying.’ ‘Chuck Berry’s Golden Hits’ (1967) in March is simply new recordings of his old hits – with the addition of ‘Club Nitty Gritty’, a song described as his ‘only decent’ work at Mercury. In September, two Chuck Berry albums are released: ‘Chuck Berry In Memphis’ (1967) and ‘Live At The Fillmore Auditorium’ (1967). The latter disc is a concert recording with San Francisco group The Steve Miller Band backing Berry. By this time, Berry is wearing paisley shirts and trying to woo the young hippie audience to whom San Francisco in California is their spiritual home. Thus the singer’s next album is titled ‘From St Louie To Frisco’ (1968) (US no. 185). It includes a track called ‘My Tambourine’ which Berry will later rework to greater success. ‘Concerto In B Goode’ (1969), released in June, is Chuck Berry’s last album for Mercury.
During the latter part of his time at Mercury, Chuck Berry begins to appear at festivals, large open air shows with all-star casts of performers playing to big crowds. Berry appears at the Miami Pop Festival (28-30 December 1968), the Toronto Rock Festival in Canada (22 June 1969) and the Seattle Pop Festival (25-27 July 1969). A potentially better fit is the Toronto Rock ‘N’ Roll Revival Concert (18 September 1969) where 1950s veterans like Berry rub shoulders with more contemporary performers. This is followed by a Rock & Roll Revival concert in New York (18 October 1969) where the performers are almost exclusively drawn from rock’s early days.
While Chuck Berry was at Mercury, his old label, Chess, turned out a two-record collection called ‘Chuck Berry’s Golden Decade’ (1967) (US no. 72).
Returning to Chess Records, Chuck Berry issues the appropriately titled ‘Back Home’ (1970). This may be his ‘finest ever’ album. Although Berry’s 1950s albums may have contained more hits, they had no cohesive identity as albums. ‘Back Home’ feels like a unit in its own right. The landscape of rock music has changed from the singles-oriented 1950s to the more album-oriented present times. ‘Back Home’ contains one of Berry’s best latter-day songs, ‘Tulane’. The narrative of the song concerns Tulane and Johnny, who are drug dealers. When this Bonnie and Clyde duo fall foul of the law, Johnny is brought down but urges Tulane to escape and live free. Berry’s customary loquacity is offset with a sturdy riff to good effect…even if, commercially, the song fails to make an impact on the singles chart. The blues piece ‘Have Mercy Judge’ – also on this album – is a sequel to ‘Tulane’.
‘San Francisco Dues’ (1971) follows and is regarded in a similar light to ‘Back Home’.
‘The London Chuck Berry Sessions’ (1972) (US no. 8), released in October, is an album of two parts. While the first side is recorded in the studio, side two was recorded live at the Lanchester Arts Festival in Coventry, England on 3 February 1972. It is the live side that yields a freak hit. ‘My Ding-A-Ling’ (US no. 1, UK no. 1) becomes the only chart-topping single of Chuck Berry’s career, reaching no. 1 in both the U.S. (21 October 1972-28 October 1972) and the U.K. (18 November 1972). The song has been part of Berry’s repertoire almost since he first turned professional. Dave Bartholomew, long-time producer and co-writer with Fats Domino, first recorded it in January 1952 Berry himself previously recorded it as ‘My Tambourine’ on ‘From St Louie To Frisco’ (1968). In any case, the mutated version that becomes ‘My Ding-A-Ling’ credits Chuck Berry as author. ‘My Ding-A-Ling’ is an exercise in double entendre. The first verse explicitly states that ‘My Ding-A-Ling’ is “silver bells hanging on a string”, but it seems like a reference to…something else. For instance: “Once I was swimming ‘cross Turtle Creek / Man, them snappers all around my feet / Sure was hard swimming ‘cross that thing / With both hands holding my ding-a-ling ling.” The song is basically a bawdy sing-along with the crowd. In the wake of ‘My Ding-A-Ling’, a live version of ‘Reelin’ And Rockin’’ (US no. 27, UK no. 18) (the B side of the 1958 single ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’) is also a hit. It’s a fun count through the positions of the clock as Chuck and his lady friend dance and love. ‘Reelin’ And Rockin’’ turns out to be Chuck Berry’s last hit single. (Note: Aside from the lengthy live versions of ‘My Ding-A-Ling’ and ‘Reelin’ And Rockin’’, the only other track on side two of ‘The London Chuck Berry Sessions’ is a live version of ‘Johnny B Goode’.)
