Charles Edward Anderson Berry was born to Henry and Martha Berry in 1926, in St. Louis, Missouri. Charles, who went by Chuck, was the third child of six. The Berry family lived in one of the few areas in St. Louis where blacks could own property, The Ville. The family made its living through the work of Martha, a school teacher, and Henry, who was a contractor and a deacon at Antioch Baptist Church.
Chuck was fortunate to have grown up in The Ville because it was a sign of black prosperity. As a youth, Berry attended the first black high school west of the Mississippi, Sumner High. Berry was not the only former Sumner student to achieve great fame: Tina Turner, Dick Gregory and Arthur Ashe are also Sumner alumni.
Berry had his first skirmish with the law in 1944 while he was still attending high school. The incident occurred while Berry and two friends were in Kansas City. The trio was arrested and found guilty of armed robbery. The verdict resulted in a ten-year sentence to the Intermediate Reformatory for Young Men at Algoa, Missouri. During his stay at the reformatory, which only lasted until 1947, Berry joined a gospel group.
In addition to the gospel group, Berry did sing in the All Men's Review at Sumner High in 1941, however, music was not his sole focus. He had a great interest in photography inspired by his cousin Harry Davis. Berry even did some work as a freelance photographer for a time. Between 1948 and 1955, Berry worked a variety of jobs, including assisting his father, training to be a hairdresser and working at the Fisher Body automobile assembly plant. During this assortment of careers, Berry also married Themetta Suggs in 1948.
On New Year's Eve in 1952, the Sir John's Trio, a combo consisting of pianist Johnnie Johnson and drummer Ebby Hardy, asked Berry to join them. Chuck accepted and soon became the band's leader adding his style of Country music to the Rhythm and Blues (R&B) and Blues the band was already playing resulting in a new genre known as Rockabilly.
On the advice of blues great singer Muddy Waters, Chuck contacted Leonard Chess of Chess Records in Chicago. Chess and his house producer Willis Dixon were intrigued by "Ida Red," the piece that was performed by the Sir John's Trio and written by Berry. The song was revamped, named "Maybellene" and recorded in 1955. Alan Freed, a very popular disc-jockey, was given a copy of the single that he played for two hours continuously on his show in New York on radio station WINS. "Maybellene" went on to sell in the excess of one million copies and grabbed the number one spot on the R&B chart as well as number five on the Hot 100.
Berry's success could not be fully enjoyed, however, because the copyright for "Maybellene" was not his alone. It also listed the names of Alan Freed and Russ Frato, resulting in a reduced level of royalty payments to Berry. Around the same time, Chuck also became aware that his manager was pilfering funds from Berry's live performances. Having developed a hard-edged attitude toward show business, Berry soon acquired a reputation for being difficult to work with because of his intense desire to be in control of his own affairs.
A worthy follow-up to "Maybellene" proved difficult for Berry. He did manage to produce several modestly successful singles, among them, "Too Much Monkey Business" and "You Can't Catch Me." Before 1957, Berry had only one more song reach the charts with "Roll Over Beethoven", which held the number 29 spot on Billboard's Hot 100 in May of 1956.
However, with the release of "School Days" in March 1957, Berry was to begin what would be a series of hits that would last two and a half years. Although none of these songs would reach number one, pieces such as "Sweet Little Sixteen", "Johnny B. Goode" and "Rock and Roll Music" were all charted.
Chuck Berry appeared in several movies produced by Allan Freed. The first was Rock, Rock, Rock in 1956. In 1959, he appeared in Go, Johnny, Go, performing a role with extensive lines. While touring nonstop at this time, Berry would become friends with the young Buddy Holly. This friendship would carry through the Big Beat Tour in 1958, a tour that 22-year-old Jerry Lee Lewis would also make. Much controversy resulted from this tour due to the tensions between Berry and Lewis. Lewis was infuriated that his act was not slated for the last spot. Lewis even set fire to his piano in order to prevent Berry, who had the last spot, from performing his set.
In 1959, Berry experienced a set back and another legal problem when he was jailed again, for his alleged part in transporting a woman for questionable purposes. While he was in prison for three years, the British Invasion was beginning and Berry's music was being remade and released by bands like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
Released from prison, Chuck succeeded with another string of hits including "No Particular Place To Go" and "Nadine." Unfortunately, he then switched record companies and went with Mercury Records, which caused him many battles with producers. Once back with Chess Records, he accomplished his only gold album with My Ding-A-Ling in 1972, which even triumphed over Elvis's number 2 hit that year, "Burning Love."
Berry's last popular original album, Rock It, was released in 1979 and since then his life has been troubled by legal complications and another short jail sentence. He was, however, inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 among the first inductees. 1987 marked the release of his movie, Hail, Hail, Rock and Roll as well as his autobiography. Despite his troubles, Chuck Berry's influence over Rock and Roll was immense. He has strong influence on the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Jimi Hendrix and is also considered one of the world's greatest rock guitar soloists, and certainly the most influential guitar player from the 1950's.
Chuck Berry was an electrifying performer, his signature "duck-walk" became his trademark. He would gracefully move back and forth across the stage with his knees bent while played complex patterns on his guitar without missing a single beat. This, of course delighted the audience, but perhaps more importantly, it signaled an era of experimentation with the guitar that deeply influenced the experiments of Jimi Hendrix.