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Chuck Berry

Rock’n’roll and R&B had never seen his likes when the legendary CHUCK BERRY emerged from the pack with the classy `Maybelline’ Top 5 hit in the summer of 1955. As well as inventing his inimitable stage party piece, the “duck-walk”, BERRY injected a quintessentially Afro-American element of humour, wit and innuendo into the concept of teen rebellion pop music, reclaiming the R’n’R crown from white pretenders such as BILL HALEY and ELVIS PRESLEY. Not only did the singer, guitarist and showman extraordinaire write his own songs (Elvis did not), he was indeed an inspiration to every budding black artist the world over. An immediate star from the get-go, the controversial character led the way with several subsequent trailblazers: `Roll Over Beethoven’, `School Day’, `Rock & Roll Music’, `Sweet Little Sixteen’ and `Johnny B. Goode’ – staples all, and that was just the 50s.
Born Charles Edward Anderson Berry, October 18, 1926, St. Louis, Missouri, “Chuck” was the product of a large poor family. Having learned the guitar while at school, BERRY had his first run-in with the law in his late teens, when he was sent to reform school for a 3-year stretch after being convicted of attempted armed robbery. Upon his release, he worked blue collar jobs by day, perfecting his playing and songwriting by night; BERRY’s first professional combo, The Chuck Berry Trio – with pianist Johnnie Johnson and drummer Ebby Hardy – became a regular local attraction during the early to mid-50s, transfixing everyone with their upbeat blend of hillbilly R&B. During a trip to Chicago (“home of the blues”), BERRY enjoyed an opportunistic encounter with the legendary MUDDY WATERS, who, in turn, put him in touch with Chess Records. By the summer of ‘55, his first recording, the aforementioned `Maybellene’ (an adaptation of an old country standard), was riding high in the US singles chart; this rock’n’roll template would be successfully utilised by BERRY right through to the end of the decade.
His showman antics were witnessed in such celluloid flicks such as: Rock, Rock, Rock! (1956), Mister Rock And Roll (1957), Go, Johnny, Go! (1959), among others.
However, the position of a famous black, anti-establishment star was a precarious one and BERRY fell foul of the authorities after employing a 14-year old Apache Indian as a hat-check girl in his nightclub. Unbeknown to BERRY, the girl had allegedly worked as a prostitute, and he was subsequently found guilty of contravening the “Mann act” by bringing an under-age child across the Texas-Missouri border. In October ‘61, he was sentenced to jail for 5 years, although due to the judge’s racist remarks, he was given a retrial. He was duly retried and sentenced to 3 years, although with good behaviour, he was out by early ‘64.
While in jail, BERRY’s work was being successfully reappraised, with many British Invasion artists, including The BEATLES and The ROLLING STONES, covering his early material as a sizeable part of their repertoire. Inspired, “Crazy Legs” (as he was nicknamed), returned to the studio to record a new song, `Nadine’, the platter becoming a Top 30 hit on both sides of the Atlantic. BERRY also set foot in Britain for the first time, wowing audiences with a further brace of fresh hits including `No Particular Place To Go’ and `You Never Can Tell’. In June 1966, with flower-power just over the horizon, he signed to Mercury Records, although this ill-advised partnership proved commercially fruitless.
In 1972, following a return to the legendary Chess label three years previously, Chuck hit pay-dirt with a UK No.1 novelty hit with the embarrassing `My Ding-A-Ling’. Its double entendre lyrical content sufficiently enraged morality pest, Mary Whitehouse, for her to press for a media ban. In June ‘79, BERRY was again imprisoned (100 days this time) for tax evasion, although during this period he signed a deal with Atlantic Records.
Throughout the 80s, he continued to work sporadically. A docu-film, Hail! Hail! Rock’n’Roll, was released early in ‘88, featuring footage from his 60th birthday bash from October 16, 1986; KEITH RICHARDS – his biggest fan – along with other star names formed his backing band at the time; Joey Spampinato (bass), Steve Jordan (drums), Johnnie Johnson (piano), Chuck Leavell (keyboards) and Bobby Keys (saxophone). Side by side with an iconic Stone, BERRY and his guests trot out even more R&B gems such as `Brown Eyed Handsome Man’ (introducing ROBERT CRAY), `Back In The U.S.A.’ (featuring a reinvigorated and raunch-ified LINDA RONSTADT), `Wee Wee Hours’ (by ERIC CLAPTON), `Johnny B. Goode’ (with JULIAN LENNON) and `Rock And Roll Music’ (with ETTA JAMES).
While attendant LPs were rife in his 50s/60s heyday (AFTER SCHOOL SESSION (1957) {*7} and ST. LOUIS TO LIVERPOOL (1964) {*7}, arguably his best), if one is searching for a career-spanning compilation, then one could do wrong with THE DEFINITE COLLECTION (2006) {*9}.
BERRY subsequently retired from recording, choosing to live in his own amusement park in Wentzville, Missouri. He did, however, play live again in a November ‘89 revival concert alongside BO DIDDLEY, The COASTERS, etc. The following month, more controversy surrounded him when it was claimed he had been videoing a ladies rest-room for immoral purposes. In June 1990, his house was raided by the drugs squad, who seized marijuana, guns and homemade pornography. He was later charged with possession of drugs and child abuse, although he was cleared of the latter and handed a fine plus a 6-month suspended prison sentence for the drugs misdemeanour.
Further charges were subsequently fired at him, when, in November 2000, he was sued by Johnnie Johnson, who alleged that he co-wrote many of Chuck’s major hits; it was ruled by the judge that there had been too much time in the intervening years, and dismissed the claim. As an octogenarian, BERRY returned to the stage, touring Europe and his homeland; one thinks after passing out from exhaustion in his final appearance in Chicago on New Year’s Day 2011, Chuck will probably see out his remaining days at his home in Ladue, Missouri. On March 18, at the grand old age of 90, legend CHUCK BERRY passed away: Hail! Hail! Rock’n’Roll!
© MC Strong 1994-2008/GRD-LCS-BG // rev-up MCS May2013-Mar2017

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