‘Bio’ (1973) (US no. 175) includes the title track, ‘Bio’, in which Chuck Berry tells his own life story.
On either side of ‘Bio’ are two double album trawls through Chess’ Chuck Berry back catalogue: ‘Chuck Berry’s Golden Decade Vol. 2’ (1973) (US no. 110) and ‘Chuck Berry’s Golden Decade Vol. 3’ (1974).
‘Chuck Berry ‘75’ (1975) includes backing vocals from Berry’s daughter Darlin Ingrid under the name of Ingrid Gibson.
The U.K. only compilation album ‘Motorvatin’’ (1976) is the last Chuck Berry release from his second stint with Chess Records.
Chuck Berry’s ‘live performances become increasingly erratic’ in the 1970s. ‘He develops a reputation for giving out-of-tune, unrehearsed performances.’ He is ‘hard to deal with financially’, often demanding to be paid in cash. Typically, Berry shows up alone with a guitar, wrangles up a group of local young musicians to back him (‘on the cheap’) and plays his familiar hits.
‘Rockit’ (1979) on Atco (a subsidiary of Atlantic Records) is Chuck Berry’s final album of new material.
On 10 July 1979 Chuck Berry is sentenced to a four month prison term for tax evasion in relation to his 1973 tax return. However he is released from Lompoc Prison Farm in California on 19 November 1979 after serving only two months of the four month sentence.
‘The Great Twenty-Eight’ (1982) is a double album collection from Chess Records that keeps the Chuck Berry legend alive. ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Rarities’ (1986) is for Berry fans in search of obscure material.
Faber & Faber publishes ‘Chuck Berry: The Autobiography’ (1987). Berry claims to have begun this book back in 1959 and then took it up again during his 1979 prison term for tax evasion.
‘Hail! Hail! Rock ‘N’ Roll’ (1987) is the soundtrack to Taylor Hackford’s 1987 film of the same name. It documents a concert in which Berry fronts a group put together by Keith Richards (of The Rolling Stones) that includes Richards (on guitar) as well as Berry’s long-running compatriot Johnnie Johnson (on piano). The movie’s title is a line from Berry’s 1957 song ‘School Day’.
‘The Chess Box’ (1988) is another Chuck Berry compilation.
In subsequent years, Chuck Berry performs less frequently as age takes its toll and he moves into semi-retirement.
Chuck Berry dies on 18 March 2017. He was 90 years old. The emergency services operator responded to a report of a ‘cardiac arrest,’ so this is thought to be the cause of death.
Chuck Berry’s 1962-1963 prison term for transporting a girl across State lines for ‘immoral purpose’ was only one of three stints he had behind bars. There were also the 1944-1947 reform school sentence for armed robbery and the 1979 custodial stretch for tax evasion. Rock ‘n’ roll has always been seen as ‘outlaw music’ so such a criminal record was not necessarily career ending. The 1940s reform school time predates Berry’s recording career. The 1962-1963 prison term certainly damaged the momentum of Berry’s career but almost all his 1950s rock ‘n’ roll peers faced career downturns in the 1960s, even without spells of incarceration. Similarly, the 1979 stay in custody appeared to put a stop to Berry recording any new material but few – if any – first generation rock stars were still active by that time. Although an argument can be made that Chuck Berry’s brushes with the law damaged his career, it is equally valid to contend that such problems coincided with an anticipated diminution in his commercial fortunes. On balance, it seems most likely that Berry’s creative downturns had little connection to his legal woes. The story of Chuck Berry is remarkable. His achievements (and his failings) were almost entirely self-created. ‘Of all the breakthrough rock ‘n’ roll artists, none was more important to the development of the music than Chuck Berry.’ Chuck Berry was ‘one of the enduring legends of rock ‘n’ roll, and its single most influential figure.’
