Chuck Berry

Born 1926 , rock musician and composer. "If you tried to give rock 'n' roll another name, you might call it ]Chuck Berry,[" John Lennon of the Beatles once said. At the height of Berry's popularity, in the last half of the fifties, other singers had more hits, but no one had more influence. During the sixties the Beatles and the Rolling Stones played a dozen of his songs note for note, and Bob Dylan acknowledged his debt to Berry as a lyricist.

Berry was born in St. Louis into a lower-middle-class black family. He served three years in reform school on a robbery conviction, earned a certificate in hairdressing and cosmetology, and then took a job on an auto assembly line to support his wife and children. By 1953 he was leading a three-piece blues group, which played on weekends. In 1955, his first hit, "Maybelline," reached the top ten after being plugged by New York disc jockey Alan Freed, who earned royalties on it by listing himself as the song's coauthor - an example of whites exploiting black musicians and of the pervasive corruption in the music industry at that time.

Berry's greatest hits recounted teenage experiences and frustrations, but also conveyed the fun of adolescent rebellion. "School Day" (which reached the number 3 spot on the Billboard charts in 1957) complains about teachers and in retrospect seems to prophesy the student rebellion of the sixties: "Close your books, get out of your seat/Down the halls and into the street." "Sweet Little Sixteen" (number 2 in 1958) presented the breathless world of a young rock fan. The autobiographical "Johnny B. Goode" (number 8 in 1958) provides a classic treatment of the small-town-boy-makes-good theme-in this case, as a rock 'n' roll star. The Voyager I spacecraft, heading out toward distant galaxies, includes among its messages to other worlds a recording of "Johnny B. Goode."

In 1959, at the peak of his creativity and popular success, Berry was convicted under the Mann Act and went to prison for two years. He had few hits after that. In 1972, touring as an "oldies" act, he finally reached number 1 on the charts with "My Ding-a-ling," a forgettable novelty song. Its success only underscored the fact that none of his classic records ever sold as well as those of white crooners like Pat Boone.

As a rock lyricist, Berry was among the best. His lyrics convey an immense, childlike delight in linguistic play, cataloging the fun and frustrations in the lives of white teenagers. That these lyrics were the work of a black man in his thirties makes them especially remarkable. As a guitarist, wrote Robert Christgau, Berry's style featured a "limited but brilliant vocabulary of guitar riffs that quickly came to epitomize rock 'n' roll. Ultimately, every great white guitar group of the early sixties imitated Berry's style."

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