There is much confusion surrounding the actual birth date of rock legend Charles Edward Berry. Most informed sources agree on 18 October 1931, yet some have put the year at 1926. His actual birthplace is also shrouded in confusion, though most people have settled for St Louis, Mississippi.
Berry started singing at the age of six, in the Antioch Baptist Church choir and taught himself to play the guitar as a youngster. His rebellious nature culminated in a conviction for attempted robbery at the age of 14, followed by three years spent in a reform school.
Back in circulation, Berry took a job with General Motors in 1947 and later worked as a hairdresser.
During his spare time, however, Chuck formed his own trio and played the blues in clubs and at private functions around St Louis in order to earn extra money to support his wife and two children. Around this time he began writing his own songs.
The label gave him a contract and released his debut single, Maybellene. Based on a 1938 recording by country star Bob Wills, within weeks it became an American Top Ten hit and Chuck Berry was on his way to superstardom and a place in rock music history.
Berry was getting on for 30 but an intuitive comprehension of the teenage condition enabled him to write some of the most exuberant and durable songs of the mid-fifties, amongst them; Roll Over Beethoven (an archetypal rebellion song asking a DJ to forget classical music and concentrate on rhythm & blues), School Days (the first – and probably best – anti-school song ever written), Sweet Little Sixteen, Johnny B Goode and Rock & Roll Music.
One of Berry’s main supporters was disc jockey Alan Freed, one of the few white men playing black records for a white teenage audience.
Berry was charged in 1959 with violating the American Mann Act by transporting a minor (a 14-year-old native American prostitute) over a state line for immoral purposes. The trial lasted two years and put Berry in prison, ruining his marriage and destroying his career.
A retrial was granted following the conviction because the judge had repeatedly referred to Berry as “this Negro”. But the appeal court upheld the sentence. Berry was released in 1964 and set about trying to re-establish himself, releasing Memphis Tennessee.
At nearly 40 years of age Berry enjoyed a renaissance both financial and artistic, although his growing lack of interest in anything other than money led to a noticeable decline in musical quality.
In 1972 he clocked up his first British and American #1 hit with the risqué novelty track, My Ding-A-Ling. Berry found himself back in prison in 1979, when he served four months for tax evasion (it seems he had overlooked a payment of around $200,000 regarding his 1973 return).
Chuck found himself in trouble with the law again in June 1990, when he was charged with possession of a controlled substance and three counts of child abuse after a raid on Berry Park, his Missouri estate, turned up 62 grammes of marijuana and a number of videotapes allegedly made by Berry with hidden cameras placed in the women’s toilets at Southern Aire, his restaurant in Wentzville, Missouri. Three of the females identified on the tapes were minors.
A former employee also filed charges against him, claiming she was videotaped using the bathroom at the restaurant. She was joined in a class action claiming to be representative of at least 200 other women.
Though his guilt was never proven in court, Berry opted for a class action settlement with 59 women, estimated to have cost him over $1.2 million plus legal fees.
Berry continued to perform regularly throughout the US and overseas. He performed one Wednesday every month at Blueberry Hill, a restaurant and bar located in the Delmar Loop neighbourhood of St. Louis.
Charles Edward Berry Berry died on 18 March 2017. He was found unresponsive at lunchtime and could not be revived. He was pronounced deceased at 1.26 pm (local time).
Berry had a profound influence on the history of rock & roll, inspiring musicians such as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Who. And his self-penned songs – Roll Over Beethoven, Sweet Little Sixteen, Johnny B Goode, Rock ‘n’ Roll Music, Maybelline, School Days, No Particular Place To Go and many many more – have all become rock classics.
Indeed, the Berry repertoire is one of the most recorded catalogues in rock music.