- ‘Rock Stars’ by Timothy White (Columbus Books, 1984) p. 14, 42, 44, 47
- wikipedia.org as at 14 February 2016, 20 March 2017, 2 January 2018
- wikingnetwork.com/cb/life.htm – no author credited – as at 15 February 2016
- encyclopedia.com – ‘Chuck Berry’ by Calen Stone (1989)
- biography.com – ‘Chuck Berry’ – no author credited – as at 15 February 2016
- chuckberry.com as at 15 February 2016
- ‘The Illustrated New Musical Express Encyclopedia of Rock’ by Nick Logan, Bob Woffinden (Salamander Books, 1978) p. 31
- ‘Chuck Berry Gold’ – Sleeve notes by Mark Humphrey (Geffen / Chess Records, 2006) p. 6, 7, 8, 10, 12, 13, 15, 17, 20, 22, 25
- ‘The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll’, ‘Rock Begins’ by Robert Palmer, ‘Chuck Berry’ by Robert Christgau, ‘The Rise of Top Forty AM’ by John Morthland and ‘The Payola Scandal’ by John Morthland (Plexus Publishing Limited, 1992) p. 8, 62, 64, 65, 103, 122,
- brainyquote.com as at 15 February 2016
- ‘The Illustrated Rock Handbook’ edited by Roxanne Streeter, Ray Bonds (Salamander Books, 1983) p. 23, 24
- astro.com – no author credited – as at 15 February 2016
- clashmusic.com – ’10 Things You Never Knew About… Chuck Berry’ by Sam Walker-Smart (20 January 2012)
- Internet Movie Database – imdb.com – as at 15 February 2016
- ‘Friday On My Mind’ by Ed Nimmervoll (Five Mile Press, 2004) p. 20
- ‘Today’ (U.S. television program, NBC Network) – Chuck Berry interview conducted by Jane Pauley (1977)
- ‘Chess Box’ – Sleeve notes by Andy McKaie (Chess Records, 1988) via 8 (above), p. 8
- ‘Esquire’ (U.S. magazine) – What I’ve Learned: Chuck Berry’ by Tom Junod (29 January 2007) (reproduced on esquire.com)
- ‘The 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time’ – ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (Feb 2004) p. 40
- allmusic.com – ‘Chuck Berry’ by Cub Koda as at 15 February 2016
- songfacts.com – no author credited – as at 15 February 2016
- ‘Chuck Berry – The Autobiography’ by Chuck Berry (Harmony Books, 1987) via 8 (above), p. 6
- ‘Rolling Stone Rock Almanac’ by the Editors of ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (Papermac, 1984) p. 25, 28, 29, 32, 39, 40, 41, 45, 62, 93, 151, 159, 160, 162, 163, 205, 206, 300, 304
- ‘The Tonight Show’ (U.S. television program, NBC Network) – Chuck Berry interview conducted by Johnny Carson (1987)
- goodreads.com as at 20 February 2016
- lyricsfreak.com as at 8 September 2014
Song lyrics copyright BMG Platinum Songs obo Arc Music Group with the exceptions of: ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ and ‘Rock And Roll Music’ (both no copyright information available); ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’ (Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC); ‘Johnny B. Goode’ (Universal Music Publishing Group); ‘Too Pooped To Pop’ (Chevis Pub Corporation); and ‘Nadine’ (Universal Music Publishing Group, EMI Music Publishing).
Last revised 7 January 2018