With classic, guitar-driven hits like "Johnny B. Goode," "Maybellene," "Rock and Roll Music" "No Particular Place To Go,"and "Roll Over Beethoven," Chuck Berry is more than simply an icon of early rock, he is a key figure in its founding and evolution. Perhaps the ultimate irony is that while his instantly recognizable songs beautifully capture the raw energy of youth and teenage energy, he didn't start recording till he was 30.
Born in St. Louis in 1926, he got his first taste of stardom at Sumner High School, the first black high school west of the Mississippi whose alumni include Tina Turner and Arthur Ashe; he sang Jay McShann's "Confessin' The Blues" in the All Men's Review in 1941.
Before he could graduate, however, he and two companions were arrested for armed robbery and sentenced to 10 years in a reformatory.
while there, he joined a gospel group, was released at age 21, married Themetta Suggs and worked alternately over the years at an auto plant, as a photographer, hairdressers apprentice and musician. On New Year's Eve, 1952, he was asked to join the Sir John's Trio and soon took over the band, vying with Ike Turner and Albert King for popularity in St. Louis.
Muddy Waters advised Berry to meet Leonard Chess, owner of Chess Records, who loved a song Berry had written called "Ida Red." In 1955, Chuck recorded the song, renamed "Maybellene," and influential New York DJ Alan Freed helped make it a quick million seller.
"Roll Over Beethoven," (later covered by the Beatles) was his only successful follow-up till "School Days" hit #5 in 1957 and earned him 240 bookings that year. The charts belonged to Berry for the next three years, with "Oh Baby Doll," "Rock and Roll Music," "Sweet Little Sixteen," "Johnny B. Goode," Livin' in the USA" and "Merry Christmas Baby." These songs are, without doubt, some of the most enduring songs in the history of rock. Berry's success landed him in several Freed-produced movies and performances with Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis, with whom he had a longtime rivalry.
After another few years and more skirmishes with the law, Berry came back, capitalizing on the influences his music had on The Beach Boys and The Beatles with six Top 100 singles, including "Nadine" and "Promised Land."
Fortune swung the other way once again, when he signed with Mercury Records, whose corporate make-up mixed poorly with a feisty, independent artist like Berry. Only the album Live at the Fillmore with the Steve Miller Band remains as a worthwhile addition to Berry's catalog at that time. But another comeback was in store: Berry released "My Ding-a-Ling," his best selling single ever, in 1972. Despite his topsy turvy personal life, his contributions to rock and roll were affirmed joyfully in the 80s with his 1986 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the 1987 release of his autobiography and accompanying movie Hail, Hail, Rock and Roll. John Lennon may have said it best: "If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it 'Chuck Berry'."