Obituary: Chuck Berry

Mitch Mitchell remembers Chuck Berry, one of the originators of Rock’n’roll.

Chuck Berry in 1997

The death of rock ‘n’ roll’s finest poet has been announced.

Charles Edward “Chuck” Berry was born in St. Louis Missouri on October 18, 1926. He had quite a tough upbringing and, as a youth, spent time in reform school after a botched raid on a garage. Whilst in there, he taught himself guitar and listened to records by T-Bone Walker and others. In the early 1950s, he got his first break when he was invited to join local lounge band, the Johnny Johnstone Trio as their guitarist. Johnny, the piano player discovered that Chuck could sing a bit and pushed him up front.

It wasn’t long before Chuck became the star of the band. They decided to go to Chicago, following in the footsteps of many other African American blues musicians, and were spotted working in a club by Muddy Waters. Muddy was impressed and arranged an audition for them at his record company, the legendary Chess label. Chuck had written a song, Ida Red, which was based on a traditional tune.

Because another company had just put out a different song with the same title by an R&B singer called Amos Easton, Phil Chess suggested Chuck change the title. At that point, Chess’s secretary came in after her lunch break and had bought some make-up. The brand was Maybelline and that became the title. Present at the recording session was DJ Alan Freed and he agreed to plug the record on his radio show in return for a part composer credit. The other ‘composer’ was Russ Fratto who was, in fact, the landlord of the building where Chess had their studio.

The record rapidly climbed both the R&B and Pop charts and outsold the white cover versions. This was followed by songs like Thirty Days, You Can’t Catch Me and possibly one of Chuck’s best known songs, Johnny B. Goode, which was his first UK chart entry. He then recorded Sweet Little Sixteen, which was a worldwide smash. It featured in the movie Jazz on a Summer’s Day – a film of the 1959 Newport Jazz Festival. The film is noteworthy for the shocked reaction of the die-hard jazz fans!

In 1959, Chuck was indicted under the 1910 Mann Act, which prohibited transporting a minor across state lines for immoral purposes. Berry’s claim was that he had brought Janice Escalanti, a 14-year-old Mexican Indian who was working as a prostitute when Berry met her on tour, to his club in St Louis to work. After Berry fired Janice she contacted the police.  Berry was convicted but the decision was nullified by a higher court – the racist Missouri judge having been found to have deliberately “intended to disparage the defendant by repeated questions about race”. At a second trial he was sentenced to three to five years imprisonment. Whilst inside he spent much time in the prison library, looking at an atlas and writing the lyrics to Promised Land.

His release coincided with the Rhythm & Blues craze in Britain and his cause was championed by the Rolling Stones amongst others. Every British band at the time had at least three or four of his songs in their repertoire.

He became quite notoriously difficult to work with and would not travel unless his fee had been paid into his bank before leaving the States. He also became very litigious and sued the Beach Boys for rewriting Sweet Little Sixteen as Surfin’ USA and not giving him a composer credit which was then hastily added. He later sued the Beatles for adapting some of his lyrics, “Here come a flat-top, he was movin’ up with me,” without permission in a song, but I never heard the outcome of that.

His first tour of the UK in 1964 (which I saw) was a roaring success with Chuck topping the bill over the likes of Carl Perkins, The Animals and the Nashville Teens (who supplied his backing).

In 1969 he co-headlined at the Albert Hall with the Who. This resulted in a mass brawl between the mod fans of the Who and the rockers who supported Chuck and rock concerts at the venue were temporarily banned.

In addition to this, he would often use cheap backing bands, many of whom had never played rock ‘n’ roll and he got a reputation for bad performances. During the 1970s he played a concert in Coventry, backed by The Average White Band which was recorded. A single released subsequently became his only UK number one hit, the lewd novelty New Orleans ditty, My Ding-A-Ling.

More legal trouble followed. He was jailed again for one day for tax evasion and then in the 1990s settled out of court with a group of women he had filmed in the toilets of his club using a hidden camera. Berry admitted the tapes existed but claimed he didn’t know who had made the recordings.

As I said, he had a reputation for being very abrasive, but when my band worked on shows with him, he was charm itself. His genius was with lyrics which hit the spot with teenagers and young people in the 1950s with songs about cars, drive-in movies, high school days etc and this enabled him, a black musician, to resonate with white audiences.

So, a complex and often unsavoury character, he is perhaps best summed up by this quote from John Lennon – “If rock ‘n’ roll had another name it would be Chuck Berry”.


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