Steve Howe – Idolizing Chuck Berry (TVPG; 2:04) Steve Howe, of the group Yes, on the revolutionary fashion of his musical idol, Chuck Berry, telling a narrative.
As a teenager, he was sent to prison for three years for armed robbery. With his intelligent lyrics and identifying sounds, Berry became among the very powerful figures in the annals of rock music.
Martha Berry was among the few black women of her generation to get a college education, and Henry Berry was an industrious carpenter along with a deacon in the Antioch Baptist Church.
During the time of Chuck Berry’s arrival, St. Louis was a sharply segregated city. He grew up in a north St. Louis area called the Ville—a self contained middle class black community that was a sanctuary for black-owned companies and associations. ”I thought they were so frightened that their faces were whitened from anxiety of going close to the large fire,” he once remembered. ”Daddy told me they were white people, as well as their skin was constantly white that manner, day or night.”
The fourth of six kids, Berry pursued various interests and hobbies as a youngster. He loved doing carpentry work because of his dad and learned photography from his uncle, Harry Davis, an expert photographer. Berry also showed an early talent for music and started singing in the church choir in the age of six. He attended Sumner High School, a prestigious private association that has been the first all-black high school west of the Mississippi. For the school’s annual talent show, Berry sang Jay McShann’s “Confessin’ the Blues” while accompanied with a buddy on the guitar. Even though the school management bristled at what they viewed as the tune’s indecent content, the performance was an enormous hit with all the study body and started Berry’s interest in learning the guitar himself. He began guitar lessons shortly after, studying with local jazz icon Ira Harris.
Berry also developed into something of a troublemaker in high school. He was uninterested in his studies and felt constrained by the stern decorum and discipline. They’d gone no further than Kansas City when they came across a pistol left in a parking lot and, captured with a dreadful fit of youthful misjudgment, determined to really go on a robbing spree. Brandishing the pistol, they robbed a bakery, a clothing store as well as a barbershop, then stole a car before being detained by highway patrolmen. The three young men received the most punishment—10 years in jail—despite being minors and first-time offenders.
Berry served three years in the Intermediate Reformatory for Young Men beyond Jefferson, Missouri, before obtaining release on good behaviour on October 18, 1947, which was his 21st birthday. He returned to St. Louis, where he worked for his dad’s building company and part time as a photographer and as a janitor at a local automobile plant.
In 1948, Berry wed Themetta “Toddy” Suggs, with whom he’d eventually have four kids. He also took up the guitar again when, in 1951, his former high school classmate Tommy Stevens encouraged him to join his group. They played at local black clubs in St. Louis, and Berry rapidly acquired a reputation for his dynamic showmanship. By the end of 1952, he met Jonnie Johnson, an area jazz pianist, and joined his group, the Sir John’s Trio. Berry revitalized the group and introduced upbeat state amounts to the group’s repertoire of jazz and pop music. They played in the Cosmopolitan, an upscale black club in East St. Louis, which started bringing white patrons.
Early in 1955, he met the renowned blues musician Muddy Waters, who proposed that Berry go meet with Chess Records. Several weeks after, Berry composed and recorded a tune called “Maybellene” and took it to the executives at Chess. Using its unique combination of a rhythm and blues beat, country guitar licks as well as the essence of Chicago blues and narrative storytelling, many music historians consider “Maybellene” the first authentic rock ‘n’ roll tune.
Berry managed to reach crossover appeal with white youths without alienating his black supporters by combining blues and R&B sounds with storytelling that talked to the universal topics of youth. “I made records for those who would purchase them,” Berry said. “No shade, no ethnic, no political—I do not need that, never did.”
Three years before, in 1958, Berry had started Club Bandstand in the mostly white business district of downtown St. Louis. Another year, while traveling in Mexico, he’d met a 14-year old Native American server—and occasionally prostitute—and brought her back to St. Louis to work at his club. Nevertheless, he fired her only weeks after, and when she was subsequently detained for prostitution, charges were pressed against Berry that finished with him spending yet another 20 months in jail.
When Berry was released from prison in 1963, he picked up right where he left off, composing and recording popular and revolutionary tunes. However, Berry was never exactly the same guy after his second stint in prison. Carl Perkins, his buddy and associate on a 1964 British concert tour, noted, “Never saw a man so transformed. He’d been an easygoing man before, the sorta man who had jam in dressing rooms, sit and swap licks and jokes. In England he was chilly, real distant and bitter. It was not only jail, it was those years of one-nighters, grinding it out like that can kill a guy, but I figure it was mainly jail.”
Berry released his last album of original music, Rock It, to pretty favorable reviews in 1979. While Berry continued to perform in the 1990s, he’d never recapture the magnetic energy and creativity that had first catapulted him to fame throughout the ’50s and ’60s. In his later years he acquired a reputation for giving out-of-melody, unrehearsed performances.
A year after, in 1986, he became the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s first inductee. Probably the best measure of Berry’s influence is the extent to which other popular artists have reproduced his work.
Introducing Berry in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones said, “It Is very hard for me personally to talk about Chuck Berry ’cause I Have lifted every lick he ever played. This can be the guy that started it all!”