Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Grove Music Online. Grove is a registered trademark. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy).

date: 19 September 2021

Berry, Chuck [Charles Edward Anderson]free

Berry, Chuck [Charles Edward Anderson]free

  • Timothy D. Taylor

Updated in this version

Updated

(b St Louis, 18 Oct 1926; d Wentzville, MO, 18 March 2017). American rock and roll singer, songwriter, and guitarist. Born into a solid working-class black family, he worked at a variety of jobs before pursuing a career in music. He achieved success rather late; his first number one hit, Maybellene, was recorded in 1955 when he was 29. During the 1950s and 60s he wrote a number of hit songs which have become rock and roll standards, including Roll over Beethoven, Too Much Monkey Business, Brown-Eyed Handsome Man, School Days, Back in the USA, Little Queenie, Memphis, Tennessee, and Johnny B. Goode. Berry’s songs were based on 12-bar blues progressions, with variations ranging from 8 to 24 bars, played at fast tempos with an emphasis on the backbeat. He had a high clear baritone and extremely clean diction and wrote literate, witty lyrics, many of them the best in early rock and roll. He was a consummate guitarist and his style has been as influential as his songwriting. He employed blues and rhythm and blues licks with bluegrass inflections, and adapted them to a pop-song format. Many of these were probably learned from his pianist and collaborator, Johnnie Johnson.

Like all black American musicians he faced severe racism, especially early in his career. He was often turned away from live performances (some promoters thought he was white because of his clear diction) and faced a number of legal troubles, some of which seemed to be the result of prejudice and vindictive authorities. However, as an entrepreneur as well as musician, Berry knew ways of surmounting musically this racial divide. In his autobiography he wrote:

the songs of Muddy Waters impelled me to deliver the down-home blues in the language they came from, Negro dialect. When I played hillbilly songs, I stressed my diction so that it was harder and whiter. All in all it was my intention to hold both the black and the white clientele by voicing the different kinds of songs in their customary tongues.

In attempting to reach a mixed audience he wrote songs about school, cars, and love. In 1972 he had his second number one hit with My Ding-a-Ling, an unfortunate live recording of a risqué ditty. After that he stopped writing but continued to perform, occasionally appearing on television. He also performed at President Clinton’s inaugurations in 1993 and 1997.

He was one of a few early rock and roll musicians whose work defined the genre in the 1950s and for two decades thereafter. Berry profoundly influenced many of the most popular rock and pop artists including the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, and the Beatles. He received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement award in 1984.

Bibliography

  • G. Marcus: ‘Roll over, Chuck Berry’, Rolling Stone (14 June 1969)
  • M. Lydon: ‘Chuck Berry’, Rock Folk: Portraits from the Rock ‘n’ Roll Pantheon (New York, 1971, 2/1990), 1–23
  • H.A. De Witt: Chuck Berry: Rock ‘n’ Roll Music (New York, 1981, 2/1985)
  • S. Cubitt: ‘“Maybellene”: Meaning and the Listening Subject’, Popular Music, vol.4 (1984), 207–24
  • R. Vito: ‘The Chuck Berry Style: a Modern Rocker Pays Tribute to the Master’, Guitar Player, vol.18/6 (June, 1984), 72–5
  • C. Berry: Chuck Berry: the Autobiography (New York, 1987)
  • G. Sandow: ‘Chuck Berry: Beyond Beethoven’, Village Voice (24 Nov 1987)
  • B. Tucker: ‘“Tell Tchaikovsky the News”: Postmodernism, Popular Culture and the Emergence of Rock ‘n’ Roll’, Black Music Research Journal, vol.9 (1989), 271–95
  • T.D. Taylor: ‘“His Name Was in Lights”: Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”’, Popular Music, vol.11 (1992), 27–40