What would Rock 'n Roll be without Chuck Berry?
Luckily, we don't have to answer that question. His music has dominated the Rock 'n Roll landscape since he recorded his first hit "Maybellene" for Chess Records on May 21, 1955.
Today, the legendary Rock 'n Roll musician celebrates his 85th birthday. Arguably, no other musician is more synonymous with St. Louis as Berry. Over the years, he continued to call the area home when many artists that made it big moved to Los Angeles or New York. He even put his hometown in the lyrics of many of his songs over the years.
From 1955 to 1962, Berry released 26 singles making him one of the most prolific and popular artists of the Golden Age of Rock 'n Roll. Songs like "Maybellene," "Rock and Roll Music," "Roll Over Beethoven," "School Day," "Sweet Little Sixteen" and "Johnny B. Goode" are stone cold classics. While none of these went to number one on the Billboard charts, most placed in the Top 10.
Berry even became one of the first Rock 'n Roll artists to make a comeback. After being released from prison in October 1963 stemming from a conviction on charges related to the Mann Act, Berry went back to work as a performer instead of slipping back into obscurity. He released "No Particular Place to Go," "Nadine" and "You Never Can Tell" during the British Invasion when groups from across the pond were releasing covers of his songs.
A true solo artist in the sense that for years he travelled by himself to gigs around the country, Berry used local backing bands for his live shows and required no rehearsal. The bands were just supposed to know Berry's songs and keep up with him. This often led to erratic, sub-par performances, but he seemed more interested in the showmanship rather than the quality.
Two days before his birthday twenty-five years ago, when Berry turned 60, two concerts were held at the Fabulous Fox Theatre to commemorate his birthday. Part of a larger documentary being filmed by director Taylor Hackford, Hail! Hail! Rock 'n Roll, the backing band for these concerts was led by Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards. Performers featured Eric Clapton, Robert Cray, Etta James, Johnnie Johnson, Steve Jordan, Bobby Keys, Julian Lennon, Linda Ronstadt and Joey Spampinato.
Berry admits in the film that he derived his style from the guitar playing of Carl Hogan (Louis Jordan band), T-Bone Walker and Charlie Christian (Tommy Dorsey band). Like the musicians who came after him, Berry took bits from these performers and made them his own. He used the simple aspects of these musical licks to create music that appealed to the masses further adding his own poetic lyrics and guitar solos to the songs.
In fact, Berry took the country song "Ida Red," made famous as an uptempo dance number by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys in the late '30s, and transformed it into "Maybellene" with guidance from Leonard Chess. Voila! The basics for Rock 'n Roll were born - only later be copied by The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys and countless others throughout the years.
Recognized as one of the founding fathers of Rock 'n Roll and showered with awards and accolades throughout his career, Berry is a living legend. Even with his record of a checkered past, Berry joined the ranks of the most famous people with ties to St. Louis this year by receiving his own oversized statue in University City right across from Blueberry Hill, the club he still plays once a month.
A tip of the Captain's hat to you Chuck - we're proud that you call St. Louis home.
Hail! Hail! Rock 'n Roll (Part 1)