The True King of Rock and Roll
The most influential singer and song writer in Rock and Roll history, Chuck Berry was simply a music legend. He was born in St Louis, Missouri in 1926, one of six children to Henry and Martha Berry and at that time St Louis was a very segregated area, so much so that Berry had never seen a white person until he was 3 years old. The first white people he saw were a group of firemen called to put out a fire in his neighbourhood, he thought they were white with fear of going near the fire, but his father reassured him that their skin was always white.
Berry exhibited a flair for music at an early age, singing in the church choir and performing in his school's talent shows. It was at one of these talent shows that he performed a song with one of his buddies who played guitar and the performance was well received by the audience. This triggered his interest in playing the guitar and he subsequently started taking lessons.
In his teenage years Berry became something of a tearaway, following the wrong crowd he got himself involved in crime and in 1944 he was arrested for robbery and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment. He served 3 years and was released for good behaviour. After this negative episode in his life, Berry returned to St Louis and worked with his father for a while, until in 1951 he met up with a former school friend who had a band and he invited Berry to join the band.
Berry duly joined the band and started playing at local nightclubs and bars in St Louis. He was developing his showmanship and stage style and was approached by Jonnie Johnson, a pianist, to join his band. After joining Johnson's band Berry's influence began to grow, until he became the lead vocalist/songwriter for the band. It was during this time that Berry and Johnson came up with the idea of speeding up the rhythm and blues riffs that they were playing and so the Rock and Roll sound was slowly beginning to emerge.
The young Chuck Berry
With wife Themetta
His first major hit was "Maybelline" in 1955, after taking the advice of his good friend Muddy Waters to talk to Chess Records executives about releasing the song. There followed many hits after that including the aforementioned "Sweet Little Sixteen", plus "Roll over Beethoven", "Brown Eyed Handsome Man", "Carol" and "Johnny B. Goode".
His lyrics were aimed at teenagers primarily, touching on the things that they were concerned about like school, romance,
dancing etc. The subject matter appealed to the youngsters and they could relate to it, as well as there was that touch of rebelliousness which they could connect with. His clever writing meant that most of his records had huge sales from his mainly white audience and that denoted he had broken the racial divide of previous years.
Berry managed to captivate the majority white population to his music, but at the same time kept his grassroots black devotees happy by applying a mix of Rhythm & Blues to the music. It must be remembered that Rock and Roll music evolved out of the Blues and so it is Afrikan American music, but many youngsters today are not aware of this and think it is white music due to the fact that so many white musicians latched on to the music from it's inception and then went on to develop Rock music from it.
Chuck's Famous Duck Walk
They started to tour and play venues with this new sound and became a great success.
Whilst no one person can claim to have invented Rock and Roll, Chuck Berry more than any other is widely regarded as the one that pioneered and shaped the music. Other musicians such as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Ike Turner and Bo Diddley all assisted in developing the new genre.
Berry's influence was phenomenal, his playing style was copied and became the basis of a whole generation of musicians. The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Credence Clearwater Revival, to name but a few all took from Berry's music. In fact the Beach Boys had a hit in the sixties called "Surfin USA" which musically, was a copy of Berry's earlier hit "Sweet Little Sixteen" only the lyrics were different. Chuck rightly sued the Beach Boys for copyright and won.
With the legendary Muddy Waters
Rock and Roll Legends: (l to r) Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley
In 1986 , Chuck Berry became the first musician to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which was very fitting considering the huge amount of influence he had on his contemporaries. Some borrowed from him and others copied him, he held significant sway over an entire generation of musicians and has left a huge imprint on the music that he loved and the development of sub genres that evolved out of his music.
The world is most definitely a poorer place without him and he will be sorely missed by those that he influenced and by his many fans. His genius brought us all many hours of listening and dancing pleasure and his legacy will live forever as the king of Rock and Roll.
Chuck Berry: 1926-2017
Afrikan History & Culture