Imagine you are inside of a music hall. The room is dark and a stage light is projecting down onto a red curtain. As you sit looking at the stage, a drum beat starts up. It’s loud and it’s fast and has a rhythm and blues beat. Next you hear an electric guitar start in with some rocking chords. Finally the curtain bursts open and a man in a blue suit whips around and grabs the microphone. He starts singing the lyrics to one of the most famous rock n’ roll songs in history, “Deep down in Louisiana close to New Orleans, Way back up in the woods amongst the evergreens…” The singer is Chuck Berry.
Chuck Berry was one of the most famous rock ‘n’ roll performers in music history. He is known for his upbeat songs including “Johnny B. Goode” and “Maybellene.” Chuck’s music was so good that it had an influence, or impacted the behaviour, on many future musicians. He was even given the nickname the “father of rock ‘n’ roll.” But how did Chuck Berry become such a good musician and songwriter?
Chuck Berry was born in 1926 in St. Louis, Missouri. His name when he was born was Charles Edward Anderson Berry. But everyone started calling him “Chuck.” Chuck’s parents, Martha and Henry Berry, were the grandchildren of enslaved people, which means that they used to be slaves.
Martha and Henry were some of the many African Americans who moved from the Southern United States to St. Louis to look for work during World War I. Martha was one of the few Black women of that time to go to college and earn a degree. Henry was a carpenter, which means someone who buildings things out of wood. Henry was also a deacon, or pastor, at a local Baptist Church.
When Chuck was born, St. Louis was a very segregated city. Segregated means that Black and white people lived apart in different neighbourhoods from each other. Chuck grew up in a neighbourhood in northern St. Louis that was mainly where middle-class Black people lived. Middle-class means the group of people in society that aren’t rich but also aren’t poor. The neighbourhood was so segregated that Chuck had never actually met a white person in real life until he was three years old.
Chuck grew up in a big family with six children. He was one of the youngest and he enjoyed being part of a lively crew of kids. Chuck had a lot of interests and hobbies as a kid. He liked helping with his dad’s carpentry work and learning how to take photographs with his uncle, who was a professional photographer. Chuck also showed an early interest in music and was quite talented. Talented means to have a special ability or gift. Chuck began singing in his church choir when he was only six years old.
When he was a teenager, Chuck applied and got into a very good private high school. When he was in high school, Chuck continued to grow his music and performance skills. He entered his school’s talent show and sang a song while his friend played guitar. The performance was a huge hit with all of the students that were there listening. The cheers and applause that they got inspired Chuck to continue with music. He decided that he wanted to learn to play guitar himself and so he asked his parents if he could take lessons. They said yes, and soon after that, Chuck started taking guitar lessons with a famous local jazz musician named Ira Harris.
In high school, Chuck was more interested in playing music than studying and learning. He felt like his classes were boring and his teachers were too strict. When Chuck was only 17 years old, he and two of his friends dropped out of high school. They decided that they were going to drive together across the country to visit California.
Unfortunately Chuck and his friends got into trouble. They robbed some stores for money and were arrested [Breck: he and his friends found a gun and robbed a couple stores before getting caught. I didn’t think we needed to set out those details, but obviously edit as you see fit.] Chuck ended up in a prison for young men in Missouri where he spent 3 years. He was released for good behaviour in October 1947 on his 21st birthday.
Chuck’s parents picked him up and he headed back home to St. Louis to live with them. Chuck got a job working at his dad’s construction business. He helped his dad build things and he also worked part time as a photographer and part time as a janitor, or someone who cleans up things, at a local car-making factory.
In 1948, when Chuck was 22 years old, he married Themetta Suggs, whose nickname was “Toddy”. Chuck and Toddy were happy together and had four children. Chuck also started playing guitar again. In 1951, when Chuck was 25, his old school classmate Tommy Stevens asked him to join his band. They played at local nightclubs in St. Louis that Black people visited. Chuck said yes and he started playing in the band in the evenings.
Chuck was very lively on stage and people liked the way he sang, danced and played music. Every time he performed, Chuck brought a lot of energy to the stage and people just wanted to get up and dance.
About a year later, Chuck met a local jazz pianist, Jonnie Jackson. The two hit it off and Chuck left his first band to join Jonnie’s band, called the Sir John’s Trio. The group played at a fancy Black nightclub in East St. Louis. The music was so good that it started attracting, or drawing in, white customers.
Chuck started writing some of his own songs around this time. He knew that if he wanted to make it big, he was going to have to come up with his own material. Chuck also started taking road trips to Chicago fairly regularly. Chicago was the main city that Black music was recorded in back then. Chuck went up trying to meet with recording executives, or business people, in the hopes that one of them would want to make a contract to buy his music.
In 1955, Chuck met a well-known blues musician named Muddy Waters. Muddy heard some of Chuck’s music and thought he had a lot of talent. He told Chuck that he should go meet with a company called Chess Records. On Muddy’s recommendation, Chuck was able to meet with the businessmen at Chess Records. He had quickly written and recorded a new song and played it for the Chess Records people. The song was called “Maybellene” which is now a very famous rock and roll song. The Chess executives loved the song and signed a contract with Chuck. They helped the song get played on the radio stations and within a couple of months, “Maybellene” was one of the top songs in the country!
“Maybellene” was a mix of a bunch of different types of music, including a rhythm and blues drum beat and country guitar sounds as well as some blues chords and storytelling. Because this was the first time that anyone had ever recorded this blend of sounds together, many people who study music history believe that “Maybellene” is the first true rock n’ roll song.
Chuck continued to write many famous rock n’ roll songs that you have heard before, including “Roll Over, Beethoven,” “Johnny B. Goode,” and “Sweet Little Sixteen”. Chuck was one of the first Black artists to have white and Black fans because of his mix of sounds and the storytelling in his songs that talked about things that all teenagers felt. Many of Chuck’s songs recorded throughout the 1950s became top songs in the country.
Chuck continued to write and record music all the way to the 1970s. Even his late albums are quite good, though he is always remembered for his early music in the 1950s which really changed the type of music that everyone in the country listened to.
In 1985, Chuck was given a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and he was the first person to ever be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame when it first opened in 1986. One of the main ways that you can tell how important Chuck’s music was is that so many other famous musicians have said that they were influenced by his music. Famous bands that have said they loved Chuck’s music and it influenced theirs include the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys.
When Chuck was 90 years old, he announced that he was going to write and release a new album of music dedicated to his wife Toddy, whom he had been married to for 68 years. Chuck died on March 18, 2017 at the age of 90.
What are some things that we can learn from Chuck Berry? He was inspired at a young age to sing through his involvement at church. And once he had the chance to perform, he loved it. He followed his passion and realized that if he wanted to keep performing, he needed to learn to play guitar. Chuck showed courage in learning a new instrument as well as patience and perseverance. This means to carry on trying at something even if it is difficult.
Chuck also showed resilience, or the courage to continue with something even when you experience difficulties. His years performing were tiring at times and he likely faced racism due to being Black at a time when society was not as accepting. But Chuck carried on with his dreams and worked hard to make them a reality.
Chuck also showed love and loyalty, to his wife Toddy, whom he was married to for 68 years, and to his music which he loved.
Is there something that you enjoy doing and would like to get better at? Have you ever thought of learning to write some of your own songs? Like most things in life, it can be done with learning and practice and dedication.
When you have some time this week, listen to some Chuck Berry songs. You will find that there are many that you have probably heard before that will have you tapping your feet to the beat. One of Chuck’s main messages through his songs is that it’s good to have fun and to have passion for life.