Charles Anderson Edward Berry, better known as Chuck Berry, is popularly considered the father of Rock ‘n’ Roll. He was born on October 18, 1926 in St. Louis, Missouri to Martha and Henry Berry, who were grandchildren of slaves. His ancestors had migrated from the rural south to Missouri to look for work during World War I. His parents were positive influences on Berry’s life; his mother was one of the very few African American women who had gained a college education and his father was an honest, hard working carpenter and an ordained minister of the Antioch Baptist Church. Berry grew up in an entirely segregated black community and hadn’t even encountered a white person until the age of three, when he saw white firemen putting out a fire. He later recalled his surprise at seeing them, thinking their skin had changed color due to fear.
Berry was a talented and energetic child, and was interested in music from childhood. He first began singing at his local church choir and later attended a prestigious private school called Sumner High School. There he performed in a school show where he sang a popular song accompanied by a friend on the guitar. The song was a huge hit with the student body and Berry then seriously began considering a career in music. He took guitar lessons from Ira Harris, who was a famous local jazz musician. However, he showed no inclination to study hard and his grades and performance at school began to suffer. At 17, he decided to quit high school and went on a road trip to California with two friends. During the trip, the three friends found a loaded gun in an abandoned parking lot and used it to rob three stores. They were found and arrested by the police and sentenced to 10 years in jail.
Berry served three years of jail time in Missouri and was then released due to his good behavior. He was released on his 21st birthday and went back to his family’s home to join his father’s business. He worked several jobs, including his father’s construction business, photography and janitor. A year later, he married Themetta Suggs and went on to father four children with her. He started practicing his guitar playing again and a few years later, he was invited to join his high school classmate Tommy Stevens’ band. He then met a local jazz pianist named Jonnie Johnson and joined his band, the Sir John’s Trio. The band mostly played jazz and pop but Berry added his distinctive style to the music and added an element of country music to their songs. The group performed at upscale black clubs where berry gained great exposure.
On one of his trips to Chicago, he met a famous musician named Muddy Waters who encouraged him to meet with music executives and get himself a record deal. This came from Chess Records who offered Berry a contract right after the first meeting. His first song at Chess was “Maybellene” and it was a huge hit, reaching No. 1 on the R&B charts and No. 5 on the pop charts. From that point on, there was no looking back for Berry. He churned out hit after hit and achieved iconic status during the 1950s and 1960s. His hits such as “Roll Over, Beethoven,” “Too Much Monkey Business”, “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man,” “Johnny B. Goode,” “Sweet Little Sixteen” and “Carol” made him an undoubtedly influential musician. His music had universal appeal and both black and white fans enjoyed it. “After School Session”, “One Dozen Berrys”, “Rockin’ at the Hops”, “Two Great Guitars” and “From St. Louie to Frisco” are just some of his studio albums.
In 1958, he was imprisoned for a second time for 20 months for illegally bringing a prostitute from Mexico to work at his club. Although he fired her shortly after hiring her, he was arrested and accused. His second prison sentence irreversibly changed his personality. He lost his sense of humor and easy going nature when he was released. He continued to make influential and popular music well into the 1960s but as the years progressed, people felt that he had lost his touch. His last major, well recognized album titled “Rock It” was released in 1979, although he continued to perform in the 1990s as well. Chuck Berry was the first inductee into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame when it was established in 1986. He also received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1985. Some of the most memorable and popular musicians name Berry as their influence, including The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Beach Boys.