Rock pioneer Chuck Berry began a two-week long celebration of his 75th birthday last week in his hometown of St. Louis.
“We ain’t playing no blues,” said the veteran rocker with electric guitar in tow, “We’re playing rock and roll.”
The 1,500-plus crowd roared with approval. Despite numerous run-ins with the law and a reputation of being both difficult and unpredictable on stage, one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most important architects still commands attention five decades into his career.
In the liner noted to Berry’s Chess Records Best of Volume One Eric Clapton is quoted as saying, “(Chuck Berry) laid the law down for playing rock ‘n’ roll music,” said Eric Clapton.
John Lennon, who with the Beatles scored several hits with Berry compositions, once noted, “If you had to try and give rock ‘n’ roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry.”
On the advice of blues great Muddy Waters, Berry visited Chicago and signed with legendary Chess Records. Recorded on May 21, 1955, Berry’s first single “Maybellene,” became one of the first million sellers ever, soaring to No. 1 on the R&B (black) charts and reaching No. 5 on the Hot 100 (white) chart. Unlike other stars of the era (Elvis Presley), Berry did not depend on the songwriting talents of others, composing and performing each signature guitar riff and writing all the lyrics himself.
“School Days” matched “Maybellene’s” success in 1957. For the next 2 1/2 years, Berry scored hit after hit with such immortal classics as, “Rock and Roll Music,” “Reelin’ and Rockin’,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Johnny B. Goode,” and “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” – a subtle, yet striking song concerning the new place of prominence black men were occupying in society.
In 1961, Berry was hit with a near career-ending blow when he was arrested for violation of the Mann Act – transporting a woman across state lines for immoral purposes. Berry beat the first trial after the judge was found to have uttered racist remarks, but the second trial in October 1961 left Berry sentenced to three years in jail and a $10,000 fine.
While imprisoned, the British invasion began, spearheaded by the Beatles and Rolling Stones, both of whom scored their first major hits with Berry originals such as “Come On” – the Stones, and “Rock and Roll Music” and “Roll Over Beethoven,” by the Beatles. When Berry was released from prison, the time was ripe for rock’s godfather to make his first of several comebacks.
From February 1964 to March 1965, Berry scored six hits in a row, including “Promised Land,” another between-the-lines commentary on the racial tension of the mid-1960s.
In 1972, Berry recorded “My Ding-a-Ling” in front of a live audience in London, and the song soared to No. 1 on the pop charts. Ironically, one of rock’s greatest songwriters would score his biggest hit with a ditty celebrating auto-eroticism that he did not pen himself. That same year, Berry scored a hit with a live re-write of “Reelin’ and Rockin'” – Berry’s last success on the charts. In 1979, Berry released his final studio album.
The last 20 years have been marked with dilemmas for Berry. In 1979, he spent time in jail for tax evasion. In the early nineties he was sued by women accusing him of placing video cameras in the bathrooms of his restaurant and park.
Despite the controversy, Berry was inducted into the rock ‘n’ roll Hall of Fame in 1986. In the mid-1990s, younger audiences were introduced to Berry when “You Never Can Tell” was prominently featured in the blockbuster film Pulp Fiction. Following Berry’s hometown bash last week in St. Louis, Stevie Wonder put Berry’s influence in perspective.
“There’s only one true king of rock ‘n’ roll. His name is Chuck Berry,” said Wonder in the AP story.
Berry will be joined tonight for his birthday blowout by another pioneer of the genre, Little Richard – one of rock’s greatest vocalists and most flamboyant characters.